On The Little Mermaid DVD's making-of featurette, co-writers/co-directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker recall a statement one of Disney's corporate gatekeepers made in the early '80s: "We may bore you, but we will never shock you." That about sums up the state of the company pre-Mermaid. Traditional cel animation was floundering in Hollywood, because the powers that were had no faith that cartoons could be anything more than a specialty item for a shrinking family audience. And though The Little Mermaid was the opening salvo in what would become the Disney animation renaissance, the movie now looks surprisingly cheap. The story—about a mermaid who makes a deal with a witch to win the love of a human prince—is thin and under-imagined, the characters are over-rounded and cutesy, and the images don't have much depth.
But at least Howard Ashman was already on board. Although he was initially hired to write The Little Mermaid's songs with his composing partner Alan Menken, Ashman became a co-producer and co-writer on the film, injecting elements of romanticism and camp. At the time of its 1989 release, The Little Mermaid felt unlike anything that Disney had made in years, from the archetypal tale of a girl defying her father to throwaway comic bits like the savage musical salute to fish-slaughter, "Les Poissons." Much of that was due to Ashman's off-Broadway wit, and also due to veteran Disney staffers who latched fiercely onto the material, and wouldn't let their chance to revive their craft pass them by—even when their new boss Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't understand what they were doing.
Too much of what Disney would do for the next decade is tied to The Little Mermaid formula, and it can be hard to hear Jodi Benson voicing the heroine—with her soaring, pageant-ready vocals—without hearing every increasingly cloying post-"Part Of Your World" ballad to come. But the movie's "we're ready to entertain you again" spirit remains infectious. The first time tiny Sebastian the crab scuttles across the frame, dwarfed by the mer-people, it's funny. Half an hour into the movie, when he leads the entire ocean in a rousing chorus of "Under The Sea," the audience is hooked.
Key features: The featurette, plus a Clements/Musker/Menken commentary, deleted scenes, and a look at the dramatically different Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.