Astute readers of the #Disney52 project will have picked up that I actually quite liked the films of the period I called The Obscure Eighties. They are fun, strange and just a little bit different to the Disney you might be more familiar with. However, the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 was greeted with critical fanfares and a gigantic box office. Something had clearly changed for the House of Mouse, and although their next film, The Rescuers Down Under, was a financial flop, their next films – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King – were huge hits, earning the period from 1989-1994 the title of ‘The Second Golden Age’. This is a lofty title, as it harks back to their first films, each one a wondrous, beautifully animated, heartfelt film with some of their best loved stories. Can the films of this era really be as good as their earliest work? And what separates these from their films of the 80s, which in hindsight are really not bad? The answer to both of these lies in The Little Mermaid, the film that changed everything.
To answer the second question first, the key separating factor between The Second Golden Age films and those of the eighties is spectacle. The Fox and the Hound – arguably the strongest of the 80s films – is an emotive, involving story that can very easily bring an audience to tears, but it is undeniably small. Perhaps due to budget constraints, the film is more of an intimate character drama than the epics and romances of the 90s. Basil the Great Mouse Detective has some great action but is sparsely detailed and, again, feels small in comparison. Even the high fantasy of The Black Cauldron and the New York setting of Oliver and Company seem to be curiously restrained, the animation reigned in and the action limited to just a few moving characters and undetailed backgrounds. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the Eighties are undeniably scaled back, cheaper and slighter than the films that followed.
The Little Mermaid, however, is a different kettle of fish. The animators threw everything at the screen, buoyed by the relative successes of Oliver and Basil, and the results are spectacular. Take, for instance, the legendary song ‘Under The Sea,’ part of a fantastic soundtrack by Broadway writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who tragically died after working on Beauty and the Beast). The theatrical sensibilities of Ashman and Menken affected not only this film but its successors, too – there would be no ‘Prince Ali’ or ‘Be Our Guest’ without this Caribbean tribute to life underwater. It’s not just in the songwriting, however, but the idea of putting on a show, that is brought in from the stage to the screen, and ‘Under The Sea’ is certainly a show. It starts off with Sebastian the Jamaican crab singing just to Ariel, but over the course of the song he enlists the help of all the denizens of the deep. Each kind of fish is used to recreate an instrument, and the more colourful creatures create patterns like a floating dancing troupe. Like the best Disney songs, the accompanying images are inventive, colourful and energetic. Crucially, the frame is full during this sequence, one detail that separates it from earlier films. The Broadway Musical mindset gives the action in the song a sense of escalation, so the increasing number of aquatic dancers means that eventually the screen is packed with images of underwater antics. The sense of spectacle shown in this sequence is a key feature of Second Golden Age cinema, and is no doubt one of the main attractions to the audiences that watched and rewatched The Little Mermaid endlessly on its release in 1989.
Crucially, in spite of this spectacle, The Little Mermaid maintains the strongest element of the eighties films: character. Where previous fairy tale films were about the supporting characters – dwarfs, mice or fairies – here Ariel is front and centre with the secondary cast being just that. The role of Ariel is, however, a contentious one, as the loss of her voice as a trade off for legs is arguably as neutering to the character as a loss of consciousness is to Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. I would argue, however, that she shows a strength the likes of which Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella could never dream of mustering. Firstly, her desire to be a human is not dictated by her love of a man. ‘Part Of Your World,’ Ariel’s musical lament about wanting to live on the surface, appears before she has even set eyes on Eric. This means that unlike her predecessors, Ariel has established a character before she encounters a man; she is curious, defiant, fearless and a bit different to the rest of her family. Eric is merely the catalyst that prompts Ariel to make the terrible decision to give up her voice in exchange for her lifelong dream of living as a human. Even when on the land, Eric doesn’t quite fall for her, it’s a memory of her singing that is holding him back. As the voice is such a powerful symbol of freedom and character, it’s telling that Ariel requires it as much as she needs legs to fully exist as a human, and to realise her love. Clearly, then, there is far more to Ariel than the standard Princess arc of ‘meets man, marries man’ – she’s an interesting, lively character that marks a welcome break from traditional Disney princesses.
This combination of spectacle and characters, then, answers the first question – are the Second Golden Age films worthy of comparison to the magnificent Snow White, Fantasia et al? On the strength of The Little Mermaid, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s an impressive film on almost every level: it’s funny, and even throwaway scenes such as Sebastian trying to avoid being cooked, are brimming with wit and ingenuity; it’s visually magnificent, returning to the awe and wonder of Disney’s earlier films and creating whatever the mind of man can conceive. There’s drama, too, featuring the tensest romantic boat ride ever and a thunderous maelstrom of a finale. Most importantly, with Ariel at the centre of the film, The Little Mermaid has heart, and lots of it. This isn’t just better than the films of the ’80s, it’s a league above them, representative of a studio that had finally got its verve back and was revelling once more in all that animation could offer. It’s a breath of fresh, seawater air to a studio that, although still making smaller, decent films, really needed it to survive.
There is no graph this week as I’m away from home and I have all the stuff stored for it on my desktop. Sorry!