Revisiting Disney: The Little Mermaid

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It has been a long time since I sat down to write another installment of Revisiting Disney… but since Joe decided to get Disney Plus in order to watch the Mandalorian, I suddenly have the ability to watch all the old Disney movies that I haven’t seen in years. Because the Disney princesses are so iconic and such a major part of many people’s childhoods, it is interesting to me to go back to relive the music and the art and to see what sort of lessons kids (and adults) may or may not take away.

I previously skipped over The Little Mermaid to write about Beauty and the Beast. Although my heart lies in the Beast’s library, reading by the fireplace while the snow falls outside, there is a strong case to be made for the beauty and excitement of under the sea. The original story is more morbid than the film, however. Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” in 1837 as a moralizing tale about the little mermaid’s desire to obtain an immortal soul (which humans have and mermaids do not.) His tale concludes with the Little Mermaid dying and turning into an air spirit. As an air spirit, she can eventually earn a soul and go to the Kingdom of God if she does 300 years of good deeds. It’s a far cry from the girl falls in love with prince, girl loses prince, girl gets prince back story that was developed by Disney. Perhaps bittersweet philosophical ponderings on the existence of the human soul were not considered magical or exciting enough for kids in the late ‘80s. So if the lesson of the story is no longer about doing good deeds to get to Heaven, what might kids end up taking away from The Little Mermaid, now?

Copenhagen

The Little Mermaid does a couple things right that the previous Disney princess films did not get around to: Snow White and Cinderella both had relatively personality-less princes, for example, but Prince Eric is fleshed out a bit more. We first meet him as his ship sails onto screen through the sea mist and a sailor’s shanty starts playing. He is fun – joking around with the sailors and his dog; hardworking – enthusiastically jumping in to help the sailors work; and humble – a large statue of himself only embarrasses him, but he accepts the gift graciously, anyway. Ariel first sees Eric on the deck of the ship immediately before a massive storm causes the ship to wreck. Eric is additionally shown to be brave and quick-thinking in an emergency, saving other sailors during the wreck at the cost of being thrown under the waves himself. The only flaw in Prince Eric is that he’s apparently flawless, which is a rather high bar to set for boys, and makes him seem less like a character and more like a Hallmark-style dream boat who exists only to be a perfect romantic interest.

Ariel fulfills the trifecta of Disney princess traits: she is beautiful, has a beautiful voice, and makes friends with the local animals. Like Eric, Ariel is bold – she enjoys exploring the ocean with her friends and rescues the overboard prince by herself. Ariel is also curious – she is fascinated by human objects that she doesn’t understand and likes to collect them; mostly she wants to learn more and actively pursues this. In addition, she is described as “warm and caring” by Grimsby. Ariel does have flaws, though. She can be thoughtless regarding the people around her: blowing off her family to explore the ocean shows a disregard for all her sisters who worked hard at their parts in the concert, Sebastian who wrote and conducted it, as well as her father and everyone in the audience who was there to see her. And even if their overall friendship is a good and supportive one, Ariel occasionally lightly bullies Flounder into doing what she wants. It is nice to see a more nuanced character, although Ariel’s flaws are presented more as part of her fun-loving and high-spirited nature. Ariel is used to getting what she wants and chafes at any limitations set on her.

Although Ariel may be a teensy bit spoiled, her father is not exactly in the right, either. King Triton fails repeatedly to connect with his daughter, instead relying on spying and violently toxic tantrums to try and control Ariel. Understandably, this breaks Ariel’s trust in him and she turns away from this instead to someone who she thinks will understand her dreams and desires.

Perhaps if Triton had trusted Ariel enough to ask her what she really wanted, Ariel would not have found herself so easily manipulated by Ursula. Ursula is clearly very creepy, but she is also sassy, fabulous, and powerful. She claims to only use her magic to help people, but actually she is cruel, imprisoning people for failing to pay her impossible price. In some ways, it seems to be a condemnation of Ursula’s in-your-face brand of womanhood, in favor of Ariel’s naivete, which is probably why there are so many people who enjoy the Disney villains more than the princesses – they get to be a bit more.

BODY LANGUAGE

Although Ariel does not realize it, the audience knows that Ursula wants to use Ariel to get back at Triton for banishing her. Ariel finds Ursula intimidating, but agrees to exchange her prized voice for legs with the persuasion of Ursula:

“You’ll have your looks, your pretty face
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.”

The Little Mermaid is often criticized for seemingly telling young girls that looking sexy is all that matters and who you are inside should be tamped down, but this message comes from a character who is clearly untrustworthy, and therefore the message itself is untrustworthy to children watching. Still, it seems as though this is what Ariel must resort to in the absence of her voice. Prince Eric has stated that he would marry the girl who saved him, but Ariel is unable to communicate this to him. It’s not body language that causes him to fall for her though – rather her personality that shines through even when she cannot speak. Ariel’s misuse of a fork and a pipe causes the audience (or at least me) feel vicarious embarrassment, but it makes Eric laugh, and he continues to have fun with her and see her adventurous side as she experiences life on land – dancing and even jumping their horse carriage over a ravine.

finally getting to dance with her human legs

As an adult, I find it charming and inspiring that Eric was able to see Ariel for who she was, even though she was unable to tell him. As a child, I never understood why Prince Eric did start to lean in for that kiss aside from the fact that Ariel was pretty. Most of their interactions on land are based somewhat in physical comedy – something which I never was a huge fan of. The Little Mermaid relies on it: not just with Ariel hanging backwards over a carriage, but also with the saga of Sebastian and the chef who wants to cook him.

Eric is clearly falling for her, but Sebastian decides he need encouragement to hurry up and kiss Ariel in order to save her from Ursula’s curse.

“Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
Possible she want you too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl”

It’s pretty dubious advice which hasn’t aged well – to kiss someone without bothering to find out first if it is wanted or not.

The kiss is thwarted by Ursuala’s hench-eels, and Ursula decides to step in to prevent Ariel from succeeding to become human. (I feel like this should nullify the agreement that Ariel signed, but clearly Ursula wrote in fine print I am allowed to cheat to keep you from finalizing the deal.) With her magic, Ursula is able to convince Eric to marry her that same day, and the most unbelievable part of this film to me is that they were able to prepare an entire wedding in less than 24 hours. The day is saved with some more physical humor of sea creatures destroying Ursula’s wedding dress, more mutual rescuing of each other for Ariel and Eric, and Triton finally respecting that his daughter should be permitted to make her own choices and granting her human form so she can marry the prince.

There are plenty of things I like about this movie when re-watching it as an adult: one is how often Ariel and Eric look out for each other, another is the personal growth needed for the adults (mostly Triton and Sebastian) to learn how to check their egos and let others make decisions for themselves. There are also things I dislike: it’s hard to convey why Eric falls for Ariel aside from physical beauty (although a good attempt is made to show the reasons), and it seems to promote the idea that a girl should give up everything she has (her talents, her family and friends) in order to get a man. In Ariel’s case, it seems to work out, but she made a deal with the devil without really knowing anything about Eric or ever having talked to him – like many teenagers, she has a hard time differentiating between love and a crush.

I actually think this movie has more lessons for parents on what not to do than it does for growing kids on how to handle relationships. Despite being counted among the Disney classics, The Little Mermaid doesn’t end up on my list of favorites. The movie ends up feeling like just another formulaic romance, and without offering anything particularly new and interesting it’s hard for me to commend it as highly as others in its group.

the most important lesson of this film

3 thoughts on “Revisiting Disney: The Little Mermaid

  1. Disney was a huge part of my childhood- from the iconic Disney musical movies among others. My family originally got Disney Plus for Hamilton, but after my family noticed, there are a lot of movies on there that my sister and I would love- as in the old classics

    Of all iconic Disney princesses, the one I relate to the most is Belle. In addition, two of my characters are named after two of the classic princesses- Aurora and Jasmine- their families were huge fans of Disney. That book still has a lot of work to do- on the brainstorming stage.

    Liked by 1 person

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