THE LITTLE MERMAID
Directed By: Ron Clements & John Musker
Produced By: John Musker & Howard Ashman
Based On: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837)
Premiered On: November 17, 1989
Distribution By: Buena Vista Pictures
The Little Mermaid is often described as the first of… Well, to be perfectly honest, the first of a lot of things really. It was the first film of the Disney Renaissance and is commonly attributed as being the source of the “atypical” Disney Princess tropes that followed in its wake. It was also one of the first Disney Animated Films to have an animated series be made for it though, in this particular case, a not-quite-canon series of adventures that occur before the events of the film itself.
Ariel herself is also the first, and thus far only, Disney Princess to be voiced by her in-film voice actress for all of her English speaking roles, from television, to musical soundtracks, to video games with the only exception being the Broadway production.
As to the actual summary of the film itself, the story goes that a young mermaid princess named Ariel has something of a… obsession one would say of any and all things human related, particularly in human made items that she scrounges up from shipwrecks. Unfortunately for Ariel, her father, King Triton, is of the exact opposite opinion of his youngest daughter. Things come to a head between father and daughter when Ariel happens to rescue a young prince from drowning and immediately falls in love with him at first sight.
This… leads to one of the most frightening displays of parental rage I’ve ever seen in any animated film…
Following this, Ariel, rather foolishly mind you, makes a bargain with the sea-witch Ursula that, in exchange for her voice, she will be turned human and will have three days for the prince to fall in love with her and display this affection via a kiss. Not just any kiss mind you but one of true love. However, should Ariel fail in receiving a kiss from the prince by the sunset of the third day, her life and soul will be Ursula’s forever…
I’d continue on towards the climax and ending of the film but really, if there’s one fault that I can name of The Little Mermaid it’s that it’s popularity is at such a high degree that there are few who haven’t seen the film yet know perfectly well how it ends. That and in all honesty, there is a particular aspect of the film that I want to focus on more, namely King Triton and his… ahem… temper…
Of all the fathers we’ve seen in Disney films, animated or otherwise, King Triton is certainly not the worst of them but he is easily one of the few that can loose his temper with the slightest provocation. More to the point, it can reach a degree that does more harm than good. Using the animated series for example, there was an episode wherein Ariel happened to find a magnifying glass and despite its harmlessness, King Triton immediately destroyed it right in front of her.
Ariel, of course, swam off while her father tried, and failed somewhat, to cool down where she immediately happened to find a human bracelet that she put on, not noticing that the key to take the thing off was still stuck to the piece of coral it was hanging off of.
Finding that she couldn’t take it off on her own and that her attempt to remove the thing via the key led her to be literally sucked down into the ocean abyss, Ariel came to one conclusion. That her father would do something so bad, so terrible, to her that she would never be able to go home again.
Let me repeat this: Ariel was so scared of her father’s wrath that she’d rather brave living in the ocean’s abyss where all manner of Lovecraftian horrors dwelled, than to try and go home to defend herself and the trinket she had unwittingly bound onto herself.
… I do not pretend to be an expert in parentage, for I have not yet been fortunate enough to have a child of my own, and I certainly don’t disagree that if a child has done wrong that they should be punished for it accordingly but… What does that say of Triton, who was never shown to have ever raised more than a… admittedly sea-shaking voice to Ariel, that she’d rather live in an abyss than risk his wrath once more or, in the case of the film itself, would give up everything and everyone that she has ever known because her father had hurt her more than he had ever hurt her before? What does it say of him as a person, and not just a parent, that he would destroy everything that his child held dear, no matter that it did no harm to her or anyone else simply because of his own hatred…?
… Welp, now that I’ve gone and darkened the mood, I might as well blacken this to a midnight pitch with the differences between the film and the original novel. Now, be warned my readers, that this is where things well and truly become dark, and I do not exaggerate. Few if any of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories had what one would call a true happily ever after ending. That all being said let’s begin with the first major difference between the film and the novel.
Mer-folk have no souls.
Not a mermaid or merman has anything resembling a soul and while they can live quite a while, somewhere about 300 or so years give or take a decade, when they die their bodies disintegrate into sea foam and all that was them ceases to be and is lost forever to a wide and uncaring ocean.
The Little Mermaid in the story, who has no name aside this titular title, sees and falls in love with the prince in the same manner as Ariel but pursues him willing both to gain his love but to also attain a soul of her own. She does this by way of bargaining with a sea witch whose deal is quite different from Ursula’s own. The major difference being that instead of taking the Little Mermaid’s voice like Ursula did Ariel, she takes the next best thing.
Cuts it clean out and gives the Little Mermaid a potion to take upon reaching the shore, leaving the poor girl a mute for the rest of her life.
A potion that, upon consumption, will make the Little Mermaid feel as though she has been run through by a sword but will grant her human legs. Legs that will make her feel constant pain and agony whenever she walks or dances, but she will still be gracefully as a dancer regardless. Should the Little Mermaid manage to win the prince’s heart for herself, the day following their marriage a piece of the prince’s soul will flow into her and become her own.
However, should she fail, then on the day after the prince’s marriage to another, her heart will break and she will die as foam upon the sea. The Little Mermaid accepts and though she becomes a dear friend to the prince, his affections lie with a girl whom he, wrongly, believes to have been the one to save him from drowning.
The story takes an even darker turn when the despairing Little Mermaid is suddenly visited by her older sisters the night of the prince’s marriage, mere hours away until the dawn and the Little Mermaid’s death. Each of her sisters have lost their long, flowing hair, the price they paid for the sea witch to grant them a means of saving their youngest sibling’s life. A means the witch has provided by way of an enchanted dagger that the Little Mermaid must drive into the heart of the young prince. She must then allow his blood to drip upon her legs, thus restoring her back into a mermaid where she will live a long, and soulless, life once more.
The Little Mermaid comes close, really close, to following through on this but in the end, love conquers still. For no matter that the prince has fallen in love with another, no matter that she will die in mere moments as the sun starts to peak onto the horizon, the Little Mermaid can’t bring herself to kill him and so she does the only thing left for her to do. She takes the dagger in hand tosses it, and herself, both out the window of the sleeping couples’ room and down into the sea where she vanishes into foam upon the waves.
However… this is not the end of our Little Mermaid. For in her selfless act of love, the Little Mermaid has proven herself worthy of the chance to attain a soul of her own. She becomes, quite literally, something of a guardian angel in the form of an air spirit where she, and countless other once soulless creatures that proved to have the same merits as she, must commit themselves to 300 years of good deeds served to mankind before they gain a soul of their own and are at last welcomed in the White City of Heaven.
So yeah, once more, while not the most wildly adapted story, there were more than a few justifiable liberties taken between the story and the film.
Moving on to happier notes, let’s me try and narrow down what song in the film best fits it as a whole. It was a tough choice all around as most of the songs are easily remembered and sung time and time again the world over. After all, the film did end up winning two Grammy Awards, one for Best Album for Children and Best Score Soundtrack for a Motion Picture. Heck, the song “Under the Sea” won the Academy Award for Best Song and the film as a whole even won Best Score, which it technically won again via the Golden Globes.
Despite this though, I am of the strong opinion that the song that best fits the film is Ariel’s song called “Part of Your World.”
Aside from being a spectacular look into the life of a mermaid hoarder, which is no small exaggeration given the sheer amount of human junk and treasures alike that Ariel has managed to not only collect but safely stow away in a relatively small grotto… You can see the sheer amount of work that went making this look like an underwater world with how the light shines through the water and how Ariel’s hair moves as she sings and dances around the grotto. That and you get a pretty good hint that Ariel is already getting close to paying whatever price necessary to become human or at the least learn all the answers to the questions she has of us and our world above the waves.
Overall, I give The Little Mermaid a solid seven out of five stars. I’d give it an even ten but honestly, even back when I was a kid there were more than a few face-palming moments to be had, mostly in the form of Scuttle. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a funny character yes but he’s something of the… Jar Jar Binks in this otherwise fantastically amazing film. Seriously, I always mute it when he starts talking, that’s how annoying his voice is to me. That and, to be fair, this film is a bit… dated in some sensibilities regarding age and what one should and can do at said age…