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Film review: Little Mermaid, The

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"The Little Mermaid" is, of course, a throwback to the kind of animated films Disney used to create on a regular basis - a fairy tale. In fact, it is the first fairy tale the studio has produced since "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959.

Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, this version of "The Little Mermaid" has been decidedly "Disneyized" (Andersen had the mermaid dying in the end; don't expect tragedy here).

But that's not a complaint from this corner. What we have here is the best of every animated world - beautiful visuals; terrific songs that push the story along but are quite memorable in their own right (by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also did "Little Shop of Horrors"); great characters, ranging from an evil octopus who conjures up memories of wonderful Disney villains past to several comic characters who are very funny; scenes that are alternately frightening, romantic, tension-filled and hilarious; and a well-scripted, strong storyline that holds interest throughout the film's 82 minutes.

The story is familiar, of course, focusing on Ariel (whose gorgeous speaking/singing voice is provided by Jodi Benson), a young teenage mermaid who is a daughter of Triton, king of the undersea world. A dreamer, she is fascinated with humans, but her father has forbidden her to go to the surface of the ocean.

Aided by a little fish named Flounder, a crab named Sebastian and a goofy seagull called Scuttle (voiced by Buddy Hackett), Ariel continues to observe humans anyway, and it isn't long before her father's worst fears are realized as she rescues a prince during a storm and falls in love with him.

Because she wants so badly to be human herself, Ariel strikes a dangerous bargain with the evil seawitch Ursula (Pat Carroll in a delightful performance) and exchanges her voice for an opportunity to become human on a temporary basis. But if the prince doesn't kiss her in three days, her voice - and soul - become Ursula's. Needless to say, Ursula doesn't intend to play fair.

There's a lot to recommend "The Little Mermaid," from the terrific tunes to some riotous set-pieces - the "Under the Sea" reggae number and an encounter between Sebastian and a cook are particularly noteworthy.

But in the end this movie is a candidate for respect among the best Disney animated features simply because the filmmakers took the time and care to make it appealing to adults as well as children.

This is unquestionably the best animated film in many years and is therefore highly recommended.