The Little Mermaid – Disney’s twenty-eighth animated feature is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, but takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is typical for Disney, of course, but in this particular case it’s a tragedy made into a much more cheerful story. Gone is Andersen’s theme of the mermaid wanting an immortal soul and eventually failing and turning into sea foam. Instead, the focus is on the mermaid, here named Ariel (possibly after the spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, although that Ariel was male), being a rebellious teenager who wants to escape from the world she knows.
She’s already obsessed with the human world before seeing and instantly falling in love with Prince Eric, whom she saves from drowning. While Andersen’s original tale did have the mermaid bargaining with the sea witch to become human, nothing really came of this. In the movie, this is part of a larger scheme by Ursula to take over the entire ocean. Also, Ursula magically takes Ariel’s voice rather than cutting out her tongue. And, of course, Disney gives the whole thing a happy ending, with Ariel and the Prince ending up together when her father relents.
Ursula the Sea-Witch is an interesting character, with a design based on Divine, the drag queen who starred in all of John Waters’ films until his death in 1988, the year before The Little Mermaid was released.
Pretty forward-thinking for Disney, I’d say. Ursula was banished from King Triton’s court for a reason never specified, although it probably had something to do with her evil magic. She spends her time performing favors for mer-people, only to turn them into creepy seaweed people when they inevitably cannot meet their side of the bargain. After tricking and capturing Ariel, Triton gives up his life to save her, which seems to be putting his own family over his royal duties. She then grows to giant size and controls the seas, only to explode when Eric runs a ship into her. It’s never explained why she can be defeated this way, but she is.
The movie also includes the typical sidekicks to the protagonist, in this case the fish Flounder, the seagull Scuttle, and the singing Jamaican crab Sebastian. The latter proved popular enough that there was an entire album of calypso songs recorded by his voice actor in character, which I only know because they played it all the time when I worked at a toy store. As far as Ariel’s family goes, Triton is characterized as loving but hot-headed, and her sisters are never given individual personalities. Triton himself comes from Greek mythology, in which he was the son of Poseidon and ruler of aquatic beings also called Tritons.
One somewhat disturbing character was the sadistic French chef in Prince Eric’s castle, who not only cooks fish and other sea creatures but takes pleasure in dismembering them. Since the undersea residents find humans eating fish to be barbaric, it makes me wonder what the mermaids eat, and whether Ariel made any attempt to change the menu after coming to live with the Prince. Finally, I have to wonder why we never see Eric’s parents. If they’re dead, wouldn’t he be the ruler? Well, maybe he is, but we don’t see any evidence of this, and he’s a prince rather than a king.
This movie ushered in somewhat of a renaissance for Disney, which hadn’t been doing so well in the seventies and eighties. I think they did some good movies in that time, but they didn’t receive all that much attention. It also brought Disney back to fairy tales, which they’d previously abandoned after the relative failure of Sleeping Beauty. In this case, it was a fairy tale written by a single author, but a fairy tale nonetheless. I actually didn’t see this one at the theater, and I don’t remember why, since the rest of my family did. Oh, well. Apparently the next Disney animated movie, Frozen, is going to be based on Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I have to suspect that, like The Little Mermaid, it will differ quite a lot from its source.