By Ralph Novak
Updated November 20, 1989 12:00 PM


As a character, the Little Mermaid probably doesn’t have quite the cartoon charisma to rank up there with the greatest Disney animated stars—Bambi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan or Snow White. None of those Disney deities, however, has been surrounded by a supporting cast any livelier, funnier or, certainly, bubblier.

This deep-down happy undersea adventure, taken from a Hans Christian Andersen story (very loosely interpreted by writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements), is about a young mermaid princess, Ariel, who longs to escape her father’s undersea kingdom and find out what life is like among the humans. (Stay down there, kid; it’s all surface up here.)

Her father assigns a crab to keep tabs on her—Jiminy Cricket, anyone?—but, of course, Ariel strays far enough to get a glimpse of a handsome young human and falls head over fins in love.

Adding a lot of fun to these events is the music of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and the delightful animated choreography that goes with it. “Under the Sea,” a reggae-flavored tune sung by Samuel E. Wright, as Sebastian the crab, is stop-the-show caliber: “Darling, it’s better/ Down where it’s wetter” its theme says, and the tune even has a touch of un-Disneylike cynicism—”The seaweed’s always greener in somebody else’s lake.”

If there were an Oscar for cartoon voices, Wright, the veteran actor who played Dizzy Gillespie in Bird, would deserve it. But Buddy Hackett, as a know-it-all seagull who is Ariel’s pal, Pat Carroll, as the sea witch Ursula, and Jodi Benson, a longtime Broadway performer, as Ariel, enliven their characters too.

The only things to question are the predictable scary scenes, which might bother sensitive young children, and the predictable sentimentality, which might bother curmudgeonly old reviewers. It’s hard not to leave this movie with a glowing feeling, though. As Sebastian says in a vulnerable moment, “What a soft shell I’m turning out to be.” (G)