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'The Little Mermiad'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1997

If "The Little Mermaid," Walt Disney's likably unspectacular adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, has a message, it is this: Girls just don't want to have fins. Flicking her amber tresses out of her eyes, Ariel, the film's heroine, laments the undersea life. She wants to be "where the people are," up in the sun, "walkin' around on those, whaddaya call 'em? Feet."

The calypso crab composer Sebastian and her puffy flounder pal, Flounder, urge her to do as her father, Triton, King of the Merpeople, says and remain true to her underwater roots. As Sebastian sings in his Busby Berkeleyesque sales pitch, "Under the Sea," "Darlin', it's better where it's wetter."

Ariel's longing for things human is too strong for her to resist, even if humans are considered barbarians by most undersea folk. For years she's been collecting people stuff, picked up in shipwrecks, and taking it to her sea gull friend, Scuttle, who is endearingly creative in his identifications. Her passion only increases when she spies a dark-haired young prince aboard a passing ship. Eventually the prince, whose name is Eric, is washed overboard in a storm, and Ariel saves his life.

Immediately, Ariel is lovestruck, but not having feet is something of a drag on your dating life. Desperate, she cracks a bargain with the octopus-tenacled Ursula, the evil sea witch, trading in her lovely siren's voice for a set of human wheels. Ursula (whose booming voice is provided by Pat Carroll) sees the slinky Ariel as a means to conquer Triton and take control of the sea.

But as moviemaking, "The Little Mermaid" is only passable. Even at its highest points, it cannot claim a place next to even the least of the great Disney classics. There's nothing actually wrong with the work here. Written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who collaborated earlier on "The Great Mouse Detective," the movie never falters, but the filmmakers seem to have aimed for a prime-time, family-hour tone that undermines the more powerful undercurrents of the Andersen original. It's unlikely, for example, that many young kids will identify with Ariel's feelings of disenchantment and longing for another world (certainly something every kid feels), because, frankly, she doesn't have much personality. The same is true of the handsome Prince Eric, who has a sort of game show blandness about him.

Much of the film takes place beneath the waves, and the animators have given the story's watery environment a vivid otherworldliness. And a couple of the musical numbers provided by "Little Shop of Horrors" songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are genuine winners, particularly the doo-wop-influenced "Kiss the Girl," which comes complete with a froggy chorus.

Samuel E. Wright's Caribbean intonations for Sebastian are beguiling. And Buddy Hackett gives Scuttle the sea gull the personality of a nerve-damaged vaudevillian. On the other hand, Jodi Benson's voice, though lovely, is slightly generic and, unfortunately, fits all too well with the character's personality. The tone of the story, too, seems overly sunny, especially considering the darkness of its source. It's refreshing, though, to see a heroine who has some sense of what she wants and the resources to go after it, even if she looks like Barbara Eden on "I Dream of Jeannie." Accomplished but uninspiring, "The Little Mermaid" has enough to please any kid. All that's missing is the magic.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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