When Disney animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg teamed writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who later did Aladdin, Hercules and The Princess and the Frog) with songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), he birthed the studio’s first renaissance feature. Here was everything that mostly had been missing in the two decades since Walt’s death: an assured lightness in the narrative, a blending of classic and contemporary design and a sheaf of catchy songs that could command the top of the pops while lodging in older fans’ internal jukeboxes. For the next five years, until Katzenberg left the company and formed DreamWorks, Disney animated features were among the smartest films around and proved that the Hollywood cartoon had become the last, best refuge of the Broadway musical.
From the first moments, when the mermaid Ariel (voiced and sung by Jodi Benson) dreams of being part of the world above, to an ending that comes with flourishes, a rainbow and a perfect kiss with full heartstring accompaniment, this fish-out-of-water fable is a model of buoyancy and poignancy. Updating the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the prince and the sea creature — basically, boy meets gill — Musker and Clements inserted a modest political message (similar to those of Finding Nemo and Happy Feet) that pegs humans as, in the words of Ariel’s father, “spineless, savage, harpooning fish eaters.” But those are so many bubbles in this effervescent delight. The film’s vocal, musical and painterly talents mesh ecstatically in the big water-ballet production number “Under the Sea.” As Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright) limns the aquatic virtues, a Noah’s aquarium of sea creatures animates a joyous Busby Berkeley palette. And that’s just one of many highlights in 82 min. of canny magic.
Next Finding Nemo