The secret to making good children's films is to not make movies that are just for children. They have to engage adults, too, and the knack for doing that seems a prime reason for the enduring success of Walt Disney Studios.
The point is worth noting today because "The Little Mermaid," the 1989 animated adventure which became the highest grossing Disney animated film ever, makes its cable debut this weekend on the Disney Channel premium service (at 7 p.m. tomorrow). The videotape also recently hit the stores.
As seen for the first time this week on tape, this is really a movie of considerable depth, functioning on several levels. And from the adult perspective, it makes a particularly poignant observation about the pains of parenthood.
Of course, the movie has been deservedly celebrated for its high-quality animation, lively music, animated choreography and an engaging though previously neglected Hans Christian Anderson story. The Disney trademarks of cute creatures, impossible perils, lush visuals and spectacularly different viewing perspectives are all here in abundance.
Particularly nice sequences include the dreamy song "Kiss de Girl," when a character rowing a boat sweeps an oar from the water to produce a quartet of singing frogs, and a scene looking upward from the sea floor as the mermaid swims toward a boat on the surface.
Comedian Buddy Hackett's recognizable voice gets some laughs as a sea gull, too.
But there is more than humor here. Name any famous Disney ani
mated movie and you can name a serious topic.
"Bambi" is about the pain of being an orphan. "Cinderella" is about the problems of stepchildren. "Snow White," perhaps most chilling, is really about matricide and abandonment. "Dumbo" shows the insecurity of being physically different. And "Lady and the Tramp" is about mixed marriage.
"The Little Mermaid," in fact, covers ground similar to "Lady and the Tramp" and then some. For the title character, Ariel, gets involved in a really mixed relationship: She falls
in love with a human prince she rescues from a shipwreck. And for the relationship to work, she must convert and become human herself. (It is sort of the reverse of "Splash," also a Disney product.)
But the movie throws in the Faust legend, too. Ariel signs a pact with an octopus witch, Ursula. She gives up her voice and, potentially, her own freedom in exchange for three days as a human being. If she can get the prince to kiss her in that time, she'll stay human. If not, she becomes Ursula's possession.
The Mephistophelean bargain is not at all subtle, as Ursula sings, "Come on, you poor unfortunate soul, make your choice!" A heavy theme, indeed.
Ariel must also defy her father, King Triton, and attempt simultaneously to win not only her prince but the approval of his alien culture, too.
Her father, meanwhile, agonizes over his daughter's willfulness and curiosity about the world above the waves, seeking that elusive balance between overprotection and pride in a child's maturity.
"I consider myself a reasonable merman," he tells her in exasperation at one point, in a line instantly recognizable by the parent of any teen-ager.
And later, after making a supreme sacrifice for the safety of his child, he reluctantly has to accept the truism, as uttered by Ariel's crab friend Sebastian, that "children got to be free to lead their own lives."
The kids may not get all of this, of course. But it makes viewing "The Little Mermaid" with them a genuinely adult pleasure.