Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Little Mermaid

Who hasn’t heard of this movie?  It’s one of Disney’s classics, back from when they were making really awesome animated features during what many call the Disney Renaissance.  I’ve loved this movie since it came out in 1989, and my sister did, too.  We had it on VHS (yes the one with the… inappropriate subliminal castle on the case), and played it so much we both memorized it.  Then we’d act it out, arguing over who got to be Ariel and who had to be everyone else, and singing in “French” when it came time for Chef Louis’s torture of Sebastian.  Ah, such fond memories…

With all of the obsessive fandom – as obsessive as I could get at age 11 with no money anyway – it was only a matter of time before I read the original story.  And… it’s quite different.  Sure there are some elements the same, but it’s got quite a different moral and a depressing ending.  And, of course, Disney had to water that down some (no pun intended.  Or was it?)

The original fairy tale was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1839, apparently originally as a ballet, and published by C.A. Reitzel the following year in a fairy tale compilation book.  Some literary scholars or whatever speculate over the changing of the titular character from a mermaid to a human to a whatever she is at the end of the story as a reflection of Andersen’s constantly changing identity.  Whether this is a gender swapped self reflection or not, I don’t know and don’t really care; it’s a pretty good story even if the morals are a bit outdated.

We join our unnamed heroine six years before her fifteenth birthday, at which time she will be allowed to go up to the surface and see all the wonders of the world above the water.  She and her older five sisters are doted on by a grandmother who prides herself in being the matriarch of the royal family.  Very proper, very Victorian.  For each year leading up to her big one-five, her sisters get their turn and come back with tales of all they have seen, making their little sister jealous and long for going up.  When she does finally get to go up, she sees the Prince and falls in love, saves him from drowning, and everything.  She obsesses, and visits the Sea Witch to make her a human, has to get him to fall in love with her, etc.

The little mermaid’s main motivation in wanting to be human is not only love – it’s also an insatiable curiosity and a desire for an immortal soul that only marrying a human can grant her.  You see, there is no merperson heaven.  When merpeople die, they become sea foam.  There’s something jolly for you to think about next time you go to the beach: that white stuff that floats on the waves that you’re playing in is dead mermaids.  This soul thing she hears about from her prim grandma is worth more to her than anything, and she is willing to endure quite a bit of pain to get it.  To become human, not only does she have her tongue cut out, but the transformation itself feels like a sword slicing through her fins.  As a human, every step she takes as a human feels like she’s walking on knife tips to the point of making her feet bleed.  In the end, our little mermaid has to make a very difficult decision, knowing the consequences of both choices are a horrible fate.

The sea-witch is a plot device, and little more – merely a way for the mermaid to become human and a chance for an almost happy ending.  I can’t say if she’s evil.  She seems a bit unpleasant but we don’t know much about her to make the call.  The Sea King is also an ancillary character, barely even mentioned in comparison to Grandma and the sisters, each of whom get at least half a page to tell what they did in the human world and why for them the novelty of going up there wears off after about a month.

The prince is who makes me the maddest in this story.  He’s, to put it mildly, an idiot.  And he apparently enjoys emotionally torturing the former mermaid.  See, he had been taken in by a local convent when one of the girls there found him washed on the shore.  He believes that she saved him, and gives absolutely no thought to how the heck he got to the shore from the middle of the sea.  He forgot to ask this convent girl her name though, so he doesn’t know who she is.  There are multiple times throughout the story where he outright tells the mermaid that he’d probably fall in love with her if it wasn’t for his determination to make the girl who “saved him” his bride.  He’s too stupid to realize that far better than any dream girl is one of flesh and blood.  One who’s warm and caring, and right before his friggin’ eyes!
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Harbor
This tale is so much a part of our culture, that even before Disney got a hold of it, little girls everywhere were fantasizing about being a mermaid who finds true love with a prince.  The tale has been adapted many times, and shows up in many other art forms, including painting and sculpture.  Even Splash, the live action movie also released by Disney (and incidentally, one of the contributing factors to the animated feature's production delay) is another sort of twist on this classic fairy tale.  This is one of those stories that has been in our bedtime story repertoire almost since it was written.

Development for the animated Disney film actually started waaaaaay back in the 1930’s as part of a collection of animated shorts based on Has Christian Anderson’s tales (a la the Uncle Remus Tales as presented in Song of the South, but possibly without the awkward racial stuff).  The project was delayed for various reasons, and eventually shelved.  Later, Jeffery Katzenburg picked up the tale and developed it, then found the first adaptation while their animation department was moving into a different out-of-the-way building, when they noticed that a lot of the changes were similar.  So, the new animation studio at Disney got The Little Mermaid greenlit as its second project (the first being Oliver and Company.)

The biggest change from the source material is the obvious one: Grandma Victorian Old Lady is replaced by King Triton, single father of six girls.  At least I assume he’s a single father since we never see nor hear anything about their mother.  Instead of a grandmother instilling the value of superficial beauty and vanity our heroine has an overprotective and authoritarian father.  And a crab.  And a fish that looks nothing like a flounder.  And a seagull.  You ever notice how Disney heroines have lots of animal friends and not so many human (or I suppose in this movie, merperson) ones?
Family friendly cover...
Anyway, King Triton hates humans because they eat fish.  And the merpeople eat… what?  Shrimp if Ursula is to be believed, but then do the shrimp demonize the merpeople?  I kinda hate this sort of message: a predator is evil for eating its prey.  I guess the merpeople are all just vegetarians or something, like apparently every other living thing in the sea.  Actually, his overreaction to Ariel going to the surface and running the risk of being “snared by some fisheater’s hook” has always seemed odd to me – do humans eat merpeople in this universe?  Has there been some sort of dark incident in the past that makes his fear founded?  Is that, perhaps, how Mrs. Triton died?  If there is no precedent for merpeople being killed by humans, then why does Triton forbid his people from going to the surface?  And why does he not protect his people from the enemies in the sea that probably do eat merperson every now and then?

The little mermaid, named Ariel in the movie, has the same curiosity as her original but is more of a typical rebellious teenager, as teens are nowadays.  Her motivation is simplified from a desire for both the prince and the soul marrying him could bring her, to just love at first sight.  She obsesses about the world which her father tells her is evil, and questions why he thinks so.  She goes to the surface even though it’s strictly forbidden, and allows herself to be convinced to go to Ursula, the sea which, for help even though she knows Ursula means trouble.   In fact, she needs at least a little bit of convincing for everything that she does in regard to becoming human: Who needs a voice?  Getting him to kiss you in three days will be easy-peezy!    And, since it’s Disney, she experiences none of the physical pain that the original mermaid did.

Ursula is my all-time favorite Disney villain.  Her role in the story is upgraded from plot device to catalyst for the events that land Ariel on… land.  Her motivation for helping Ariel while making it nearly impossible for the mermaid to get what she wants is a rather simple revenge plot.  King Trition kicked her out of the mer-kingdom – what for we never find out – and she not only wants back in, but she wants total mer-world domination.  Way to think big, octo-lady.  The three-day ticking clock that Ursula offers was a device of the Disney writers as well, to give a sort of suspense.  This actually annoys me, though, this “find true love in a matter of days” idea that seems to be so prevalent in movies nowadays.  Love at first sight is romantic and all, but what happens next?

"Let's eat before this crab wanders off my plate."
The Prince, given the name Eric, is thankfully smarter, and has an advisor that is both comic relief and a good advice giver named Grimsby.  He is at first determined to find and marry the girl that saved him, and indeed this time it really is the mermaid he’s looking for.  But, with Grim’s help, he does realize that this mute girl that he’s falling for might be better for him than wasting his life away chasing a dream.

All of the added characters, with only the exception of Scuttle, exist basically for comic relief and have next to no impact on the story.  Sebastian has High School Musical syndrome: wherever he is, things burst into song without warning or rehearsal if he has a message to tell.  Maybe that almost makes things happen but not anything that really wouldn’t have happened left alone, and he seems to exist only to up the musical number count in the movie.  Flounder… I really don’t know why Flounder is even in here, to be honest.  He adds nothing , makes nothing happen, and doesn’t even add too much comic relief.  Scuttle, Ariel’s overworld informant, fuels her curiosity and has the plot-useful tasks of discovering Ursula in disguise and essentially giving Ariel her voice back (something that never happened in the story).

The message of this story is… you know I’m not even sure there is really a message.  Ariel eventually gets what she wants with little consequence.  Her little adventure has even had the happy side effect of patching up human-merperson relations, since there’s a whole lot of them at the wedding.  Instead of giving up everything for intrinsic rewards of love and a soul, the lesson is disobey your parents, run away from home, date that fellow that your know your parents don’t like, and in the end your dad forgives you and gives you everything you want anyway and rearranges his whole prejudice against an entire race of beings.  Ariel’s the perfect role model for young, impressionable little girls.

I gotta admit, it’s hard watching this movie with an analytical lens after knowing all of the songs, lines, movements, bubbles, etc for the past 20 years.  Heck, I still call a fork with one bent prong a dinglehopper.  If only for nostalgic purposes, I still love this movie, even if it has its shortcomings.  The music is enjoyable and, even though the plot and characters are modernized, it makes for a more well-flushed story.  This is a movie that I continue to enjoy, even if it only basally loyal to its source material, with a much lighter tone and a happier ending.

Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the most beautiful cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass.

My translation is from a book I have that's simply called "Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen" published by Weatherbane Books, and does not credit a translator.