Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Guest Post: Disney's The Little Mermaid by Matthew

Disneyʼs The Little Mermaid

or “Why Sometimes, Disney Should Just Leave Well Enough Alone”

After writing a whole review about how itʼs okay for Disney to make changes to stories like Beauty and the Beast because theyʼre part of the evolution of oral storytelling, Iʼm not about to lambast Disney for the work they did on Hans Christian Andersonʼs The Little Mermaid. I should probably mention, first of all, that though I dislike this movie, I donʼt have quite the same hatred for it that Cassie does. I still hate it, donʼt get me wrong . . . itʼs just that Iʼve already said my piece pretty thoroughly in my Books vs. Movies review on the subject, and to be honest, this movie does have a lot to offer, and I think it had a lot of potential. Squandered potential, but potential nonetheless.

The issue here is that The Little Mermaid, unlike Disneyʼs other faerie tale stories, is not based on an traditional faerie tale. Stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and so on have many, many variations to them, because theyʼre based in oral traditions, and the story changes a little bit from each telling. The Russian Cinderella story is very different from the French one. With The Little Mermaid, however, this is not the case. Hans Christian Anderson didnʼt collect the story--he wrote it. Itʼs an original story and, therefore, deserves the same respect that any book should have when itʼs being turned into a movie. That is, if youʼre going to make changes--which, of course, you almost have to with this story--do so for the betterment of the story, not to dumb things down for a “lesser” audience. On its own, Disneyʼs The Little Mermaid isnʼt a bad movie, by any means. As an adaptation of Andersonʼs story, however . . . well,
letʼs start from the beginning.

Now, in the opening credits of the movie, we do get to see one of the biggest things that this movie has going for it: the animation. You can really see how this was a turning point for Disney animation, because it is absolutely breathtaking. Everything truly does look as though itʼs underwater. It even looks amazing over twenty years later. Honestly, Iʼd be just as happy watching the images on the screen with the sound on mute . . . but weʼre not going to do that here, so on with the story.

Weʼre introduced to our underwater kingdom, where King Triton reigns, half-man and half-sea creature, with a retinue of sea creatures at his beck and call, including Sebastian, the uptight crab who will serve as Arielʼs comedic and completely ineffectual secondary guardian. (Also known as Animal Friend #1.) Sebastian is directing a huge musical concert for King Triton featuring his many mermaid daughter, who each introduce themselves in this scene, but as weʼll see them maybe twice more during the course of the movie, itʼs not terribly important. A tremendous build-up of music signals the introduction of the youngest and most beautiful daughter Ariel . . . who of course, isnʼt there.

Okay, this is a small, nitpicky point, but I have to address it. Sebastian is directing this little escapade, and anyone who has ever directed anything knows that once you get to performance, youʼve done all the rehearsing and critiquing you can do, and your main task is very simple . . . MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS THERE!!! How, exactly, did it escape Sebastianʼs notice that the star singer of the evening wasnʼt even there? You had one job, Sebastian! One job! And you blew it! I mean, okay, Ariel is irresponsible and flighty and all that but COME ON! (Itʼs also indicated that this isnʼt the first time something like this has happened, so in addition to failing as a director, the little crustacean doesnʼt even learn from past mistakes.) [Word. -- CG]

But, back to the story. Weʼre then introduced to our main protagonist, Ariel, the little mermaid herself. And itʼs pretty clear from the get-go that Disney was aiming to make her a pretty sharp contrast from the previous three princesses. With bright red hair and practically naked, Ariel was by far the sexiest princess Disney had created at that point, but the differences werenʼt merely physical. Ariel was clearly more outgoing, more rebellious, and more argumentative than Snow White, Cinderella, or Aurora. Itʼs like if that little bit of snarkiness and sarcasm we got from Cinderella on occasion was fully realized. Sheʼs also, to put it quite simply, a brat.

So, Ariel and her best friend, Flounder, who is a . . . flounder (Animal Friend #2, and also, what, did they just run out of creative names at this point?), are exploring this sunken ship. The friendship between them is a fairly typical case of one friend being aggressive and vaguely reckless, and the other having misgivings but going along with it anyway because of some sort of loyalty to the first friend. Despite feeling ill-at-ease, Flounder is basically bullied by Ariel into going on what is basically a scavenger mission. Ariel collects trinkets from the human world, hiding them away in secret because her father, King Triton, has a pretty big prejudice against the human world, and has forbade his kingdom--and his youngest daughter specifically--from having any contact with them.

This is a difference from the original story, but an interesting one. Unlike the original story where it was basically traditional for mermaids to visit the human world--playing off of the old siren legends--here, itʼs absolutely forbidden, and Triton is particularly passionate about it, to the point where you start to wonder what humans did to him. The question is never answered, but it does make Triton into a very interesting character.

But, back to the story. Arielʼs obsession with collecting human trinkets almost gets herself and Flounder killed by a hungry shark, but they manage to escape it, with the trinkets in hand, and swim to the surface to consult with a seagull named Scuttle (Animal Friend #3) who seems to have surpassing wisdom and knowledge of the humans, though heʼs voiced by Buddy Hackett, so we know that only goes so far. So after giving Ariel some hilariously incorrect information about what her trinkets are used for, Ariel suddenly remembers the concert that she was supposed to star in (honey, youʼre the freaking star performer, how do you just forget?) and hurries back home.

Triton and Sebastian both chew her out, and understandably so, and yet Ariel tries her darndest to make them out to be the bad guys here, because by golly, sheʼs sixteen years old and shouldnʼt be treated like a child! What this has to do with her being irresponsible and missing the concert, I donʼt know, but sheʼs sixteen and thatʼs what bratty sixteen year old girls do. She swims off in a huff, because thatʼs also what bratty sixteen year old girls do, and Triton sends Sebastian off to keep on eye on her.

The next scene is the famous “Part of Your World” song, which I will admit is a gorgeous piece of music, and does actually give Ariel some motivation other than a hot guy, at least at this point in the story. We see here that Arielʼs love of the human world isnʼt just a passing interest, but pretty much an outright obsession, with a hidden grotto filled with human trinkets from past scavenges. And this, again, is a point of interest in the story. Where does this obsession stem from, especially given how anti-human her father is? How did she come to start collecting these things? How does she even know about the human world?

So then, Ariel sees fireworks in the distant sky and swims up to investigate. It turns out that they are celebration fireworks for the birthday of Prince Eric, who is by far Disneyʼs most interesting prince to date. Snow Whiteʼs and Cinderellaʼs princesses didnʼt even have names aside from “Charming,” and Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty was about as bland as white bread. Eric, on the other hand, actually has something of a personality. Heʼs interesting, a very likable guy, and actually has something of a story arc in this movie. Itʼs a fairly typical “Iʼm looking for the perfect girl” story, only in this case, when he finally encounters Ariel, he doesnʼt immediately think “This is it!” And his story arc is more about not chasing a dream and seeing whatʼs right in front of him.

But Iʼm getting ahead of myself. At this point, Eric is just a nice guy with a dog and a winning personality. Ariel sees him, becomes hopelessly infatuated, and then all hell breaks loose. There a storm, the ship sinks, and itʼs worth noting that the reason Eric gets himself in trouble in the first place is because he went back to save his dog. Seriously, you gotta love him for that. But as per the original story, he almost drowns and Ariel saves him, with the help of her three animal friends. Eric wakes up long enough to hear her singing and to get a brief look at her face, but she heads back to the ocean before anyone else can see her.

And now, Ariel and Eric are both obsessed. Ariel swims around with her head in the clouds--a pretty neat trick, when you think about it--which makes Triton suspect that there may be a man in her life, but he figures itʼs a merman, and is overjoyed that his daughter might finally be seeing some sense. Eric, meanwhile, has sworn not to marry anyone but the girl with the beautiful voice who saved his life. And while Ericʼs bumbling advisor person tries to help him see sense, Sebastian is doing the same with Ariel, extolling the values of being a sea creature in, of course, “Under the Sea.”

But during Sebastianʼs elaborate--and apparently completely improvised--musical number, Flounder and Ariel have sneaked off to the grotto. Sebastian is called off to meet with King Triton regarding this mysterious male someone that Ariel is obsessed with, and Sebastian confesses that Ariel is in love with a human, which sends Triton into a mighty rage. He finds Ariel in her grotto, and in what can only described as a godly passion, destroys everything, including the statue of Eric that has only recently fallen inside. He regrets his anger, but too late to keep his daughter from collapsing into despair . . . and to keep her from going to Ursula the Sea Witch for a magical solution.

Ursula has been established as a character by this time. We know that Triton has done something to her and sheʼs out for revenge. (Yet ANOTHER interesting aspect of the story that will get no further explanation.) And she figures, correctly, that the best way to get revenge on Triton is through his favorite daughter. Exploiting her obsession is, as Ursula says at one point, “too easy.”

Once again, things go pretty much the same way as the original story, but the terms of the deal are slightly different. Ariel loses her voice, but not permanently. Ursula doesnʼt cut out her tongue, rather she takes her voice magically and locks it away. Also, Ariel has a time limit. She has three days and three days only to make Eric fall in love with her, but in terms of Disney movies, thatʼs quite a lot of time. (I mean, it took the other princes all of two seconds to fall in love with their ladies.) And if she fails to do so, she doesnʼt die, but turns back into a mermaid and belongs to Ursula. So, sheʼs basically selling her soul here, but sheʼs dumb enough to go along with it. Now, Ursula is about as up front with her about the risks as the book Sea Witch, the main difference being that this Ursula actually attempts to sabotage the deal . . . but more on that later. [Also, Ursula's version of being "up front" is more along the lines of manipulating Ariel into agreeing rather than trying to be an actual voice of reason. -- CG]

Ariel becomes a human, and Flounder and Sebastian help her to shore, where she attempts to learn how to stand and walk and so on. Not only does she not seem to feel any pain when she does so, but it really doesnʼt take her that long. Sooner or later, Ericʼs dog finds her, which leads to Eric finding her. He suspects that she might be the girl who saved him, but upon finding that she canʼt speak, decides it must not be . . . which is probably about the dumbest conclusion you could possibly come to. I mean, itʼs been a little bit of time. Maybe she lost her voice in the intervening days since your near drowning. Maybe she had an accident herself! I mean, dude, you were all set to marry her right there until you found out she couldnʼt talk. Cʼmon, what did you think, that you just happened to find someone who looks EXACTLY LIKE the girl who saved you? Sigh.

Okay, so the next section of the story can basically be summed up with “hilarity ensues.” Ariel, having listened to Buddy Hackett as a seagull, has absolutely no idea how to be a human, which leads to actually some of the funnier moments of the film. Also, Sebastian almost gets cooked by a crustacean-hating cook, which is one of Disneyʼs more hilarious moments in cinema history. And through a montage of scenes, we see Ariel and Eric getting to know each other and getting closer and closer as they do, and I will admit that itʼs nice to see Disney actually doing this for a change. Itʼs not a lot of time, to be sure, but they still show a building relationship rather than an instant one. And toward the end of it, we do see Eric finally make the decision to drop this obsession with a dream and take the perfectly nice, adorable girl that heʼs found and formed a close friendship with. Eric actually learns a good lesson here.

So basically, up to this point in the story, I have absolutely NO PROBLEM with this movie. I really donʼt. It looks good, the music is great. The main character is a brat and vaguely stupid, but still likable and engaging, and sheʼs sixteen, so we can forgive the negative character traits. The love interest is, likewise, interesting and likable and actually has a story arc. And the story itself is engaging and fun.

But hereʼs where it goes downhill for me. Ursula, upon realizing that Ariel is actually succeeding in making Eric fall in love with her--at least enough to get a kiss--decides itʼs time to step up her game. So, using Arielʼs mystical voice, she disguises herself as a human, and makes her way to Ericʼs castle. But it isnʼt just enough for her to “fool” him into thinking that sheʼs the girl who saved him. The voice actually hypnotizes him into believing that he must marry this girl as soon as humanly possible. Now, to give Disney some credit, this is actually closer to the old siren legends, with men being hypnotized by the voices of the sirens. What I do not like, however, is that they have not only demonized the Sea Witch at this point, but also the girl who the prince ended up marrying in the original story. This bugs me a little because one of the things I always wondered about the original story is how did the girl feel about all this? I mean, from all indications, she became friends with the mermaid. The mermaid was happy for them, she held her train and everything. How did it affect her when the mermaid, for all intents and purposes, committed suicide?

But, back to the story. And at this point, everything that might have been interesting about this movie--Tritonʼs story, Ericʼs story, Ursulaʼs story--theyʼre all sacrificed in favor of the “love conquers all” story. Ariel pretty much abandons all hope, not even stopping to question what the hell happened to Eric between last night and this morning, and goes away to have herself a little cry. But, because thatʼs what villains do, Ursula stupidly sings her evil plot to herself while preparing for the wedding in her room, and Scuttle overhears and flies off to tell Ariel. And Ariel, to her credit, does actually act. Itʼs the only point when she does, but she tries to stop the wedding and stop Ursula, and almost succeeds . . . but that blasted sunset comes just a little early, and Ursula drags her back down to the sea.

Triton, acting exactly as Ursula knew he would, sacrifices himself to save Arielʼs life. Which . . . okay, itʼs all very noble and itʼs the one place in this movie where Andersonʼs message of sacrifice exists [despite the fact that it's completely negated by the end of the movie -- CG], but . . . dude, youʼre king of the sea! Youʼve got a whole kingdom to think of here, and youʼre turning it over to this witch! I know you love your daughter and all, but this seems like a “needs of the many, needs of the few” type of deal to me. But I guess itʼs a fatherʼs love for his daughter, and what father wouldnʼt give up the whole sea to keep his daughter safe, so we can forgive it.

So, Arielʼs free and Ursula is now the new queen of the sea, and she decides to exercise her power by . . . growing really big and making a bunch of storms. Yeah, this is where a lot of Disney villains lose me. They gain their power, and then they donʼt do anything with it! But anyway, Eric comes to save the day, and unlike the previous princes, actually does so in a pretty badass way, eventually ramming Ursula through with a ship (most badass slaying of a bad guy EVER!) and as is usually the case with Disney films, everything goes completely back to normal, including King Triton [And, message of the importance of sacrifice negated. --CG].

So, what have we learned here? Very little. Has Ariel changed at all? No. Has she learned not to be so impulsive and stupid from the fact that she endangered the entire kingdom for the sake of a boy? No. Has she learned that her love for the human is unfeasible and unrealistic? No. Is she, at the very least, going to be grounded for the next three hundred years for her actions? No! In fact, Triton, this king who has such a deep prejudice against humans that it caused him to go all godlike and destroy a whole grotto of trinkets, decides to let Ariel have her way and become human so she can be with Eric. Gag me. I mean, I guess she sacrifices her family and home for the sake of love, but itʼs not like sheʼs that broken up about it. What exactly did she sacrifice, then? Where is Andersonʼs message in any of this?

But letʼs look at the checklist:

Exploration of the human characters?--Well . . . technically, yes, given that the human girl isnʼt really human at all in this version. I do have to give Disney props for Prince Eric, though. Heʼs not looked at quite as deeply as some of their later love interests, but he does actually get his own story arc, his own issues to overcome, and more character development than the protagonist. And heʼs just a thoroughly likable and enjoyable character, so weʼll give this a check.

No villainization of the side characters?--Yeah, seeing as how the Disney movie is the whole reason this category even exists, this one gets an anti-check. Ursula is pure evil, Ursula actually becomes the human girl in the story, making her pure evil. Even King Triton is villainized a fair bit in this story. I mean heʼs not a bad guy, but heʼs definitely an antagonist in the context of the story. Heʼs the overbearing father to a sixteen-year-old girl, which pretty much automatically spells villain. So yeah. -1 point for this one. [Ooof. Negative points, folks. A first for the blog. -- CG]

Message at the end? Well, itʼs not drowning of a broken heart, but itʼs not Anderson either. Disney seems to have the same attitude toward this story that a lot of people have toward Romeo and Juliet . . . that just because thereʼs love or romance in it, that makes it a love story. But The Little Mermaid, at itʼs core, is a story about sacrifice, and what did Ariel sacrifice? Nothing. I mean, I guess you could argue that she sacrificed her life in the sea, but she was pretty much ready to get rid of that from the get-go. This isnʼt really supposed to be a “happily ever after” type of story. And I realize that Disneyʼs not going to have their main protagonist die or not get what she wants. Believe me, I understand. But thatʼs the point where you really have to ask . . . if youʼre going to adapt a story for kids . . . why this one?

Iʼm not going to go so far as to say itʼs a bad movie. I can see why people enjoy it. But . . . itʼs not Andersonʼs The Little Mermaid, plain and simple. And honestly, it doesnʼt even replace Andersonʼs message with one of any substance. Maybe if they had taken some of the interesting subplots from earlier in the film and given them a bit more prominence in the end, this could have been a good film with a happy ending and a strong message, even if it wasnʼt Andersonʼs message. As it was, however, they chose the standard, stale “love conquers all” message, without examining the consequences.

Maybe thatʼs enough for you, and if so, fine. But I need a little more from something claiming to be an adaptation of Andersonʼs story.


  1. Just to point out, there is a Little Mermaid 3 movie, that reveals that Triton and his family used to visit the surface (not interact with the humans, but go to the surface) a lot. But there was a ship wreck where Triton's wife died, and that's why he's forbidden interaction with the human world. I think that's why he lets Ariel stay in the human world in the end too, because she looks almost exactly like her mother. He realizes that she "loves" Eric and he has to let her go because he's reminded of him and his wife. The rest of the movie makes no sense in terms of continuity with the original film, so no need to watch it beyond the prologue, but there's my two cents to fill in some missing holes.

  2. I actually watched your Books vs. Movies review of "The Little Mermaid" after Cassie linked to your YouTube channel (I love your reviews, by the way; I hope that you'll have the time in the future to do more of them!), so I already kind of knew in advance what this review would be like. While I still like the movie (I try to think of it as coming from when Disney was still trying to figure out how to properly modernize fairy tales in preparation for Beauty and the Beast), I can see where you're coming from, especially about its message being weak in comparison to Andersen's. I think the fact that Andersen's tale reads like a deconstruction of many common fairy tale tropes is what trips up many adapters; they're so used to fairy tales following a traditional formula that they don't really know how to handle one that already subverted it for them.