The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie. I don’t mean to say it’s the most technically impressive; that would doubtlessly be The Lion King. Nor do I mean it’s the most fun to watch; it’s hard to beat Lilo & Stitch. It’s not the funniest (The Emperor’s New Groove), or the most thrilling (Atlantis), or even the best love story (Beauty and the Beast). But it is my favorite, because I have an emotional connection to it that I haven’t developed with any other movie. Not “any other Disney movie”, you understand; any movie period.
It’s not nostalgia — not exactly. If you want nostalgia, you’ve got to talk to Aladdin, Short Circuit II and Labyrinth. No, it’s something a lot deeper than just fond memories, although my memories of the movie are quite fond. Put most simply, The Little Mermaid is the movie that taught me how to love movies. I mean, I’ve known since I was a kid that I did love movies, but this was the one that made me realize why.
This story is going to be quite long. To get to the heart of what I mean, I’m going to have to take you back to the summer of 1994.
“The last mermaid is in captivity…”
Nintendo released this game in 1994 called Super Metroid. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It was pretty good. I mean, I liked it. But I didn’t have a copy myself, nor even a Super Nintendo to play it on, so I didn’t actually replay it for years and years. We’re talking after high school graduation here; 2001 or so. When I did discover it again, the game jostled my brain so hard that I wanted to analyze every single pixel of it. I knew that I loved the game, but I really wanted to get to the heart of why. It was the first game I really sat down and tried to deconstruct, to analzye critically, and through that process I started developing a keen eye not just for what games are good, but why those games are good.
So the summer of ’01 was a pretty fun and exciting time. I found it especially exciting because I’d already gone through this sort of thing once before, in 1994, with The Little Mermaid. I knew the benefits of defining why games were good would be far-reaching and long-lasting, and enable me to enjoy them on a much stronger level than before.
In ’94 I lived in a tiny duplex with my mother, brother and stepfather. Summetime saw an end to bedtimes, and even at that age I was naturally nocturnal, so I often had the whole apartment to myself after the lightweights went to sleep. I had to keep the volume down, which meant lots of playing Final Fantasy and Mega Man on mute, but it also meant I did a lot of reading. And buried somewhere way in the back of our hall closet was, for some reason, a book full of fairy tales. It consisted of a rather impressive collection of works by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.
I had already seen The Little Mermaid in theaters, of course. I was quite young in 1989, and was at exactly the age to really be enthralled by cartoons. My brother and I gobbled up The Land Before Time and especially All Dogs Go To Heaven, so The Little Mermaid was a natural fit for us. But five years is a long time for a child, so by 1994 I had largely forgotten about it. It was just some fun movie I saw a long time ago.
For some reason, reading Andersen’s original text made me want to revisit the movie. Obviously none of the fairy tales in my little book were anything like Disney’s retellings; I found them to be deliciously violent, deeply religious and endlessly fascinating. Believe it or not, The Little Sea-maid (as it was translated in my book) is one of the most religious and most violent. In it, the witch doesn’t merely vacuum the princess’s voice up into a magical glowing seashell; she simply takes a knife and hacks out her tongue. The princess is forced to subject herself to torture and self-mutilation, as it is described in great detail that walking and dancing cut her feet apart “as though with sharp knives”. Most shockingly, the stakes involved in her contract with the witch were much higher; failure meant she would die and dissolve into foam… but success meant she would share the prince’s immortal soul in Paradise — a little perk naturally denied to the sea-people.
What most people realize upon reading these classic fairy tales is just how much scrubbing Walt Disney had to do to get something inoffensive and cheerful. What I realized, though, was how much these differences changed the narrative. It wasn’t just the details that had been changed, but the characters’ goals and motivations. Andersen’s short story wasn’t one of unrequited love, but of the chance for religious redemption. It didn’t have a villain, or a big climactic battle scene. Nothing you could attach a musical number to. The princess is a lonely, wretched creature almost from start to finish. Most of all, the ending was depressing. I understood the broad strokes of the changes Disney had made, but the details were long gone from my memory. I resolved to sit down and watch the movie with the book in my lap, contrasting the two stories and really try and understand what made them both good in their own ways.
Unfortunately for me, in 1994 it was absoultely impossible to get your hands on a copy of The Little Mermaid. Some jacknapes had drawn a phallus on the cover of the VHS release and so it had been pulled from store shelves. Nobody I knew owned a copy. Disney wasn’t like to air it on TV. Rental stores all came up bust. I saw it a few times in secondhand stores, but never for less than a hundred dollars, which, my goodness, might as well have been a mountain of gold for a twelve-year-old living in a duplex.
This denial turned into an obsession. I can’t remember another movie or game or book or TV show I’ve been so obsessed with before or since in my entire life. Many of those summer nights in ’94 were spent writing, and two of the stories I completed were a modern-day retelling of the Andersen original and a full script for a Disney sequel, complete with songs. (The genesis of a long and storied fanfiction career, in retrospect.) A third project, started during the school year and intended to be a script for an RPG inspired by Final Fantasy II, included a long underwater section complete with a mermaid priestess joining the hero’s party. Looking back, I’m actually a little proud that I was able to channel my frustration into something that constructive. (Copies of these projects no longer exist, by the way. I’m sure they would make for interesting reading.)
I did have one major release valve: the summer of ’94 was the theatrical release of The Lion King. And while $100 for a VHS copy of The Little Mermaid was far beyond my grasp, collecting and recycling enough aluminum cans to afford a movie ticket certainly was not. The Lion King was the first movie I saw in theaters twice, three times, and four times. I saw in it a lot of the same qualities I imagined The Little Mermaid must possess, and I was determined to find out exactly why the movie was so special. I can remember reading newspaper reviews and videotaping voice actor interviews when they appeared on Jay Leno. (I still remember Nathan Lane insisting Timon and Pumbaa were gay.) And while I was too young to really get to the heart of the matter, it did help me to start watching all my movies a little more critically. Much of this newfound critiquing ability was aimed at my brother’s VHS copy of Aladdin, and especially at other cartoons of the day, such as Animaniacs. I filled an entire VHS tape with the Warner brothers (and sister). I made painstaking lists of episodes I liked, episodes I didn’t, what changes I would make and most importantly, why. Things like, “the rhymes in this song are stupid” or “they missed a chance for a really funny joke here” or “Buttons and Mindy are stupid and boring and I hate them”.
Life moved on, but I never stopped yearning for The Little Mermaid. At one point Disney released a few compliation CDs with all its classic music; in this way I became re-acquainted with the sublime Part of Your World. My father got an internet connection, and I managed to find the script and a whole flurry of screenshots and artwork at the humble request of his Amiga’s 14.4 dial-up modem. I couldn’t watch the movie, but I could experience it, at least in bits and pieces. For a long time that was enough.
The movie was re-issued in 1998, but it wasn’t playing in any of the theaters in my town. Oddly enough, nobody wanted to drive a high school sophomore into Tampa to see a kid’s movie. A VHS re-release inevitably followed, though, and I swear it got watched every single night for a solid year. The four-year wait, if anything, had only sweetened my reception of it. And that’s why it’s my favorite.
tl;dr: In my personal experience, The Little Mermaid was the Super Metroid of film. In its weird way, it made me want to appreciate movies, not simply watch them.
“Spineless, savage harpooning fish-eaters!”
Now that the personal sappy stuff is out of the way, I can get back to the heart of what this blog series is about: looking at The Little Mermaid as just a slice of the entire Disney body of animation. This is worth discussing in some detail, because it’s probably the second biggest slice, right behind Snow White. What you have to realize is, financially and critically speaking, Disney’s animation studio had been in something of a… well… a slump pretty much since Cinderella. The 60s, 70s and 80s were not particularly kind to the studio, which had long since abandoned its fairy tale formula in favor of literary adaptations and adventure stories. Heck, many of them weren’t even musicals. Looked at from that angle, The Little Mermaid was a return to form and the unexpected herald for Disney’s second golden age.
However, it is not similar in make or build to Disney’s earliest fairy tales, and I think that was very much by design. It was infused with a lot of the bits and pieces of the various failures and experiments Disney had tinkered with along the way. Most notably, while it is the story of a beautiful princess and a dashing prince, the decision was made to flesh these characters out as real people rather than just plot tokens. In particular, I think the human characters are always understated when people look back at this movie.
If it’s 1989, and you’re making a Disney movie, and someone decides it’s going to be another fairy tale like Snow White and Cinderella, hopefully the first thing that enters your head is “How do I do this without entering the realm of self-parody?” After fifty years of percolating, for example, the character of Prince Charming is so ingrained into popular culture that it is impossible to separate anything useful out of him. This new story is definitely going to have a Prince Charming — it can’t very well not — but people have come to expect something a little more engaging than “she falls in love with him because he is a prince, and then he heroically saves her life, and they live happily ever after.”
The very first scene in The Little Mermaid introduces us to Prince Eric. The idea here is that Eric is intended to be a complete and well-realized personality right from the beginning. Whatever else happens, this Prince Charming isn’t going to simply show up on a white horse in time to slay the villain and rescue the girl. Right away a conflict is established between Eric, an adventurous free spirit, and his dour manservant Grimsby. Eric is intrigued by sea chanties about merpeople, which Grimsby dismisses as “nautical nonsense”. Before the opening credits even hit the screen, we’re already invested in this guy, what he wants, and at least one obstacle standing in his way.
Eric’s second scene occurs during his birthday party, where we learn he is a hopeless romantic. He’s enthralled by the idea of being in love, though he has never experienced it and can’t really define it. This is an openness and immaturity the movie has already established in Ariel a few scenes prior, and so we learn that the hero and heroine have something very important in common. When they eventually do fall in love, we know it’s not going to be because someday my prince will come, or whatever, but because they are two people who are similar on a very basic level.
Grimsby is important in this equation for two reasons. First, Eric needs a foil to bounce his youthful optimism off of. We need someone to constantly tell Eric that his fantasies of true love are unrealistic, so as to better sweeten the payoff when he turns out to be wrong. And second, we need someone who can carry the burden of physical comedy so the dashing young hero doesn’t have to; someone to turn green with seasickness, or get a faceful of ash, to lighten what otherwise would simply be unbroken exposition.
Eric and Grimsby, and later characters like Carlotta the kind-hearted maid and Louis the eccentric French chef, paint this delightful picture of the human world being a friendly place populated with truly great people. These characters are not without their foibles, but they are mostly presented as being generous, caring people who are worth knowing and living with. This is extremely important to the story, because such large parts of it hinge on Ariel’s longing to go there. For this aspect of the story to work, everything Ariel’s father tells her about the human world needs to be wrong. Thanks to Eric and Grimsby being established so early on, we’re assured it will be.
Part of Those Worlds
Two different worlds colliding in an unusual way is a very common theme in Disney movies. What they can’t seem to agree on, though, is whether people from two separate worlds should be able to live in harmony despite their differences; Aladdin and Tarzan tell it one way, but Atlantis and Fox and the Hound tell it quite another. The Little Mermaid sort of splits the difference by making the boundaries between the two worlds uncrossable; you can’t combine them, you have to choose. Right away we are shown that Ariel and Eric share a longing for the other’s world, as though there is already some invisible connection between them.
The Little Mermaid does this two worlds duality thing better than a lot of Disney flicks. That’s not really the interesting topic here, though. The question worth asking is, why is this particular theme so popular in the first place? I think it’s used a sort of shorthand for showing us spectacular things. A movie will show us one world, a place to set up a sort of mental base camp, and then it’ll twist its hand and show us the other, a fantastic new place which it then draws its energy from. The heroes come from our world, but they go to this new one, and there they have a thrilling adventure.
What The Little Mermaid does, though, is casts the human world as the alien one, as the unobtainable “other”. It is meant to be strange an unfamiliar to us; as strange as Tarzan’s jungle or Kida’s dead underground civilization. This gives the movie a unique opportunity to introduce us to our own world as a new and wonderful place. The most magical scenes in the movie aren’t the underwater locales, but Ariel’s tour of Eric’s idyllic human kingdom. Dancing crabs and glowing golden tridents are passé, but puppetry? Horses? These things are fascinating because Ariel is fascinated by them. It’s the same trick Lady and the Tramp pulled off by naming its human characters Darling and Jim Dear.
This sense of wonder wasn’t accidental. Intense, insatiable curiosity is probably Ariel’s most defining character trait; she falls in love with the world of humans long before she lays eyes on Eric himself. But the point doesn’t come across unless we feel that sense of curiosity as well. Her song, Part of Your World, has her singing about the wonder of pots and corkscrews as though they were priceless treasure. More than anything, she wants to ask questions about how the human world works — questions we, as humans, should be able to answer. Can we, though? Can you really articulate what fire is, and why it burns, to someone who expects the answer to be simple?
Lady once asked, “What is a baby, anyway?” And that made us wonder, too.
We don’t really think about things this way unless they’re reflected directly back at us, and that’s how The Little Mermaid makes the human world of pipes and forks come alive with wonder. Wonder, and not conflict, is the end goal of the two worlds duality in this film. The undersea kingdom is very pointedly not described in terms that would make us wonder about it; we’re not shown enough of its construction, or infrastructure, or day-to-day operation to stop and think about what a marvelous place it is. That would steal thunder from Eric’s kingdom up above, which would have been a real shame.
“…the importance of body language! Hah!”
Showing us something wonderful is meaningless without also showing us a character’s reaction, though. In this department The Little Mermaid faces a difficult challenge: by the time she gets to this new world, Ariel has already sold her voice to the sea witch. She’s only able to communicate with the other characters (and with us) via facial expression.
In Andersen’s original story the princess’s inability to speak wasn’t much of a hinderence to her due to her uncommonly expressive “speaking eyes”. Ariel enjoys much the same effect by being so good at conveying emotion. In fact, Ariel is probably the single most expressive Disney character ever drawn at the time her movie came out.
I think you young’un types, with your fancy CGI and your colorful vector ponies and whatnot, may not realize how difficult it was to animate a face back in the day. We’re talking about the late ’80s here, people. Most of the free world was just now starting to shake off three horrendous decades of budget Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The technique was out there, as anyone with affection for Chuck Jones could tell you, but often not the will. Hell, just this week I saw The Great Mouse Detective for the first time. A mere three years older than The Little Mermaid, but when it comes to facial expression and body language it might as well have come from a different planet. My point is, someone made the conscious decision to double down on Ariel, and god bless them for it.
Ariel is not a subtle character. Her smiles and frowns are enormous; her cringes and winces are infectious. During the second half of the film you really can tell what she’s thinking and saying simply by reading her face. And so, for the most part, can Eric… oblivious numbskull that he is. Because her reaction shots are always cranked up to eleven, she’s always casting a bright spotlight on whatever she’s interacting with. She beams when she sees a fork sitting on the dining room table, and we are for a moment as excited as she is. Then, just as quickly, she realizes she looks stupid for brushing her hair with it and we feel a sting of embarrassment for her. When her antics bring amusement to Eric’s face, though, she brightens back up, and we brighten with her. There’s that sense of wonderment.
It isn’t just communication, though. Ariel actively manipulates Eric throughout their scenes together. Initially, when he finds her on the beach, she attempts to tell him her story using pantomime. When that gets her nowhere she gives him these big, somber eyes and a pained frown, thereby playing on his pity. We-the-viewer know its a ruse because she gives her animal sidekicks a wide grin immediately afterwards, but Eric is none the wiser. It’s almost a shame Sebastian whispered her name to him during Kiss the Girl — I bet he could have gotten it within ten guesses just based on her reactions.
This level of emotion, being so vividly on display, elicits a rare level of attachment. The way she’s drawn, it’s very easy to become absorbed into Ariel’s personality. It’s impossible to mistake her infatuation as Eric dances aboard his ship, her disbelief in herself for contemplating Flotsam and Jetsam’s suggestion to see Ursula, her disgust as the sea witch slithers in and out of her personal space. You can’t not be on her side throughout the entire story. Is it any wonder Disney began taking all its characters in this direction?
“And then this seagull came, and he was all…”
A few years ago some mope named MC Chris did this reasonably hilarious rant about Kingdom Hearts II, wherein he vocalizes his frustration at the game’s actual lack of fun Disney stuff to do by saying, “I didn’t see so much as a Sebastian the crab for like a hundred millenia.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that he happened to equate “fun Disney stuff” with “Sebastian the crab.”
The earliest Disney princesses had some supernatural ability to make small critters fall in love with them and do their bidding. This is another spot where Ariel differs somewhat; her animals sidekicks aren’t smitten indentured servants. Rather, they’re real characters who not only have unique personalities but also play very strong roles in advancing the plot.
Now, before you start in with the, “Don’t all Disney movies have those?” Yes. Yes they do. But where The Little Mermaid differs from most other films is, on the personality front, the rest of the pack usually stops somewhere just short of “vaguely obnoxious”. And on the plot front, well… sad to say, the plot often simply forgets they exist. Look, I love Cri-Kee and Pascal and Pegasus as much as the next guy, but would those stories really have gone anywhere different if they hadn’t been drawn? No? Then what was the point of having them, except to sell plushies and coloring books?
Flounder, Scuttle and especially Sebastian are different. Ariel needs them all, and what’s more, she needs them all for different reasons. Flounder is her partner in crime whose job is mostly to get her into trouble. Scuttle is her sole connection to the human world, a font of dubious expertise on her shipwrecked treasures. Sebastian is at once her unwitting protector, her voice of reason, and her moral support. The main reason these characters work so well together is they don’t get in each other’s way. Think about it: a crab, a fish and a seagull. In any given scene, Ariel is either underwater or on land. Which means she can, at most, be hassled by two of her animal friends at once. Thus the writers were free to use more discretion when it came to picking which one gets the spotlight in which scene. This flows quite a bit better than the standard practice of a Disney hero simply amassing sidekicks as she goes along. (Be honest — did you even remember Mulan’s horse had a name?)
It wouldn’t be fair to say one never overshadows another, though, because Sebastian overshadows them both. This tiny little Jamaican crab pull double duty as Baloo and Jiminey Cricket, sings two of the movie’s songs and counts for the bulk of its physical comedy. He does, however, know which scenes are his, and never steals them directly from Ariel when it’s inappropriate. This takes a very delicate touch, to know when to get out of the protagonist’s way. It’s like, when you think of Aladdin, you don’t really think of Aladdin, do you? Of course not.
There is one scene, just before the movie’s climax, where Ariel’s friends really have to pull together for her. Scuttle has just delivered some bad news about how the villain has appeared and is essentially going to ruin everyone’s everything. Ariel responds exactly as you’d imagine a Disney heroine would: steadfast resolve followed by immediate action. “Action” in this case involves diving into the ocean to swim after Eric’s ship, where she immediately discovers she doesn’t know how to swim with these two big lanky bone-tubes coming out the back of her. Sebastian fixes the situation by sending her a barrel to grab on to and by delegating tasks to Flounder and Scuttle in order to save the day: Flounder swims Ariel to the ship, Scuttle acts as the advance guard to delay the witch, and Sebastian flees home to summon the sea king’s help. These actions play well to each of the sidekicks’ personalities and abilities: Flounder is helpful and can swim, Scuttle is annoying and can fly, Sebastian is a notorious tattle-tale. Ariel is the helpless observer in this scene, at least until she’s able to confront Ursula directly. It all pulls together really well when contrasted with, say, Aladdin’s fortuitous discovery of a flying carpet.
When it comes time to stop the show, though? Sebastian is more than happy to oblige.
A Hot Crustacean Band
Is there a more instantly recognizable Disney song than Under the Sea? And I mean recognizable in a good, fond way. Not in a “If I hear that goddamn Pocahontas song one more time…” way.
There are four major songs in The Little Mermaid and a smattering of minor ones, and they are all perfect. Part of Your World has to be the most complete distillation of a cartoon character into music that I’ve ever seen. Most Disney heroes have to share their introductory song with plot setup or visual gags, but Ariel gets that time all to herself. This proves to be important, since Ariel’s beautiful singing voice is such a key element to the plot. Very few Disney songs feature a single character singing uninterrupted for an entire scene… in fact, I can’t think of another time where that happens until Mulan’s Reflection, and it wasn’t pulled off nearly as well.
For obvious reasons, Part of Your World‘s message about longing for impossible things struck a chord with me during those years where I had the soundtrack but not the movie.
Then there’s Under the Sea which… well, let’s put it this way. Before Alan Menken composed the soundtrack for The Little Mermaid, Disney had three Oscar wins for Best Song. After Under the Sea won in 1989, he went on to win three more for the next three films he composed. Elton John and Phil Collins won two more on top of that. It would almost be worth going to school and getting a musical education just to be able to have the words to describe what a genius Alan Menken is, not just for his own compositions, but for how thoroughly he inspired others to follow in his footsteps.
(And I’m sorry, but he should have won his fifth for I See the Light.)
I haven’t talked about Ursula much yet, and that’s because it’s difficult to divorce her from Poor Unfortunate Souls. Ursula is a liar and a bully, and that’s exactly what this song is about. The first half she tells lies about who she is and what she does, and the second half she spends browbeating Ariel into selling her soul. This is largely a storytelling song, and it pauses just long enough for Ursula to clearly outline the details of her plan and what, exactly, she expects Ariel to agree to. In a way, Ursula has stolen Ariel’s voice even before she arrives; she hardly lets the poor mermaid get a word in edgewise as she’s singing up her credentials.
The Disney villain song is often difficult to get right, because they usually are storytelling songs. They have to convey information about the villain’s schemes in addition to putting just the right amount of evil on display. Too much of the former and you end up with something like Friends On the Other Side, which is just a conversation set to music. Too much of the latter and you end up with Hellfire, which is almost inappropriately over the top. Twice, by my reckoning, has it been struck just right. Poor Unfortunate Souls was one. (Deducing the other is left as an exercise to my readers.)
Which just leaves Kiss the Girl, which is a wonderful combination of Sebastian’s show-stopping lyricism and Ariel’s manipulative experessions, both of which I’ve already talked about at great length. What more can be said?
I tried to go back and count how many paragraphs this entry turned out to be, but they haven’t invented numbers that high yet. But hey, at least that means I was able to fit in lots of screenshots. However long you’re thinking this took me to write, you can triple your estimate; I took two breaks in the middle to re-watch the movie. I think that was a good decision.
I don’t think everyone loves media as much as I do. I mean, most people watch TV and movies and play games and things, but most people don’t generally find themselves as actively engaged as I do. There’s a word for such people: normal. I kid, I kid. Really, I think it’s just a side effect of being a nerd. Chances are, if you’ve read this whole post, you’ve got at least a bit of nerd in yourself, too. And I think most nerds have that one magical thing in their nerd career, that one show or game or book that really defines how they look at all their other shows or games or books. For most of you over thirty it’s probably Star Wars. For most of you under twenty it’s probably Harry Potter. I don’t have an estimate for how many nerds ended up with the Little Mermaid card. But god damn, I sure did.
It’s not a bad card, though. It has led me on some strange journeys over the years, into some interesting chat rooms, and some interesting arguments, and interesting conversations with unimaginative cashiers. (“The Little Mermaid soundtrack? You want a gift receipt?”) Eventually, it led me to an awkward comparison to Super Metroid, and that’s how I’m going to leave this post.
A year or so ago I got myself into a rather heated discussion about Samus Aran’s characterization. Namely, whether or not she had any. One of my dudes answered the call by posting an image from Super Metroid’s prologue, that great shot of Samus’s focused eyes behind her green visor, and he said, “That’s your characterization right there.” And I was like, buddy, you know exactly what you’re talking about. Except it wasn’t Samus that taught me how to look for characterization in that way — it was Ariel, many years earlier. And so she will always be my favorite.