Page to Screen: The Little Mermaid (1989)

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.

19 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Little Mermaid (1989)

  1. The Disney movie series are problematic in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but as I get older, the squirmier I get, especially with depictions of other cultures. Sure, Beauty and the Beast is in idealized France, but dominant Eurocentric cultures don’t get the everyday “magicalization” of marginalized cultures such as Native Americans and Asians. I had a hard time explaining why Mulan was so problematic to me in the past, when France was “not real France” in Beauty and the Beast. I can accept and enjoy Mulan now (I’ll take truly strong Asian heroines when I can get them), but since people don’ see anything wrong with the conflation of Japanese and Chinese (kimonos, really?), I can’t see the movie as anything less than problematic.

  2. What an excellent analysis. This was the one Disney movie I owned as a kid, so my feelings towards it will always be a little coloured by nostalgia. Re-watching it a few years ago I found Ariel surprisingly spirited, but yeah, you made some great points about the ending.

  3. The Little Mermaid is my all-time favorite Disney movie so I’m excited someone’s giving it the attention it deserves. Having watched it growing up, I never thought to analyze it the way you do here. Guess there’s always more to the story than you think! Have you ever read Andersen’s original story?

  4. I never thought Ariel was as problematic as people seem determined to claim she is. The 16 years old thing is deeply weird, I definitely agree (how good was it, btw, that the Tangled characters didn’t get married straight away at the end? Yay!), but the rest of it has always seemed a bit contrived to me. Everyone gets mad that she gives up her voice to be human, but, like, that’s not presented as a good decision. Nobody’s watching “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and thinking, hey, solid call, Ariel! Make a deal with the witch! We’re all thinking, Oh Ariel, all those things Ursula is saying about boys not liking chatty girls, those are not true things! Make better decisions! Even seven-year-old me picked up on that point.

    Ariel’s great — she knows what she wants and she relentlessly pursues it until she gets it. Moreover, Eric is not a useless Sleeping Beauty type prince and Ariel is not a vapid Cinderella type princess, so I feel like they are both totally worth it. And Ariel has pretty red hair. I stand by Ariel.

    • And that Flynn pins the proposing on Rapunzel (no matter who actually proposed)? They are adorable. There were actually plans for a wedding scene—with Rapunzel’s veil echoing her hair—but it was cut. 🙂

      Yeah, Ariel’s motivation gets really misrepresented.

  5. P.S. I love “Under the Sea” but I think “Kiss the Girl” is a better song and should have won the Oscar. Also I love the fact that when you start singing “Part of Your World” around any group of girls of a certain age, they will join you.

    • I love “Part of Your World”; there’s a bit in Waking Sleeping Beauty where they show Benson recording it and Ashman coaching her on Ariel’s intensity and I just teared up like a baby. “Under the Sea” gets me because it feels like padding—and in a movie that is going to be an hour and a half tops, you can’t waste any time. I think it would have worked better if we’d used that time to develop Eric some more. (This is probably why I like the stage adaptations; more time for everything! Yay!)

  6. My sisters and I adored The Little Mermaid when it came out. (I think I was six or seven when I saw it.) My older sister has deep-red hair and sings, so there was a kind of identification there with Ariel. I completely latched on to the character of Sebastian. I somehow acquired a stuffed toy crab and named it Sebastian and carried it with me everywhere. Thus Under the Sea was a favorite song of mine and the Les Poissons scene to me was awesome because it was all about Sebastian.

    Watching the film when I was older, I cared less and less for Ariel. There didn’t seem to be a lot of substance to her, in my opinion. I haven’t seen the film for years now. I agree that Ursula is a fantastic villain and the Poor Unfortunate Souls is rather genius in execution.

  7. Now I’m curious as to why you don’t like Beauty and the Beast. I know of several people who say that it’s the best animated movie Disney came out with. (I don’t think it’s as good as Brother Bear is, but that’s not a princess movie.)

    • Beauty and the Beast is something I’m going to review, so I’ll talk about then—but the original story (well, Le Prince de Beaumont’s version) is written to help acclimate young girls to arranged marriage, so there’s a lot of Stockholm Syndrome in the story that adaptations have to get over… and I’m not totally sure Disney managed it.

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