The Little Mermaid
Based on the short story “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
When I was a wee lass, my Disney movies were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, which, I suppose, explains a great deal about me. I didn’t encounter the earlier Golden Age Disney princesses until much later; while I always enjoyed Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid were problematic for me–we’ll get to Beauty and the Beast sometime in the future. Recently, though, I rewatched The Little Mermaid while reading Ariel as transhuman to give her a chance. Surprisingly, it improved–but there were still some problems.
The Little Mermaid follows Ariel, a mermaid princess who is utterly fascinated by humans, who other merfolk consider barbaric fish-eaters. She’d much rather spend her time exploring ship wrecks and adding to her collection of human stuff than singing at court, to the ire of her father and his majordomo, Sebastian the crab. One day, she encounters a ship headed by Eric, a prince who’d much rather be a sailor. When the ship catches on fire and sinks, Ariel rescues Eric and ends up falling in love with him. When her father protests, she makes a deal with the Sea Witch Ursula to become human so she can find Eric and be with him–but Ursula, who wants to take over the ocean, isn’t going to let the ultimate hostage just walk away.
Because Ariel gets married at sixteen (still creepy, I have concluded) and trades her voice away for her legs, she’s often looked to as one of the weaker princesses. But I was pleasantly surprised by Ariel’s spirit. She’s just so expressive, even after she loses her voice–while it never fully works, she does her best to create her own agency. Her delight at becoming human is absolutely palpable, which makes focusing on her as a transhuman very rewarding. She’s fearless (under the sea) and utterly fascinated by the human world she longs to be a part of, to the point where she wastes precious time where she could be macking on Eric to explore the kingdom. (Ariel is a terrible driver, by the way.) Even Eric fares better; he’d rather be a sailor, and he’s prone to dreaminess, exemplified in his quest to discover his mysterious singing rescuer–to the point a faithful servant points out that at least Ariel exists. (Cue Ursula disguised as foxy chanteuse.) They’re quite sweet together, especially in “Kiss the Girl”, which is a fantastic sequence–the unfortunate shot of Ariel’s giant forehead not withstanding. Still, the movie does shoot itself in the foot during the ending, when Ariel’s physical agency–the only agency she has left–is removed; Flounder, her sidekick, has to swim her a fair distance to stop Ursula, despite the fact that Ariel has proven her freakish upper body strength over and over and was, oh, I don’t know, a mermaid. I’m not that peeved about Eric getting to stop Ursula instead of Ariel; Ariel tries and Eric owes her his life. There’s still problems, but there were less than I had previously thought.
The animation, as I’ve mentioned, is lovely; I could go on for days about how much I love Glen Keane, but I won’t here. Ariel, always an expressive character, becomes trebly so once she’s human–the utter delight and emotion in the scene where she becomes human and encounters Eric is downright gorgeous. (And perhaps it helps that Ariel is animated with her lower eyelids in those sequences; her design can tend towards the babyish in the wrong hands.) Ursula’s weight and gravity is wonderfully executed; I particularly love Ursula’s New Wave hair and malicious, knowing grin. The other characters (except Triton, Scuttle, and Sebastian) tend towards roundness; while this works for Max, Eric’s beloved sheepdog, the fish occasionally look odd next to Ariel’s pointed chin and clean lines. Luckily, we don’t spend too much time with them except in “Under the Sea”, a number I’ve never particularly liked (for the same reasons that I don’t like “Be Our Guest”, oddly enough). There’s plenty of animal shenanigans in The Little Mermaid, making it more for the kids than for the adults. The underwater work is lovely, especially Ariel’s hair, which, as legend has it, was based on footage of Sally Ride in outer space.
The Little Mermaid was Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s first score for Disney, and it’s quite young and cheerful. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is one of the better Disney villain songs, as it’s an entire character moment for Ursula as she manipulates Ariel into accepting; “Part of Your World” is so sweet and earnest it can make me teary-eyed (as I sing it in the car), and I love “Kiss the Girl”. “Under the Sea” has never been my favorite, although I’m sure it was fun to write and perform, and “Les Poissons” is just… weird. TVTropes (kiss your productivity goodbye!) considers it a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. All I can think about when I hear it is Ashman and Menken concluding that “hon hon hon” is an acceptable rhyme for “les poissons” (“Howard! You’re a genius!”). Out of context, it’s kind of hilariously offensive; in context, it’s odd. The rest of the score is bright and perky, with appropriately bombastic music for the darker sections–it’s lovely work, although Menken’s best work is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But now that I’ve started, I suppose we’ll go through the entire Disney canon that’s eligible for Page to Screen…
Bottom line: Yes, The Little Mermaid has agency problems–although her vocal agency is replaced by her physical agency (her agility and her expressiveness, beautifully animated by the incomparable Glen Keane), that gets removed and downplayed towards the end. But Ariel’s journey as a transhuman is wonderful, and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s first score for Disney is bright and fun. It’s less problematic than you may think–but it’s still problematic.
I watched a friend’s DVD of this film.