Reel Rumbles: The Little Mermaid vs. Beauty and the Beast
The release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 signaled the dawn of a new Golden Age for Disney, a renaissance after a two-decade trough in the quality of the studio’s animated storytelling. As rich as it is, it would have been but a blip if it had not been followed by a wave of equally-indelible princesses, lions, genies, and classic literature adaptations.
Its immediate successors were 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, an unlooked-for sequel to a grim 1977 Bob Newhart vehicle, and the smart DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, an Indiana Jones-inspired extension of the DuckTales brand that had recently made Disney a major player in the world of TV and video games. Neither are exactly the stuff that Golden Ages are made of.
Then came the 1991 holiday season and the release of Beauty and the Beast. Belle & friends became Disney fixtures equal in stature to Snow White and Cinderella. The new musical proved that The Little Mermaid was no fluke, that the Disney animation house under Michael Eisner, who had partnered with Roy Disney in 1984 to save the directionless studio from being sold piecemeal, was going to put out must-see features on a regular basis.
So which is better — is The Little Mermaid’s seaweed greener, or is Beauty and the Beast more enchanting? Let’s break it down.
Round 1: The Princesses
It’s standard to refer to Disney’s leading ladies as princesses, but not all of them start out or end up that way. Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle is the daughter of a struggling inventor. She has a certain poise that most of her townie neighbors lack, but the aura of respectability is self-made rather than inherited. She is a lover of books: a cliché character trait today, but in 1991 it set her apart from the easily-distracted Snow White, the catatonic Sleeping Beauty, and the blue-collar Cinderella. Although her two suitors, Gaston and the Beast, stand to gain no social status by wooing her, her independence makes her attractive to them. Neither men are her intellectual equals, but Gaston recognizes her as different from the floozies that hang on his arm, and the Beast can only break his spell if a woman loves him of her own accord – she cannot be cowed into it, and his early attempts to do so only drive Belle away.
Ariel, on the other hand, is bonafide royalty. She is the youngest daughter of Triton, king of the merpeople, but is unwilling to play the role. She eschews formal events at court, including a choreographed song starring her, for the solitary pleasures of her antique collection. Her obsession with the world of humans, which at first she only knows through their lost and discarded objects, is visually more fruitful than Belle’s bibliophilia. Ariel doesn’t have a great eye for a bargain, though; she spends the bulk of the movie without a voice as a result of a lopsided contract with the cephalopodic Ursula, who has a dark collection of her own.
Winner: The Little Mermaid. Belle was a bookish role model for a generation, but Ariel is a more powerful presence in her movie even when mute. Certified “Disney Legend” Jodi Benson provided Ariel’s speaking and singing voice for almost three decades as the anchor of a veritable Little Mermaid franchise.
Round 2: The Villains
The Little Mermaid features the classic dynamic of a big baddie flanked by a couple of henchmen. Ursula and her pet barracudas, Flotsam and Jetsam, are slyly wicked. They charm Ariel and play to her weaknesses until she becomes the instrument of her own undoing. At the end, the sight of a triumphant Ursula swollen to leviathanic proportions is like something out of H.P. Lovecraft.
Beauty and the Beast has the advantage of two villains: the burly braggard Gaston and, for most of the movie, the Beast himself. In his former state the Beast was a cruel, selfish prince, and now he is a ravening monster with poor table manners. His voice, provided by Robby Benson, is almost demonic, and betrays no hint of remorse when he imprisons the protagonists in his dark, decaying castle. Gaston can be just as dangerous, especially when he leads the townsfolk on an ill-advised crusade, but mostly he’s just a nuisance, as when he shows up at Belle’s house to demand her hand in marriage.
Winner: Beauty and the Beast. Gaston is good for comic relief, but this category is all about the Beast. His antiheroic qualities suited the mood of the 1990s; the movie hit theaters just three years after the Broadway debut of another wildly successful “beauty and the beast” story, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera. The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, played with delightful gusto by Pat Carroll, is more evil but less nuanced.
Round 3: The Art
A key sequence in Beauty and the Beast was achieved largely through computer graphics rather than hand-drawn animation. It’s easy to tell, and a quarter of a century on it’s easy to bemoan the digital eclipse of traditional animation methods. But despite a certain disconnect between the 2D characters and their 3D surroundings, the kinetic, computerized “camerawork” in the ballroom scene is a high point of Beauty and the Beast. In the movie’s opening montage, a stained glass motif creates an old-world charm.
Compared to later animated movies set in water, like Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003) or Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2006), The Little Mermaid underutilizes its oceanic environment. The water itself, while costly to animate and speckled with an estimated million or more bubbles, isn’t a de facto character the way it is in Ponyo, or saturated with tropical colors as it is in Nemo. The Pixar-designed computer system that would create the Beauty and the Beast ballroom was tested for the first time during the production of The Little Mermaid, resulting in a background or two. But the most innovative facet of The Little Mermaid’s animation was actually a reversion to an old Walt Disney practice: the use of real people as models. A live actress mimed Ariel’s movements, and the animation team studied footage of astronaut Sally Ride in low Earth orbit.
Winner: Beauty and the Beast. A great deal of effort went into the art of The Little Mermaid, which revitalized Disney animation, but the Disney Renaissance would be defined by new artistic techniques that first became apparent in Beauty and the Beast.
Round 4: The Music
Two of the numbers that Alan Menken and his lyricist Howard Ashman wrote for The Little Mermaid received Best Original Song nominations at the 62nd Academy Awards. They were the calypso tunes “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” both sung by the lobster Sebastian (Samuel Wright). “Part of Your World” has become such a beloved Disney song that its absence at the Oscars must be considered a snub, but “Under the Sea” was a worthy winner. Menken’s score also beat out two John Williams entries for a perfect sweep of the music categories.
Menken and Ashman teamed up again for Beauty and the Beast, by which time Ashman had been diagnosed with AIDS. He did not live to see the finished product. Three of their songs received Oscar nominations – the title song, “Be Our Guest,” and “Belle” – with the title song winning out over the competition. Menken again nabbed the trophy for Best Original Score, beating Williams and Ennio Morricone. “Gaston” is another standout track, a list of the villain’s superlative qualities. Though Angela Lansbury, who voiced Mrs. Potts, did not have a trained singing voice, she performs “Beauty and the Beast” with a plain forthrightness that cuts right to the emotional core of the story. It compares favorably with an overproduced Céline Dion/Peabo Bryson rendition that plays over the end credits.
Winner: The Little Mermaid. Its songs are poignant, funny, and Broadway-ready. Even its lesser tracks, like René Auberjonois’s “Les Poissons” and the abbreviated sea chanty “Fathoms Below” whose full version is a DVD special feature, exhibit Menken and Ashman’s craftsmanship at its peak. “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” measure up with the best of them, but beyond that there is a slight drop-off in the power of Beauty and the Beast’s songs, with “Belle” and “Gaston” lacking the inventive sparkle of, say, Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
Tie-Breaker Round: What You See Most at Disneyland
I went to the California Disneyland as a kid, but I didn’t become a big fan of the parks and their strange lore until I visited Tokyo’s two adjacent Disney parks as an adult. Tokyo Disneyland is fun, but Disney Sea next door is the real draw. Ariel’s Undersea Kingdom is a cavernous cafeteria that is surprisingly effective and creating the illusion of being underwater, and an appearance by Prince Eric and his dog Max was a big draw among kids and adults.
The next day at Tokyo Disneyland I finally saw something Beauty and the Beast-related: a 3D movie that opened with Lumière singing “Be Our Guest” – in Japanese, of course. Beyond that the references were subtle: a rose-themed stained glass here, a parade float there, cancelled out by corresponding Little Mermaid fixtures.
Winner: The Little Mermaid. Nothing from Beauty and the Beast rivals the seashell-encrusted architectural marvel at the heart of Tokyo Disney Sea. Maybe the American parks are different, but something tells me that Ariel, Flounder, and King Triton just have higher celebrity profiles than their Beast counterparts.
Grand Champion: The Little Mermaid. Though it lost the box office race and the Oscar nomination count to Beauty and the Beast, it has become the more lucrative property and fares a little better in the most important categories. Beauty and the Beast partisans can cheer themselves with the fact that their pick received a Best Picture nomination, the first animated feature to do so. Not a bad consolation prize.
How Flickchart Users Rank Them
The Little Mermaid:
- Global Ranking: 875
- Wins 40% of matchups
- 213 users have it at #1
- 3855 users have it in their top 20
Beauty and the Beast:
- Global Ranking: 620
- Wins 44%of matchups
- 495 users have it at #1
- 7648 users have it in their top 20
See how Beauty and the Beast fared against The Lion King in a previous Reel Rumble entry >