The Little Mermaid received positive reviews and on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 52 reviews collected, the film has an overall approval rating of 90% based on various reviews collected since its 1989 release.
Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, was enthusiastic about the film and wrote that, "The Little Mermaid is a jolly and inventive animated fantasy—a movie that's so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney work of the past." Ebert also commented positively on the character of Ariel, stating, "... Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny." The staff of TV Guide wrote a positive review, praising the film's return to the traditional Disney musical as well as the film's animation. Yet they also wrote that the film is detracted by the juvenile humor and the human characters' eyes. While still giving a positive review, they stated that the film "can't compare to the real Disney classics (which appealed equally to both kids and adults)." The staff of Variety praised the film for its cast of characters, Ursula in particular, as well as its animation. Stating that the animation "proves lush and fluid, augmented by the use of shadow and light as elements like fire, sun and water illuminate the characters." Also praised was the musical collaboration between Howard Ashman and Alan Menken "whose songs frequently begin slowly but build in cleverness and intensity." Todd Gilchrist of IGN wrote a positive review of the film, stating that the film is "an almost perfect achievement." Gilchrist also praised how the film revived interest in animation as it was released at a time when interest in animation was at a lull. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post wrote a mixed review of the film, referring to it as a "likably unspectacular adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic." Hinson went on to write that the film is average even at its highest points. He wrote that while there is nothing wrong with the film, it would be difficult for children to identify with Ariel and that the characters seemed bland. Hinson concluded his review saying that the film is "accomplished but uninspiring, The Little Mermaid has enough to please any kid. All that's missing is the magic." Empire gave a positive review of the film, stating that " a charmer of a movie, boasting all the ingredients that make a Disney experience something to treasure yet free of all the politically correct, formulaic elements that have bogged down the more recent productions."
In April 2008 – almost 20 years after the film's initial release in 1989 – Yahoo! users voted "The Little Mermaid" as No. 14 on the top 30 animated films of all time. Later, when Yahoo! updated the list in June of the same year, the film remained on the list but dropped six slots to end at #20. (Only three other traditionally animated Disney animated films- Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, respectively- scored above it in the poll even after the update.)
In 2011, Richard Corliss of TIME Magazine named it one of "The 25 All-TIME Best Animated Films".
The Little Mermaid, Disney's first animated fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty (1959), is an important film in animation history for many reasons. Chief among these are its re-establishment of animation as a profitable venture for The Walt Disney Company, as the company's theme parks, television productions, and live-action features had overshadowed the animated output since the 1950s. Mermaid was the second film, following Oliver and Company, produced after Disney began expanding its animated output following its successful live action/animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and became Disney's first animated major box office and critical hit since The Rescuers in 1977. Walt Disney Feature Animation was further expanded as a result of Mermaid and increasingly successful follow-ups—Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). The staff increased from 300 members in 1988 to 2,200 in 1999 spread across three studios in Burbank, California, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France. This period of Disney's animation history is sometimes referred to as the "Disney Renaissance".
In addition, Mermaid signaled the re-establishment of the musical film format as a standard for Disney animated films. The majority of Disney's most popular animated films from the 1930s on had been musicals, though by the 1970s and 1980s the role of music had been de-emphasized in the films. 1988's Oliver and Company had served as a test of sorts to the success of the musical format before Disney committed to the Broadway-style structure of The Little Mermaid.
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