and Ron Clements

Leave it to dictators to get paranoid—Disney is frantically starting brush fires left and right in an attempt to distract the potential stampede of pint-size disposable incomes toward 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia. Whether a combination Little Mermaid re-release and Flubber push will split the kiddie vote remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: Anastasia has to be the most berserk idea for an animated musical ever to make it to the screen.

When The Little Mermaid came out eight years ago, Disney seemed to have forgotten about making the sumptuous, dreamy, full-text fairy tales it had become famous for in the ’30s and ’40s. Intermittent, sloppy efforts like Sleeping Beauty demonstrated that the studio wasn’t interested in investing too much energy in creating sterling kid stuff, an attitude that inexplicably persists—witness the slipshod animation and aggressive, promiscuous marketing of such recent cartoon efforts as Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Hercules. But after having been dazzled by the witty scores and vivid animation of Beauty and the Beast and the less successful but more complicated Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s easy to forget that it was Hans Christian Andersen’s fraught puberty parable that started it all.

Headstrong Ariel, the youngest of King Triton’s daughters, was the first of a new wave of bold, restless Disney heroines. She is first glimpsed ditching a bogus recital for a frolic near the water’s surface, where she catches glimpses of the upper world that seems magical from her wet vantage point. She keeps a cache of the dry world’s material treasures—salvaged from sunken ships; no old boots or empty wine bottles for the princess—and even sings that she appears to be “the girl who has everything.”

But her longing is for the sunny, elusive charms of a land existence, not for the gilded tchotchkes of her secret cave. Ariel’s awaking is as spiritual as it is sexual—a copy of La Tour’s contemplative Magdalene happens to reside among her collection, neatly metaphorizing the feisty redhead’s balancing point.

The dry life represents autonomy and sturdiness; her water world, with its lack of solid landings and definition, is overtly feminized and infantile, even prenatal. She doesn’t want to merely feel the sun all day, but to walk underneath it—her dream to “stand up” has figurative as well as literal meaning.

But it isn’t the desire for autonomy that causes Ariel to lose her values and grow selfish, putting her family and friends at risk; it’s love. Infatuated with a young prince as independent-minded as she, the mermaid agrees to a bargain: She allows the octopuslike sea-witch, Ursula, to take her pretty voice—one definition of self-expression—in exchange for legs and, presumably, lungs. She is given three days to work old-fashioned feminine wiles on Prince Eric, without benefit of language; if he isn’t sufficiently smitten (enough to kiss her), Ursula will claim Ariel’s soul for her hideous garden of tormented bargain-hunters.

Ariel’s deal smacks unpleasantly of enforced social engineering—The Toy Princess and other authored fairy tales satirize the kind of society that prefers its princesses sweet and silent, as, it seems, does Eric. But The Little Mermaid is distractingly charming and festive (and, unlike the manufactured mishmash of Hercules, Disney didn’t make it up). The film’s excellent score is and was overlooked, except for the ensemble blowout “Under the Sea,” which is rather overrated. (Beauty’s “Be Our Guest,” ravaged by Broadway and ice shows, is still better.) Ursula’s Kurt Weill-style march is very fast and cruel, and the landlocked chef’s ode to the charms of seafood, sung Frenchily while chasing down Ariel’s crab friend Sebastian, tips a toque blanche to Bugs Bunny’s adversarial gastronomes while popping out rhymes and takes that are explosively funny.

Kids who saw The Little Mermaid upon its first release surely made repeat trips to the theater and have whiled away many open-mouthed hours since in front of the video. The film’s re-release comes as no revelation except to the nonparents and interested grown-ups who missed it in 1989. It retains its freshness like a true classic, and some of its smarter, savvier, and more audience-trusting touches show up Pocahontas and Hercules for the exploitative trash they are.

The Alan Menken-Howard Ashman score is giddily wonderful all over again, and there’s conviction in every line of every character—from the tiniest seahorse to a pair of evil, one-eyed eels. Mermaid got flack for being too sexy a fable, but that’s part of a fable’s function, and the movie is kid-friendly without prevaricating about Ariel’s frankly coltish body (quite nude during her transformation). The sharp-tongued, free-thinking prince is perhaps the only animated Disney hero who isn’t just a 2-D Ken doll on which the heroine can drape her maturation.

The Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little isn’t as bad as it looks, but it’s bad in unexpected ways. Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, a video-store clerk from Des Moines who takes an impulsive trip to London to surprise his yuppie brother (Peter Gallagher). While the brother entertains some German business-world bigwigs, Wallace is sent off to experience “Theatre of Life,” in which paying participants are thrown into dramatic, scripted situations that play out on the streets of London. But Wallace picks up the wrong pay phone, responding instead to a hitman’s orders and ending up at the center of a complicated and unlikely spy caper. It’s like The Game with tap shoes on.

The fun with similar spy plots lies in their plausibility—all those elliptical messages left at public places make for deliciously likely daydreams. But the Theatre of Life is unreasonably impossible; the logistics, not to mention the ethics, make the project untenable, and director Jon Amiel lingers befuddlingly over introducing us to the notion, setting up an ugly and jarring murder later.

Although the idea of Murray extravagantly misunderstanding the social transactions of polite English people is rich with opportunity, the film almost immediately bungs him into a soggy and confusing plot—two plots, in fact—involving a Profumo affair-type compromised call girl (played, in a queasy casting move, by Joanne Whalley, pallidly reprising her role in Scandal) and a bomb planted at an Anglo-Russian brotherhood summit by…some guys. Wallace should be swept into snazzy spy action the minute he hits the pavement, but after being mugged (a funny scene that hits all the right notes—his fearlessness flusters everybody) he stumbles around a poorly lit interior while the girl talks about getting back her letters.

Since we are not familiarized with the other characters, their genuine, high-stakes fears and motivations can’t play off Wallace’s cavalier carelessness. The best parts of The Man Who Knew Too Little are the accidental braveries Wallace indulges in, imagining that, since it’s all in the script, he’s never in too much danger even while edging around the outside of a building, waving borrowed guns, or engaging in a police chase (in a traffic circle; after it’s over, he pants, “Next time, I wanna go around the other way”). Murray can be really funny when he isn’t trying hard—he invites complicity with his smart, lazy guy’s skepticism, without even being snide or cruel, and he falls for the Hollywood pretties paired with him by casting directors with a game disbelief.

Unusually for a movie like this, the climax is the only thing the filmmakers get right. Forced into being a Russian folk dancer for the big ambassador showdown, Murray cavorts on the dance floor, unwittingly juggles the bomb, and generally makes merry, nerve-racking havoc of the event. His every remark builds another layer of awe in the trembling bad guys—”Why don’t you guys stick around?” he says, waving the bomb congenially. “I wanna talk to you afterward.” The last third is so good that the whole thing passes for relatively satisfying; even the showy turn built in for Murray over the closing credits can’t dispel the film’s lingering good nature and sense of rowdy fun.CP