25 Years ago, The Little Mermaid stormed into theaters forever changing the face of animation. Mermaid ushered a new era for Disney Animation and is still highly regarded today. However, Mermaid's significance goes beyond the accolades it received and, just like Snow White did in 1937, it became a game-changer for the animation industry.
The Little Mermaid is mostly known for launching the Renaissance and the careers of many animators who have become household names since then. The film is the first of the group known as "the big four" which also includes Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King among its ranks. Mermaid constitutes a very important milestone at the studio and in animation in general but if you strip away all of the baggage that it has to see just the film, and you know what? It's pretty damn great.
The Little Mermaid introduced several elements that are still used in Disney films. It may be hard to believe but before Mermaid, the animated musical was non-existent. True, Disney used songs in past films but this one was the first to really embrace the "Broadway" formula in all its glory. The musical duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken created one of the most enduring soundtracks in the Disney canon and the "Broadway" formula became a template for all the 90s films. More importantly, the songs actually carried the story and described what the characters wanted or were feeling. Just check 'Part of Your World' and you get to fully know who Ariel is and what she wants. The lyrics are clever and the music is enticing. The other songs follow suit making the film an aural pleasure.
Regarding the characters, The Little Mermaid is responsible for introducing many character traits that we still see nowadays. First of all, Mermaid introduced a new kind of princess. She was rebellious, curious, outspoken but also obstinate, naive and with a tendency to make hasty decisions without thinking them through. So she was a person with virtues and defects that made her relatable to the audience. These traits migrated to most of the Disney princesses that followed including Belle, Jasmine and, most recently, Rapunzel and Anna. All of these characters owe something to the red-haired princess.
Then of course is the villain. Before Ursula, Disney villains fell into two categories: the menacing and death-serious ones like the Evil Queen and Maleficent and the comic-relief ones like Captain Hook and The Queen of Hearts. Cruella De Vil was the only one that could be menacing and funny at the same time. Ursula was another beast entirely. Based on famous drag performer Divine, Ursula is a complete diva. She can be funny, charming and menacing. She is conniving and loves to give a larger-than-life performance when she talks to someone. She even has a great song to persuade our heroine to strike a deal with her. In other words, she is a theatrical villain and again, this model migrated to subsequent villainous characters such as Gaston, Scar and, most recently, Dr. Facilier and Mother Gothel. Just like Ariel, Ursula was a first for Disney and someone whose influence is still felt today.
The rest of the characters may not be as groundbreaking but they are memorable nonetheless. Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle are great sidekicks, Prince Eric displays more personality than any of his predecessors and Triton fills his role with authority and warmth. Suffice to say, The Little Mermaid displays one of the greatest cast of characters ever put in a Disney film.
The Little Mermaid has always been promoted as the film that "gave a voice to a new generation" and that's completely true. Even though, the 'Nine Old Men' passed the baton to a new generation in the early 80s, this new guard of animators didn't have their moment to shine until this film. People like Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, James Baxter, Ron Clements, John Musker, Andreas Deja, among others, were struggling to keep their jobs and the studio alive and thanks to this film, they became household names which are still admired. You can see their labor of love in many of the scenes in the film. From Ariel's amazing performance in the 'Part of Your World' sequence to Triton's heartfelt sendoff of his daughter at the end, the animator's work shines through and through in this film.
Animation-wise, Mermaid represents a bridge between the old and the new. Mermaid still employed the traditional hand-painted method to paint cells and it was the last film to do so. Starting with The Rescuers Down Under the following year, all films would employ the CAPS system which painted the cells digitally. The Little Mermaid may not look as polished as it successors but that doesn't mean it's lacking. The film required a lot of digital effects and there are many beautiful scenes like the one with Ariel singing while a wave crashes behind her or the part where the fish spit water around Eric and Ariel in the 'Kiss the Girl' sequence that are just breathtaking. There may be more good-looking films, but the emotional depth you find in Mermaid's animation is hard to match.
25 Years later and The Little Mermaid still remains a classic and one of the best offerings in the Disney canon. The film set a new standard for animated films and ushered a new golden age for Disney. It gave the animators a chance to thrive and show their huge talent to the world. It introduced new elements into the story and the characters that are still being used and utilized. Few films are as good as this one and even fewer as relevant!