The film begins on a foggy morning out on open sea. A ship then comes from the fog, filled with sailors singing stories of the legendary merfolk. ("Fathoms Below") Aboard that ship is a young prince, named Eric, his dog Max, and his advisor Grimsby. Grimsby denounces the merfolk as, "nautical nonsense", but one sailor insists them to be real. While distracted by Grimsby, a fish the sailor was holding slips from him and falls into the ocean.
The fish breathes a sigh of relief before swimming away from the ship. The opening credits play as the fish crosses the deep ocean, until at last, we see merfolk. The merfolk then make their way through the ocean towards a shining underwater castle. The castle is the domain of King Triton, and is where he was holding a concert in his name, performed by his seven daughters and the crab court composer, Sebastian. ("Daughters of King Triton")
The concert goes as planned until it is discovered that Triton's youngest daughter, Princess Ariel, is not there, much to his chagrin. In truth, Ariel was out excavating a ship graveyard with her best friend, Flounder the Fish. Inside one wreck, she finds a pipe and a fork, which fascinates her curiosity, all the while unaware of a shark watching her and Flounder from outside. The shark bursts into the room Ariel and Flounder are in and gives chase to them, all across the graveyard, until the two manage to get the shark ensnared in an anchor ring. They then make their way to the surface, where their friend, a seagull named Scuttle, lives. Ariel asks Scuttle to tell her what the items she collected are. He describes the fork as a dinglehopper, an item humans use to style hair; and the pipe as a snarfblat, an object for making music.
Upon hearing the word, "music", Ariel is quickly reminded of the concert she missed and makes haste back home. However, Ariel fails to realize she is being watched by two suspicious eels by the names, Flotsam and Jetsam. The two were spies under the employ of Ursula The Sea Witch a former member of King Triton's court before being banished. Ursula hates Triton with a passion for his atrocities towards her, and constantly schemes of ways to exact revenge. The moment Ariel caught her eye, Ursula commands her cronies to watch her, hoping to use her to get to the King.
The film then moves to the royal palace, where Triton and Sebastian are scorning Ariel for missing the concert. But Flounder moves in to defend her, accidentally letting slip the encounter with Scuttle, which quickly angers Triton. The law of his kingdom forbids going to the surface world, for fears of merfolk being caught by humans. But Ariel believes humans not to be all that bad, which angers Triton to the point of sending Ariel away crying, with Flounder following after.
When they've left, Triton asks Sebastian if he was too hard on Ariel, to which Sebastian replies, "definitely not". Sebastian suggests that Ariel needs constant supervision, which gives Triton the idea to send Sebastian to keep an eye on her. Sebastian complies with the King's demands but feels dissatisfied with the idea of, "tagging along some headstrong teenager." However, Sebastian's thoughts are interrupted when he sees Ariel and Flounder swimming off elsewhere, prompting him to follow her. He is led to a hidden grotto where he discovers a variety of human objects gathered together.
Ariel, still hurt by her father's words, sings of her collection of human objects, and how she desires to visit the world of humans, despite what her father had to say of them. ("Part of Your World") The mood is quickly broken by Sebastian crashing in, and threatening to reveal Ariel's grotto to the king. Ariel attempts to reason with him, but before anything could be resolved in the conflict, a large object is seen floating overhead blocking moonlight from the grotto roof. Ariel, being ever curious, swims to the surface to figure out what this massive object was. The object proves to be a human ship, shooting fireworks into the night sky. Ariel swims towards the vessel, in spite of Sebastian's protests, and climbs aboard to behold dancing seamen. Ariel learns that the humans aboard are celebrating the birthday of their prince; one creature that catches her eye is Max, the sheepdog who takes a liking to Ariel. But Ariel is left enamored when she sees the dog's master, Prince Eric.
Eric is given a large statue of himself as a birthday present, by Grimsby, who sourly proclaims that he hoped it would be a wedding present. Eric protests that he just hadn't found the right girl yet, but insists that when he does it will hit him, like lightning. It was then, that the sounds of thunder echoed in the distance, followed by an ever growing gust of wind.
Without warning, a hurricane blows in, sweeping up both ship and crew violently in a volley of wind and water. Ariel is thrown off the vessel but manages to catch sight of the ship being struck by lightning setting the ship on fire. When the ship crashes into a gaggle of rocks, the crew is sent overboard, along with the statue of Eric. Though they all made it to the lifeboats, Eric discovers that Max is still on the burning vessel, and goes off to rescue him. While Eric manages to get Max to safety, he is unable to save himself when he gets blown away by a massive explosion and lands into the ocean below underwater. While she sees this and rushes towards his aid, Ariel rescues Eric and takes him back to shore.
Once at the shore, Ariel sings of her desire to join Eric's world ("Part of Your World (Reprise)"), before fleeing at the sounds of Grimsby and Max approaching. While Ariel sings, Eric only manages to catch a glimpse of her before she leaves; but as Grimsby raises him up, Eric vividly remembers a girl who had saved him, and is determined to find her. As Ariel watches them from a nearby rock, Sebastian tells her that the situation must be kept secret from her father, but Ariel doesn't pay attention. With vigor and determination; Ariel makes a bold proclamation that she will be a part of Eric's world.
What Ariel doesn't realize however, is that she's being watched by Ursula's eels. Ursula is gleeful of the situation, and eerily looks to a gaggle of polyps in her lair; all of them, former dreamers who came under her power. She then mutters about Ariel becoming a charming addition to the group. The scene ends there.
A few days later, Ariel spends her time day dreaming of Eric, which piques the curiosity of her father, who believes Ariel to be in love with another merman. All the while, Sebastian is a nervous wreck trying to keep the secret from being found out. Ariel then decides that she wants to visit Eric, but Sebastian is having none of that. He attempts to bring her down to earth with a musical number about how the sea is better than the land. ("Under the Sea")
Sebastian manages to bring a bunch of fish together to sing along, but as this party is happening, Flounder shows up and manages to slip Ariel away unnoticed. The song ends with Ariel nowhere to be seen, and Sebastian left alone to grumble about her. Suddenly, the royal herald calls for Sebastian to report to the King about Ariel. Sebastian, afraid that Triton figures out what has happened, accidentally slips the truth during the interrogation, and is forced to tell the King everything. Back at Ariel's grotto, Flounder reveals that he had saved the statue of Eric from the wreck, much to Ariel's delight. However, the pleasantries are interrupted by Triton being led to the grotto by Sebastian. After a short argument, Ariel confronts Triton and tells him that she rescued Eric from drowning to death. In his anger, Triton confronts Ariel and destroys all of her secret grotto treasures and reduces them to a junk pile, leaving Ariel in tears. After Triton leaves, Ariel begins weeping and tells Sebastian and Flounder to leave her alone to grieve, not allowing them to comfort her.
However, unbeknownst to her, Flotsam and Jetsam enter the grotto and sweet talk Ariel into going to Ursula to achieve her dreams of being with Eric. As they leave, Sebastian and Flounder follow after Ariel all the way to Ursula's lair. Ursula comforts Ariel and explains that she can grant Ariel's wish to be human for three days, but she must give Eric the kiss of true love before the sunset on the third day, or she belongs to Ursula. ("Poor Unfortunate Souls") In exchange for legs though, she must give away her voice. Ariel agrees to these terms and signs the contract, trapping her voice in a necklace Ursula wore, and giving her human legs.
Once Ariel has been transformed into a human, Sebastian and Flounder take her to the surface, where the group meet up with Scuttle on a beach near Eric's castle. Sebastian threatens to tell King Triton about the deal between Ariel made with Ursula, but Ariel manages to convince him to help the group. Scuttle then tells Ariel about how to blend in with humans, and the first step was to dress like them. Scuttle takes a portion of a sail for Ariel to wear, just as Prince Eric arrives at their location. Though Eric doesn't know she's the girl who saved his life, he is willing to bring her to his castle to be taken care of, with Sebastian tagging along in a pocket in Ariel's cloth.
Later, inside the palace, while Ariel is taking a bath, Sebastian is sent, through a series of misfortunate events, to the castle kitchen. It's there that Sebastian encounters a fish cooking obsessed chef that attempts to murder him. ("Les Poissons") As this conflict goes on in the kitchen, Ariel meets with Eric and Grimsby in the dining hall for dinner. There, Eric and Grimsby discuss giving Ariel a tour of the kingdom, to which she agrees to.
Later that night, Sebastian discusses plans to get Eric to kiss Ariel, though Ariel doesn't listen, being too enamored in the human world's splendors. But down in King Triton's palace, the situation is grim. King Triton has sent several search parties everywhere looking for Ariel and Sebastian but hasn't found a trace of both of them. He is left depressed; blaming himself for their disappearance.
The next morning, Ariel and Eric begin their tour of the kingdom, starting with the nearby town. Ariel is enamored by every single thing she sees, whether it is puppets, horses, or dancing. The day passes into evening when Eric takes Ariel on a lagoon cruise. Sebastian, seeing this as the perfect moment, decides to take matters into his own claws, and plays a song to excite the two into kissing. ("Kiss the Girl") However, the song is quickly interrupted by Flotsam and Jetsam overturning the boat, successively ruining the mood.
Ursula, frustrated with the progress Ariel's making, decides to take matters into her own tentacles, and transforms herself into a beautiful young maiden called Vanessa. She then uses Ariel's voice to hypnotize Eric just before he could announce his true feelings to her. And the next morning, Eric and Vanessa are announced to be wed by sunset, leaving poor Ariel heartbroken as the wedding ship departs from port, leaving her and her friends behind while Vanessa convincingly plays her role as a love-struck woman, clinging constantly to Eric's side, raising no suspicion. While Ariel witnesses the ship sailing off, she begins weeping over Eric's loss.
Little does anyone know, Scuttle happens to fly over the wedding ship when he hears Ariel's voice coming from the bride's dressing room. ("Vanessa's Song") He spies from a porthole, and once Vanessa takes a look at the dressing room's mirror, Ursula's reflection for shown. Scuttle flies off to inform Ariel and the group about Vanessa. The group then makes a plan, Ariel and Flounder go after the wedding ship on a barrel, Sebastian goes to tell King Triton of what's happening, while Scuttle goes off to stall the wedding.
Scuttle gathers sea creatures of all sorts to converse on the wedding ship as the wedding is just under way. There is little warning for Vanessa when the attack begins, and the ship is sent into disarray, giving Ariel the time she needed to get aboard. Moreover, Vanessa is utterly flustered, disoriented and sidelined from being able to do anything. Thanks to the help of Max, Scuttle manages to snap the necklace off Vanessa's neck, shattering it across the deck, returning Ariel's voice back to Ariel, and releasing Eric from the spell. Eric finds Ariel and admits she's the one who saved him, but Vanessa warns Eric to leave Ariel alone. But before the two could kiss, the sun sets and Ariel turns back into a mermaid. Ursula transforms herself from the Vanessa form back to her true form again, taking Ariel back with her under the sea.
It isn't long before Ursula grabs Ariel and runs into Triton and Sebastian, and a conflict occurs. Triton confronts Ursula and demands her to release Ariel, but no avail, and Ursula confronts Triton by saying to him that Ariel is her slave. After Triton hears Ariel apologizing to him, he attempts to destroy the contract she signed, binding her to Ursula, but finds that he's unable to do so because it's magically enhanced by being legal. So, to save his daughter Ariel, Triton signs the contract and becomes a polyp, thus losing his crown, trident, and kingdom to Ursula. Ursula steals the crown and trident and becomes queen of the sea, which angers Ariel to the point of attacking her when the sea witch almost destroys her. Meanwhile, Eric takes a rowboat from the wedding ship and speeds off towards the location where Ariel is. He goes underwater and attacks Ursula, who then commands Flotsam and Jetsam to go after him. The witch's eels drag him underwater. To save Eric, Flounder and Sebastian attack Flotsam and Jetsam.
In the midst of the chaos, Ursula attempts to use the trident to destroy Eric, but an angry and furious Ariel confronts and berates Ursula by pulling on her hair, causing her to miss Eric and kill both Flotsam and Jetsam. After Flotsam and Jetsam die and are killed, Ursula shortly mourns their loss. As Ariel hurries to join Eric, the enraged Ursula spouts black ink and becomes a giant. Ariel attempts to tell Eric to save himself, but he refuses to abandon her, just as Ursula's gigant form emerges, and leaving Eric and Ariel helpless to her power. But in the midst of her rampage, Ursula creates a whirlpool, raising shipwrecks from the ocean floor.
And it is with these shipwrecks that Eric is able to finish off Ursula by ramming its splintered bow into her. As a result just as Ursula prepares to destroy Ariel by using the trident, Eric saves Ariel and kills Ursula by ramming a splintered bowsprit towards the witch's evil aorta and abdomen. Ursula blows up into a scattered mass of organs while Eric falls unconscious on the shore. Arter Ursula dies from being impaled in the aorta with a bowsprit, her curse is removed from the merfolk in her garden, as well as King Triton, and peace is once again restored to the ocean. Triton regains his crown, trident, and kingdom after Ursula is murdered.
Back on the surface, Triton decides that he has to let Ariel be free to lead her own life and tells Sebastian that he is going to miss her. He then transforms her once more into a human - this time permanently. Ariel goes to Eric, they finally kiss, and the two are immediately wed shortly after. And at this ceremony after Ariel and Eric are married onboard the wedding ship, Ariel bids her friends and family, including her six older sisters, her father Triton, Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, goodbye to live her new life in Eric's world. ("Part of Your World (Finale)")
Voice Cast Edit
- Jodi Benson as Ariel and Vanessa
- Christopher Daniel Barnes
- Pat Carroll as Ursula
- Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian
- Jason Marin as Flounder
- Kenneth Mars as King Triton
- Buddy Hackett as Scuttle
- Ben Wright as Grimsby
- René Auberjonois as Chef Louis
- Paddi Edwards as Flotsam and Jetsam
- Edie McClurg as Carlotta
- Will Ryan as Seahorse and Herald the Seahorse
- Frank Welker as Max the sheepdog
- Charlie Adler as Voice
- Mark Hamill, Tim Curry and Hamilton Camp as Additional voices in the film's opening scene
Songs and Soundtrack Edit
The film contains 10 songs in total; including three reprises. With lyrics by Howard Ashman, and a score by Alan Menken.
- Fathoms Below by Ship's Chorus
- Daughters of Triton
- Part of Your World by Jodi Benson
- Part of Your World (Reprise) by Jodi Benson
- Under the Sea by Samuel E. Wright
- Poor Unfortunate Souls by Pat Carroll
- Les Poissons by René Auberjonois
- Kiss the Girl by Samuel E. Wright
- Poor Unfortunate Souls (Reprise) by Jodi Benson
- Part of Your World (Finale) by Chorus
A soundtrack was released for the film on October 13, 1989 and was met with great praise and accolades. The soundtrack would be rereleased in 2006 as well.