We went to the video store this week, and now it finally feels like summer!
The great thing about doing my ongoing Disney movie review series is that there are a lot of Disney movies on Netflix. It’s kind of absurd how many there are. What Disney does not have available on Netflix are its big name films. You know the ones. I’m sure it’s a business decision that revolves around Disney’s obsession with creating false scarcity so that their big properties remain in high demand and they can sell new versions of the DVDs every five years. It’s what I would do if I were a giant multinational entertainment corporation bent on
world domination bringing family fun to the masses.
The problem with this model is that Netflix’s library is full up of second- and third-tier films. Disney’s A-list movies require a physical copy to watch, and my library, while impressive, has holes in it (Rachael and I tend towards collecting Pixar and Studio Ghibli movies over Disney animated classics). Normally this isn’t a big deal, because we own all the Disney movies that we ever get an itch to watch, but with this series, I’ve expected for a couple months now that I was going to need to do some rentals to get into the really meaty bits of the Disney oeuvre.
So we finally got to the video store, and I rented The Little Mermaid (much to my chagrin, all Disney animated movies are permanently shelved as new releases now because they’re apparently the most commonly stolen discs in the store, and it gets expensive replacing copies of movies that are currently out of print).
This is the big one. There are tons of well regarded movies in Disney’s history, but I don’t think any of them quite stack up to what The Little Mermaid represents for the company. This was the film that ushered in Disney’s golden age. In terms of sheer critical approval over the years, Disney’s animation studio never had a higher concentration of feature length hits than in the half decade that followed The Little Mermaid.
Of course, financial success for Disney’s not terribly interesting in comparison to how they adapted The Little Mermaid. The original fairy tale, written by Hans Christian Andersen, details the story of an unnamed mermaid, the youngest of six daughters of the sea king. When a mermaid turns fifteen, she’s permitted to visit the surface and observe it, and the little mermaid spends several years before her fifteenth birthday hearing stories from her older sisters. When it comes to be the little mermaid’s turn, she goes to the surface and espies a ship with a handsome prince on it with whom she instantly falls in love. A storm comes up, wrecking the ship, and the little mermaid saves the prince from drowning, but he never sees her, so he remains unaware of her role in his rescue. The little mermaid pines over the prince and decides to make a deal with the sea witch, who gives her a potion that will grant her legs at the cost of her tongue, although her legs will be in constant agony like she’s stepping on sharp knives. The mermaid drinks the potion and goes to the surface where, now mute, she meets the prince and befriends him. The prince’s father orders him to marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom, but the prince confesses to the mermaid that he doesn’t love the princess and won’t marry her, because he’s actually in love with a girl from the temple where he awoke after the storm that nearly killed him. It turns out the girl at the temple was in fact the princess, and the prince then happily marries her, leaving the mermaid brokenhearted, which kills her. Unlike humans, mermaids don’t have immortal souls, so she turns into sea foam when she dies and washes away. There’s an extra coda that gives the mermaid a pseudo-happy ending as instead of disappearing, she’s transformed into a “daughter of air” who can get into heaven after a period of trial where she either has to do lots of good deeds or she has to rely on the good deeds of children to shorten her sentence.
There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s really different from the movie (I wonder if we should keep a counter of all the times Disney takes a tragic story and gives it a happy ending). To start, we have a shift in the dynamic between humans and merfolk where in the original story, it’s a rite of passage for children coming into adulthood to visit the surface and satisfy their curiosity about it instead of something absolutely forbidden because humanity is dangerous. Though it doesn’t change the core trait of the little mermaid as someone who’s irrepressibly curious, in the Disney version we have the added dimension of teenage rebellion. This change isn’t necessarily a bad one, because it still plays into the coming of age story, but it does do some things to the story that shift the focus away from Ariel’s journey to grow up.
With Triton banning contact with the surface world, Ariel has no way to legitimately explore something that she’s fascinated with, and so her encounter with Eric ends up being something clandestine that she needs to keep secret. When Triton eventually finds out, Ariel’s so desperate to try to connect with Eric that she goes to Ursula seeking a solution and ends up getting used as a pawn in Ursula’s plot to steal Triton’s power. The climax of the story ends up being about Ursula’s power play rather than Ariel’s attempts to be with Eric, and it hinges on the fact that Ariel has to act covertly to explore the surface against Triton’s wishes (conversely, if Ariel hadn’t been banned from exploring the surface, Triton could have given her an opportunity himself; we see that he has the power to turn Ariel human himself, so Ursula would have been a superfluous character and the story would have had to center more on the romance).
But let all that pass for the moment, and we’ll accept that conflict is necessary for a story to be interesting, and in order to have a happy ending that doesn’t require Ursula’s magic, Triton needs his own magic, and he needs to be unwilling to use it until the end. Keeping Ursula as the antagonist does further enhance the coming of age themes by providing examples of how Ariel’s transition is costly and painful. The original story has the sea witch cut out the mermaid’s tongue as payment, but that’s too gruesome for Disney so we’ll settle for a magical method of stealing Ariel’s voice. This is a really interesting aspect of both versions of the story, because Ariel’s trying to buy her way into adulthood here, and the cost of such a transition is her primary mode of expression (the Disney version does a fantastic job of conveying how important Ariel’s voice is to her, with all of her major development through the first half of the film being related to her singing). It’s a tragic thing to pay, because it suggests on a more symbolic level that women like Ariel have to give up self expression in order to become independent, almost like it’s too dangerous for them to be expressing opinions without the protection of a father or husband (note that Ariel’s voice returns once the period of courtship between her and Eric ends). It goes without saying that this message is highly problematic, and one of the more irritating parts of the narrative.
Of course, for all the problems that come with Ariel not having her voice, her possession of a beautiful voice creates further complications. From what we see of life in Triton’s kingdom, his daughters are valuable as objects of entertainment. The introductory scene where Triton attends a concert featuring his daughters’ performance seems to be something that’s done regularly, and this particular event is supposed to be Ariel’s initiation into that function. Besides the role that’s expected of Ariel at home, we also have the way more problematic portrayal of her relationship with Eric, who falls in love with her because of her voice. Even after they meet for real, Eric continues to be distracted by the idea of his dream girl with the lovely voice; much to Ariel’s chagrin, Eric is convinced that she can’t possibly be his savior because she’s mute. While Ariel’s voice is a central part of her identity, it becomes fetishized as the only part of her identity that matters to the men in her life.
I could go on for a bit about the problems with Ariel’s relationships with Triton and Eric (while I get her rapid leap to “I love him, Daddy!” when she’s never so much as spoken to Eric, the entire arc of their courtship is really rushed and shallow; I mean, it never even occurs to Eric to see if Ariel can write!), but there are other things I want to cover before this post gets too long.
On an aesthetic front, this movie’s just so freakishly beautiful. It was the last animated film that Disney did that was animated entirely using traditional analog methods (even though the CG used to create several of the moving ships in various scenes is obvious now, they still stand out because the models were produced as wireframes that were transferred to cels and traditionally colored). Seriously, this is the first Disney movie I’ve watched for this series so far that has left me with a desire to watch it again immediately, just because I want to take in all the detail on the screen. If I have one complaint about the look, it’s that literally everyone besides Ariel and Eric look deranged anytime they’re illustrated with irises around their pupils. Half of Triton’s scenes make him look like a crazy old man, particularly when he’s supposed to be happy.
The music’s as good and memorable as everyone thinks, and two days after watching it, I still have more or less the whole soundtrack stuck on loop in my head as an ear worm. Howard Ashman’s lyrics are incredibly memorable, and thinking on them in comparison to the lyrics from other Disney films where Alan Menken had to work with a different lyricist after his death makes me sad.
Overall, there are a lot of good reasons The Little Mermaid is still so memorable. It’s not a perfect film (what movie is?), but it does just so much right. It’s really easy to see why this one is considered one of Disney’s best works.