Teenage mermaid princess Ariel (voiced by Jodi Barnes) yearns to explore the surface world, a desire further fuelled when she chances upon a ship carrying handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Thrown overboard during a terrible storm, Eric is rescued by and falls instantly in love with the half-glimpsed, beautiful Ariel who quickly disappears into the sea. Enraged that his youngest, most precious daughter loves a mortal man, King Triton (Kenneth Mars - the nutty Nazi from The Producers (1969)!) forbids Ariel from seeing him again, inadvertently driving her towards evil Ursula (Pat Carroll) the sea-hag.
Ursula magically transforms Ariel's tail into the human legs she desires, but at the cost of her lovely voice. Worse, if over the next few days Ariel fails to win Eric's love she will wither and join the ranks of captive souls imprisoned in Ursula’s cave. Aided by her friends: Sebastian the singing crab (Samuel E. Wright), fretful Flounder (Jason Marin) and Scuttle (Buddy Hackett, returning to Disney after The Love Bug (1969)) the wacky seagull, Ariel sets out to get her man. But with no voice and a scheming sea-hag on her trail, will the little mermaid find true love?
Well, if you're familiar with Hans Christian Anderson's classic fairytale you'll know the answer to that is (spoiler warning!): no. Actually, Anderson's ending is not as downbeat as is popularly supposed, since its original theme was the mermaid's quest for an immortal soul. While she loses her prince and perishes, an act of self-sacrifice means she gains that soul and becomes a heavenly angel, protecting children around the world. For a real downer try Tomoharu Katsumata's Anderson Story: The Little Mermaid (1975) whose traumatic conclusion cost this writer years of therapy...
Needless to say, Walt Disney Studios rejected the metaphysical layers underlining the story and its tragic ending, in favour of something more feel-good and accessible. It paid off since The Little Mermaid brought Disney animation back in a big way. Endowed with a bigger budget and the care and attention of such superstar animators as Glen Keane and Andreas Deja, it boasts a level of spectacle and artistry missing from most of their output during the Seventies and Eighties. It also established a template that Disney adhered to throughout the Nineties: a starry-eyed youngster, dreaming of "something more", on a journey of self-discovery (which suggests Disney scriptwriters had been studying Joseph W. Campbell); a story structured around spectacular musical numbers that matched the heyday of Broadway or MGM.
Drawn into the Disney fold following their success with Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's songs have a Broadway (say it in a squeaky voice with jazz hands waving) flavour, without that nauseating, L.A. soul sound that marred later Nineties efforts. "Part Of Your World" and especially the calypso-themed "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea" are classics equal to Disney toe-tappers of yore.
In spite of the liberties taken with fairytale, the rewritten narrative managed to appeal to an audience of young girls in ways no Disney feature had ever done before. For while Anderson's mermaid seeks an immortal soul, the story of Ariel revolves around the clash between an overly protective father and a headstrong daughter, yearning to grow up. Ariel was the first Disney heroine to behave in a way post-Sixties teenagers could relate to. The nautical nymphet also wound up something of an adolescent fantasy. There is definitely an erotic tinge to the way Ariel is animated, whether poised on a rock amidst crashing waves or when she bursts out of the water, her naked silhouette framed against the sunrise. Sexy in a perky, wholesome way. Fancying the little mermaid became a pop culture gag, referenced in American Pie (1999) or episodes of Friends and causing Disney a certain amount of grief once religious fundamentalists began noticing sexual innuendos in everything the studio made.
Also worthy of note, Eric was imbued with a likeable personality to become the first, non-bland Disney prince. Someone who did more than just turn up in the third act to get the girl. The supporting cast strike a nice balance between sweet and sour: making Sebastian Jamaican was an inspired touch, creating the first positive "black" character since those jive-talking crows in Dumbo (1941), while the flabbily grotesque Ursula is so well animated you can almost feel her wriggle. Gags took on a zanier bent, including the hilarious French chef (voiced by Rene Auberjonois) and making Ariel the first Disney princess to indulge in goofy comedy. Which further humanises her from the studio's previous pretty, yet porcelain dolls.
These were the hallmarks of a new generation of animators, as influenced by Looney Tunes and Spielberg/Lucas blockbusters as classic Disney. Their work races along at a fair clip, with editing and sound effects tricks that edge the climax into exciting, fantasy-adventure territory. All this was later parodied in Disney's own Enchanted (2007), where you'll find cameos from Jodi Benson and several other Disney voice actresses.