Walt Disney’s floundering reputation was saved in 1984 by a mermaid in Splash. The hits that followed made Disney a major movie studio for grown-ups. Last November, Disney released The Little Mermaid to re-establish itself as a major moviemaker for kids. The Splash mermaid lured Tom Hanks to the ocean floor; The Little Mermaid sprouted legs to join her landlubber lover. The upshot was similar: $81 million in theatrical ticket sales.
It’s easy to see why. The cartoon takes a refreshing plunge into Disney tradition. The animation (sharply transferred to video) boasts an Impressionist’s love of light — the fiery way it dances on the waves in a gunboat battle and shimmers bluely on the timbers of a sunken ship. The Little Mermaid is slyly updated, too, for today’s audience — equally composed of adults who refuse to outgrow cartoons and children made hip to Splash-style irreverence by Pee-wee Herman and certain turtles.
As in Splash, the trick is to be hip without being cynical. The heroine, sweet, 16-year-old Ariel, defies her dad, King Triton, and makes a devilish pact with the obese octopus witch Ursula to win the human of her dreams. In Walt’s day, such headstrong rebellion would be punished; today, the cartoon is on the teen revolutionary’s side. The whole underwater kingdom joins her love crusade: She’s abetted by a maladroit sea gull with Buddy Hackett’s voice and the court composer Horatio Thelonius Ignatiutiurustaceus Sebastian, a crab that talks like Colonel Klink and sings like Jimmy Buffet.
The Little Mermaid is bubbly fun, but it doesn’t evoke the pity and terror of classic Disney fare. Does it approach the heights of Dumbo, Bambi, or Pinocchio? My 6-year-old friend Evan Delay thinks so. She burst into tears at the end of the movie; when her adult companion tried to comfort her, pointing out that it was a happy ending, Evan sobbed, ”I know — but it was so happy.”