After two decades of creative floundering following the 1966 death of Walt Disney Feature Animation's founder and namesake, the late 1980s must have seemed like a very wonderful time to be employed at that studio. For the first time, there was a clear guiding hand that directed the company's efforts, in the form of Peter Schneider, President of Feature Animation; the executives who had saved the Walt Disney Company from financial ruin had an ambitious plan in mind that proved their long-term commitment to the survival of the brand name; the young animators recruited and trained in the 1970s and tested by The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound had become well-enough established that they were starting to train and mentor a whole new generation of artists; the demoralising nightmare of The Black Cauldron was beginning to fade from memory, with the new management's clear indication that they understood as well as the animation staff what elements of that project had been so undesirable and unworkable, both for the filmmakers and the audience. The road the future was bright and open, and a new dynasty of animated films made according to an ambition not seen at Disney since the 1950s was waiting to be started.

Sadly, the first film in that dynasty was an insane, unpleasant little runt, Oliver & Company, a film that seems to be well-regarded by the artists who created it largely because it proved that people would still pay a lot of money to see their films. Listen to any of them talk nowadays - or even as soon after the fact as 1992 and 1993 - and the refrain seems to be unanimous: that film, like The Great Mouse Detective before it, was all about the learning curve. Yeah, they had corporate support and a vision and all that, but it took some getting used to that situation, and a lot of the supervising animators really didn't have the experience to justify their positions but there just weren't enough veterans to go around, and all in all it was a last chance to work the bugs out before they could really break out the big stuff.

That's a view grown almost entirely out of hindsight. If through some mischance, the films made after Oliver & Company didn't work artistically or thrive at the box office, there would be no need to call it a learning curve movie at all; there'd have been no further arc to that curve, and it's not likely that anybody would give enough of a damn about Disney animation after the mid-'90s for the histories of those days to have been written, and thus for the animators to have a venue to talk about their "learning curve" in the first place. It may seem from our perspective, so many years later, that the Disney Renaissance of 1989-2000 was an inevitability, but I really do not believe that to be the case at all: I think that we're very lucky that the first film in that cycle came about the way it did, and it's much too easy to imagine a world full of Oliver & Companys and Great Mouse Detectives following each other one by one, until nobody could stand to even say the word "Disney" any longer.

But good fortune luck prevailed, and the second film produced in Jeffrey Katzenberg's one-movie-per-year plan was The Little Mermaid, a film that hit the ground in 1989 like a thunderbolt. Since so many of the most successful Disney pictures in the years since have followed its formula so closely, and since there weren't all that many films produced during the long interregnum from 1967-1988, it's perhaps hard to appreciate how long it had been since Disney made a movie at all like this one: a fantasy love story about a princess who longs for a better world and a handsome prince, told in song. That's pretty much the standard model we think of when we think of a Disney movie, but it's worth pointing out that in the 52 years and 27 films preceding The Little Mermaid, that formula had been used exactly thrice: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Cinderella in 1950, and Sleeping Beauty in 1959. I do not think it would have been at all so obvious as it seems that another princess musical was the key to saving the studio's fortunes, especially since the third of its fairy tale predecessors had rather famously jeopardised that studio's very existence due to its massive cost and middling popularity.

An adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's lovely little fairy tale had initially been bandied about in the late '30s as one of the many possible successors to Snow White, but it had been abandoned due to the complexity and cost of animating an undersea world. And even this was not the first time The Little Mermaid had been considered by Walt as a good subject for a movie: he'd first thought of adapting it as a Silly Symphony in the mid-'30s, though this idea was never pursued very passionately. None of this was known to Ron Clements when he stumbled upon the Andersen story in 1985, while he was still serving as one of the four co-directors of The Great Mouse Detective, immediately writing up a short treatment that he brought to a meeting arranged by Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney, where they asked some of the most important men in the animation studio to bring story ideas. Katzenberg especially loved the Andersen tale, and Disney remembered his uncle's fascination with it some fifty years earlier. And so the project was put on an active back burner

In 1986, after The Great Mouse Detective was finished, Clements and his directing partner John Musker expanded the treatment into an actual screenplay, which was provisionally green-lit, on the understanding that Oliver & Company was the greater priority for right now. A fair enough trade, as it gave the two men a chance to keep smoothing out the story, looking for the right hook to give the story some extra juice: the notion of returning to a fairy tale love-story was certainly a good first step, but in its current state, The Little Mermaid was still only most of a good idea.

Now we come to a man who would prove to be one of the most important forces for the artistic good of animated cinema ever. Howard Ashman had been a lyric writer of stage musicals since 1979, when he premiered an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, with music composed by an equally green young man named Alan Menken. It was a well-reviewed piece that nobody saw, but the two found their collaboration sufficiently satisfying that they worked together on a 1982 Off-Broadway musical adapted from a Roger Corman picture, Little Shop of Horrors. This show proved to be a smash, propelling its creators to the big time. Katzenberg had hoped to acquire the film rights for this project early in his Disney tenure, but he missed out to David Geffen and Warner Bros. Still he managed to convince Ashman to write the lyrics for one Oliver & Company song.

It was during Ashman's time working on that film that he became aware of The Little Mermaid. I do not know how it was exactly that he came to stand before Clements and Musker, but it is said that he read their story treatment, and had a piece of advice for them: the Mer-King's little British crab majordomo ought to be made Jamaican instead, because then you could use calypso-style music on the soundtrack. That really got things started, because it appears that prior to Ashman's appearance on the scene, nobody had though of the one thing that, in retrospect, is so obvious as the beggar mentioning: The Little Mermaid would be Disney's first truly Broadway-style musical, full of songs all written by one team that advance the plot and character in a show tune style, rather than the popular music that had so far made up virtually all of the Disney soundtracks. Ashman and Menken were the obvious choices for the project, but Ashman's contribution wasn't nearly done: he eventually ended up co-producing the movie with Musker, so invested did he become in the film's development.

When the film was released on November 17, 1989, it was rapturously received by critics as a magnificent return to form for Disney, which is fair thing to say given the degraded state of Disney animation in the '80s. It's also not really accurate. There are no earlier Disney films that are much like The Little Mermaid whatsoever, except in the most limited, shallow reading of the narrative situation - and even that falls apart when we recall that fairy tales represented only a very tiny portion of the studio's output. Really, The Little Mermaid is something brand new, informed by the Disney tradition but not beholden to it. The film's particularly theatrical cinematic language is rather more similar to the Freed Unit musicals produced by MGM in the 1940s and 1950s than it is to anything earlier in the Disney canon.

It is, however, a definite return to the principles by which Walt Disney guided his company. For that man, remember, the first thing that any movie must provide was character; out of strong characters good humor and drama would grow naturally. The Little Mermaid certainly has the strongest characters of any Disney film in a long time; aside from the aberration that is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, we have to go back to the 1950s at least, with Lady and the Tramp, to find a Disney film whose cast is so fully realised, and whose plot is largely character-driven, with quite as much success as The Little Mermaid; and I might even be inclined to go all the way back to Bambi, 47 years earlier, to finally stumble across a film with across-the-board better characters. We have of course Princess Ariel (Jodi Benson), the little mermaid, who longs to be part of the human world against the wishes of her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars); she expresses the longing that all of us have for new experiences. There is the trio of, Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright), Flounder the angel fish (Jason Marin), and Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett), who are cumulatively among the best comic relief figures in contemporary Disney film. And there is the villainous octopus-woman Ursula (Pat Carroll), a heaving mass of selfishness and self-pity... but I will say more of Ursula in due course.

It's the fairy tale thing. What Walt demonstrated to such grand success in Snow White is that the most elemental narratives are the ones that have the most possibility for character development, because the plot largely takes care of itself. Cinderella got the primal nature of the folk tale right, but whiffed on presenting a largely dull protagonist; <Sleeping Beauty was too much a formal experiment in animation as graphic art to bother giving us a credible romantic heroine. The Little Mermaid gets things exactly right: Ariel is both highly specific, given the precise nature of her world and what she wants beyond that world, and extremely universal (to at least a Western audience) in its depiction of a teenager chafing against rules that no longer make sense to her. While it's easy to criticise the studio's later fairy-tale narratives as gross simplifications of human experience that teach children, girls especially, horribly retrograde things about social roles, it's worth pointing out that this simplicity has a place: it speaks to the part of the human mind that still understands things like an ape on the savanna. If the purpose of art is to be instructive, than yes, these films are problematic - but if the purpose of art is to cause an emotional response (and any given work of art can have one, or both, or neither of these goals in mind), stripping a situation to its most primal element - girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy - is the best way to provide that emotion, since the simplest narrative cues are by definition the one that we are going to respond to the quickest.

The sociological impact of the Disney princess films is, nevertheless a matter for grave consideration and analysis, which I will not provide here. It's frankly a matter beyond my training, for gender politics are not my strong suit, and I think the words I said in regards to Cinderella will remain my definitive position on the subject.

What is a bit more up my alley is the film's treatment of sexuality; for it seems that The Little Mermaid is rather more likely to given an explicitly sexual reading than any other Disney film of its generation. This is for largely obvious and valid reasons: a young girl who has never been in love finds a man and must become a woman in order to be with him: it's a reading of the material that people were applying to the Andersen story before Disney's film was a glint in anyone's eye. Certainly, Disney helps things along in that matter with the uncommonly physical representation of Ariel's transformation from mermaid to human: the camera glides along her new, naked form, showing more of her body than any other human character in any other Disney feature - and if it weren't for some carefully-positioned lighting effects, we'd probably be looking at the first R-rated Disney film right here. This sequence ends with Ariel bursting out of the water, arching her back in what looks a hell of lot like an orgasm, and to many critics, this moment is emblematic of puberty. I can't really fault that reading on its merits, even if I don't agree with it.

The problem with reading Ariel's transformation in sexual terms is that the movie doesn't bear it out afterwards. As soon as she gets on land and is discovered by her crush, Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), she ceases to behave like a sexually mature woman, but like a child with a puppy dog crush. Her romantic emotions are much more palpably expressed earlier in the film, and when (as a mermaid) she thinks of the physical ecstasy of lying on the sand, that's a far more sexual moment than later, when she sleeps in a fluffy bed for the first time. There is if anything a deliberate renunciation of sexual maturity in most of the film, particularly in the montage of scenes of Eric taking Ariel around the kingdom, where she delights in every new sight like an infant seeing something shiny. If anything I think her nudity in that transformation sequence isn't emblematic of sex, but of birth.

That Disney would deliberately renounce sex is nothing new, and plenty of critics respond to this with distaste, while some other take the piss out of the company by writing hyperbolically sexual analyses of every little detail in every film they can find. I understand this impulse, and I think that's why people cling to the sexual reading of The Little Mermaid: my biases notwithstanding, it's a very defensible argument, in a way that few of the other Disney films can support. But I personally have no real need to spot hidden rapacity in every animated film I come across. The British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote something once that has always stuck with me (it appears in, of all things, a savage attack on the Harry Potter books, written for the New York Times after the publication of Order of the Phoenix): "I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful". It is restful, at that, and I have no real interest in demanding that every narrative work have a sexual subtext, even when - especially when! - it is primarily aimed at a young audience. So if I see in The Little Mermaid a calculated attempt to divorce sex from sexual maturity (particularly in the song "Kiss the Girl", a song that I think ruined my entire generation's ability to have functioning romantic relationships - WHY ISN'T REAL-LIFE LOVE LIKE THAT?), this is less of a criticism and more of observation.

The other point, besides the creation of full-blooded characters, at which The Little Mermaid becomes a return to Disney's traditions is in the quality and richness of its animation. Though anyone who would tell you that in 1989, Disney had long since stopped trying to create visually evocative movies should not be trusted: there are many legitimate reasons to hate The Black Cauldron, but one of them is not that it lacks for beautiful moments of animation. At any rate, The Little Mermaid is, like Bambi or Pinocchio, something of a "look what we can do!" bit of showing-off; it is not merely a sublimely accomplished work of animation, but one that showcases all sorts of very specific tricks.

Chief among its accomplishments is its amazing representation of underwater life. Given the freedom to show characters unencumbered by gravity or two dimensional movement, the Disney animators responded with some of the most creative and technically accomplished work in the studio's history - as well they should have, seeing as the film was treated to a larger budget than any Disney film in decades. There was even a second animation facility opened in the still-incomplete Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Florida, to bear the film's workload.

For the connoisseur of fiddly bits of animated detail, The Little Mermaid has an endless cavalcade of delights: the subtle details of muscle present when characters swim, the way that Ariel's hair drifts in the water or blows in the wind - the scene of her singing on the rock after she rescues Eric is probably my favorite piece of Disney animation between 1942 and 1991, though scrupulous honesty compels one to point out that it's immediately followed by a particularly clunky wide shot.

To the lover of lighting effects, I need point no further than "Part of That World", which is such an overachieving compilation of light on characters and on the background that it's almost obnoxious - and while it is perhaps the best such moment in the film, it is far from the only moment.

Those who admire effects animation will already know of the glorious way that crashing waves are drawn throughout the film, to say nothing of those thousands and thousands of tiny bubbles that appear every time a character moves underwater. Animation tech buffs get the indulgence of the last computer-aided animation before the revolutionary CAPS technology took over, used far more convincingly here than in Oliver & Company: particularly the opening shot of the ship, which has been painted so well that it almost doesn't register as a CG effect. And of course, the premiere of CAPS - Computer Animation Production System - occurs in the final moments of this film; though a discussion of CAPS is better left for The Rescuers Down Under.

For the greater bulk of animation buffs for whom "animation" always and only means "character animation", The Little Mermaid is still a treasure. It is an article of faith among Disney animators that animating is just another form of acting, and there are few characters in the canon who demonstrate that truism like Ariel does. Deprived of her voice for a good third of the film, all of her personality and intentions must be communicated visually, and this is done with alarming effectiveness: it took two supervising animators, Glen Keane (moving briefly away from his specialty of imposing, massive characters) and Mark Henn (the first in his long line of female characters) to achieve Ariel's entire performance, but those were man-hours very well spent. Over the course of the film, she is curious, surly, romantic, depressed, yearning, happy, defiant, heartbroken, and every one of these is clearly and cleanly shown on her face. There is a moment near the end, when she overhears Eric's intentions to marry another woman, where the downcast look on her face is so moving that you forget that you're watching a cartoon.

The best tribute I think could be paid to the expressive possibilities of Ariel's face is that she formed the model for a significant number of characters to come after her in the 1990s: it's in the shape of the eyes and the brow. Look for it: Belle, Aladdin, Jasmine, Simba as a child, Esmerelda, Mulan, Tarzan - all of them have a variation of Ariel's eyes.

The Little Mermaid also boasts one of Disney's greatest villains in Ursula the sea witch, the first great character for supervising animator Ruben Aquino. There hadn't been a fleshier character in a Disney picture since Pinocchioimd's Stromboli, and the effect in both cases much the same: a character of devouring appetite and operatic excess, a massive, uncontainable figure who sheer presence is almost as terrifying as anything she could do or say. I don't think I need to do much defending of Ursula, though; she is customarily regarded, with justification, as one of the most popular baddies in the canon.

This is becoming a goddamn long essay, but let me just mention one more point: the music. Take out the songs, and The Little Mermaid fails. Period. Mind you, there is a whole lot to adore about the film, but the amazing list of seven songs (plus a reprise) that Ashman and Menken put together is undeniably the glue and the soul of the film, giving it a structure and backbone not seen in any previous Disney feature, and it was from this foundation that most of the film's most perfect moments spring. No amount of character development could possibly communicate as directly and powerfully what it is that goes on in Ariel's mind, as does her plaintive, oft-parodied ballad of unchecked yearning, "Part of That World".

At the same time, the songs are just plain excellent examples of songwriting. Ashman was a tremendously smart lyricist, understanding almost intuitively it would seem, exactly how far he could push the descriptive content of his words before the song ceases to be singable. Ursula's epic "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is a great example of what I'm talking about:
If you want to cross a bridge, my sweet
You've got to pay the toll.
Take a gulp and take a breath,
And go ahead and sign the scroll!
(Flotsam, Jetsam, now I've got her, boys,
The boss is on a roll!)

Or there's the playful wordplay of "Under the Sea", with references like "When the sardine begin the beguine" or the rhyme of "sturgeon" with "urge and" - I very nearly titled the review "We in luck here / Down in the muck here".

Alan Menken's music is quite wonderful in its own right, full of outstanding melodies and counter-melodies (my God, the climax of "Kiss the Girl" has such a breathtaking counter-melody), with orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri that bring the already-lovely music to a veritable wall of sound and instrumentation. The film also boasts a score by Menken that, to my ears, is the finest ever composed for a Disney film; the background music for the "trip around the kingdom" montage is the work of a perfect genius.

If the film has flaws, it is that it becomes significantly less gorgeous once it leaves the ocean, and Prince Eric is far too bland a romantic lead for the size of his part (people never mention that the men in Disney films are often more objectified and depersonalised than the women; although I suppose that, living as we do in a male-dominated culture, it isn't so dangerous to present weak male characters). There are also a handful - just a handful! - of really awkwardly-animated moments, but they are supremely jarring in the context of a film otherwise as rich and fluid as this. And compared to the best Disney films, it lacks a certain urgency: the three-day countdown that ought to drive the second half of the film is largely ignored.

But that's not enough to keep me from calling it a masterpiece, although perhaps the least of Disney's masterpieces; at any rate, it is, like Snow White, a film quite good enough that it seems not only reasonable but necessary that it should have an immediate, extreme influence on so many other films. The Disney Renaissance could hardly have gotten off to a better start; of course, the very reason that the Renaissance happened at all is because it got off to such a strong start.. The combination of critical and commercial glory attained by The Little Mermaid was the long-awaited proof that Disney animation could, in fact, return almost the quality and beauty of its Golden Age, and the run of films in the next half-decade would prove to become just as definitive for a new generation as the studio's immaculate first five masterpieces were for earlier generations.