This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
Made in 1989, The Little Mermaid is the first of the Disney Renaissance fairy tales. I have such feelings about this movie. SUCH FEELINGS.
The fairy tale: While I made reference to ‘The Little Mermaid’ several times during the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, I never posted a full write-up and it’s startling how hard it was to find a book in my collection that had it. The one I eventually found prefaces the story with a black and white sketch of a prince brooding over his lute while the titular mermaid hides in the shrubbery.
This makes it seem like the story will be funny. Be very sure, it’s not.
On her fifteenth birthday, each of the sea king’s six daughters is permitted above the surface for the first time and thereafter whenever she likes. The sisters have been raised on their grandmother’s stories of the strange human world, playing with pretty things fallen from wrecks, and one by one they ascend for their first glimpse. Waiting is torture for the youngest princess. When her day finally comes, it coincides with the sixteenth birthday of a handsome prince and she emerges alongside his floating party – a magnificent sight, the deck bright with lamps and fireworks bursting colour across the sky. The prince’s beauty is what really takes her fancy, however. She lingers for hours, captivated. When the wind of an oncoming storm sets the ship rocking, she thinks it’s fun; it’s only when the mast snaps that she realises how much danger the ship is in. As it breaks apart on the waves, she watches the prince sinking below the sea. Once again, cultural differences are a problem; it takes her a moment to remember humans can’t breathe underwater. Swimming through the wreckage of the ship, she hauls him through the tempest to shore.
She’s cautious enough to retreat to the water once he’s safe, which means he wakes surrounded by anxious girls (yes, really) while the one who rescued him mopes around her father’s palace. She spends a lot of time hugging a statue (yes, really) and returning to the empty beach in the hope of a prince sighting. Eventually, she confides in her sisters. This is an excellent idea, because one of them knows who the prince actually is and where he lives. Arm in arm, they swim to his palace.
So at least she has a more useful place to mope, watching him go about his daily business and listening eagerly to any gossip spoken about him. The more she sees of humanity, the more she likes it. She wants to climb mountains, see beyond the forests and fields. “If men are not drowned,” she asks her grandmother, “do they live for ever? Do they not die, as we here below in the sea?” Oh, sweetie. “Yes,” her grandmother replies, “and their life is even shorter than ours. We may live for three hundred years; but then, when we cease to exist, we only turn to foam on the water, and have not even a grave here below amongst those we love. We have no immortal soul, we never come to life again.” She has a lot to say about souls, gifting her innocent granddaughter a burgeoning existential crisis. Quintessential Hans Christian Andersen!
But wait, there’s more – if the mermaid can snag herself a human husband, that ‘what’s yours is mine’ business apparently applies to souls too so she would ‘have part in the felicity of mankind’. So all that spiritual confusion gets tangled up in the young mermaid’s already obsessive teenage crush and the next night, while her family and friends celebrate at a ball, she sneaks off to see the Water-witch.
This is not a good idea. You can tell, because she has to pass through a whirlpool and a bog of bubbling slime to get there. If those two obstacles don’t deter unwanted visitors, the forest of polypi – ‘half-animal and half-plant’ – should do the trick. The mermaid, while terrified of their grasping fingers, refuses to be driven away. She binds up her hair and swims fast until she reaches the witch’s house, where the witch herself sits feeding toads to her water snakes.
“I know already what you want,” she says baldly to her visitor. “It is foolish of you, but you shall have your wish, since it will bring you to misery, my pretty Princess.” There is a potion that can transform her tail into legs; if she takes it, every step will feel like treading on knives and she will be trapped on land forever, divided from her family. What’s more, if her prince marries another, she’ll die of a broken heart and it will all have been for nothing.
And she’s not even DONE yet – there’s the subject of payment! In exchange for human legs, the mermaid must give up her beautiful voice. The witch cuts out her tongue. When the potion has been brewed, the mutilated mermaid sets off to find her prince. She only drinks when she reaches his palace. The pain of the transformation is like a sword cutting her in half and she passes out; when she wakes, the prince himself is standing over her. Also, she’s naked. It’s awkward.
Being a decent person, he takes her in. Not in a creepy exploitative sense either, which is lucky, because the royal family have slaves to dance and sing for them and that is built-in societal creepiness. Trying to capture the prince’s attention, the little mermaid dances too, though every step is agony. This effort wins her the dubious honour of sleeping on a velvet cushion outside the prince’s door, like a stray puppy. Also like a stray puppy, he takes her everywhere. She gets to explore the forest and climb the mountains, and laugh at the clouds. At night, she bathes her aching feet in the sea and thinks about her family. Though she has her wish, and is living her dream, it hurts.
Her sisters hurt for her. They come to the surface, seeking her; once she is recognised, her grandmother and father follow, too wary to draw close to the shore but loving her too much to stay away.
The prince loves her as well, just not in the right way. He thinks of her as a child. It’s even sadder because she reminds him of the girls he saw when he woke on that beach, and he thinks one of them saved him. AND SHE CAN’T TELL HIM HE’S WRONG. His fondness gives her hope, even as his betrothal to another woman is announced – the mermaid is privy to all his confidences and he’s deeply unenthusiastic about the match, planning to meet the princess but not to marry her. He half-jokes he’d rather marry his ‘foundling’ and kisses her. I want to slap him. Particularly when she accompanies him on the voyage and he tries to explain sea travel to her. I know that’s not fair, since how could he understand? I want to slap him ANYWAY.
In a stunning twist of narrative sadism, that girl from the beach – the one the mermaid looks a little like, the one the prince believes rescued him – is the very princess to whom the prince has become engaged. Of course he completely changes his mind about marriage the minute he sees her. The little mermaid has to watch it happen. Despite her heartbreak, she kisses the prince’s hand, offering congratulations the only way she can. She allows herself to be dressed in courtly clothes, holds the bride’s train at the wedding, follows them aboard the beautiful ship on which they will begin their honeymoon. The lights and dancing make her think of the first time she saw the prince and she dances like a girl who’s about to die.
Not if her sisters can help it, though. They have cut off all their long hair and sold it to the witch in exchange for a knife. If the mermaid stabs her prince before sunrise and drips the blood on her feet, she will once more have a fish’s tail and can return to the sea.
The mermaid goes to her prince one last time and looks down at him, asleep in bed with his new bride. She kisses him on the forehead and throws the dagger far out to sea. Then she throws herself after it.
She does not die! She does not turn into sea foam! Instead she is surrounded by spirits of the air, for she’s become one of them through her good deed. Through centuries of charitable acts and dogged persistence, they are earning themselves souls and now she has a chance at the same goal. The mermaid looks back and sees her prince waking, looking out at the water as he realises she’s gone. Swooping down, she kisses the bride’s forehead too, then lets it all go to soar skyward.
The film: We begin with adorable dolphins, singing sailors and a cute prince messing about like an overexcited little boy. That’s how you know it’s Disney. Underneath, down through fathomless depths of blue, the merfolk are gathering at King Triton’s shimmering palace for a royal gala starring his seven alliteratively-named daughters. It is supposed to be the debut of the youngest princess, Ariel, only she’s blown it off to go explore a wreck with her piscean bestie Flounder. Ariel is a passionate collector of human memorabilia and proves it by going into transports of delight over a bent fork. Even being chased out of the wreck by a rather rabid shark can’t dim her joy. She takes her find to the surface, to the rock where her seagull friend Scuttle lives. He’s her expert on all things human, except he’s not an expert at all, he just offers whatever ridiculous story pops into his head. He also seems dreadfully drunk, or possibly concussed. Ariel eats up every scrap he gives her.
What she doesn’t know is that she’s being stalked by electric eels. They are the minions of Ursula, the sea witch, half voluptous femme fatale and half black and purple octopus, keeping up the trend of stylish Disney villainesses with a killer make-up game. Once her life was all power and glamour – then she was exiled from the palace by Triton. She’s still a tad bitter about it.
Triton himself is not at his happiest, hurt by Ariel’s no-show. He’s commiserating at the palace with Sebastian the crab, composer of the gala’s centrepiece symphony and current laughing stock. They are both even angrier when Ariel gets back and in the course of her apologies and excuses, it’s revealed she went to the surface. To Triton, humans are barbarians; any risk of contact with them is unacceptable. He wants Ariel to promise she’ll never go up there again. Ariel, of course, swims off without promising anything at all.
Rather unwisely, Sebastian goes on a rant about the proper control of teenagers, which Triton totally takes to heart. Before you know it, Sebastian is appointed Ariel’s supervisor. He follows her to a hidden grotto where she keeps her collection of human artefacts – everything from jewellery to screwdrivers to mysteriously intact paintings. Ariel is desperate to experience the human world. She wants to dance in the sunshine, walk down a street, see a fire. She wants to EXPLORE. She’s a girl with a dream and I adore her, okay? She deserves nice things.
Sebastian is freaked out. He tries to bring her home but a passing shadow alerts them to a ship passing overhead and like anything could keep her away from that. It is, surprise surprise, the prince’s ship. Fireworks are exploding, filling the sky with colour, while sailors dance on deck. These are the celebrations for Prince Eric’s birthday and Ariel is enchanted – particularly with the prince himself, who she sees first playing with his adorable mop of a dog Max, and later playing the flute. (She thinks it’s a snarfblat, but same difference.) His chamberlain presents, as his gift, a life-size statue of Eric in the pose of a knight. The prince struggles for a polite response. He also ducks out of the pointed conversation his chamberlain is trying to have about the necessity of marriage. “When I find her,” Eric declares, “I’ll know. It’ll hit me like lightning.”
That may well be true, but you know what else feels like being hit by lightning? There’s a storm rolling in and the party is abandoned as everyone hurries to secure the rigging. A direct lightning strike sets the mast on fire; it collapses onto the deck and the ship, spinning wildly out of control, smashes up against rocks. Eric hauls the chamberlain into a lifeboat then goes back for Max. The dog gets away safely. Eric is not so lucky.
Fortunately, Ariel is still watching. She drags him to the surface and gets him safely to land, leaning anxiously over him while she waits for him to wake up. Sebastian looks on, horrified. Scuttle tries to find a pulse. In Eric’s heel. Spying on the tender moment is Ursula, who sees all sorts of possibilities. When Max comes bounding down the beach, followed by the chamberlain and surviving sailors, Eric is just coming around and Ariel slips into the water. She watches with starry-eyed resolve as he walks away.
Being Ariel, she takes a proactive approach to her crush, plotting how to see Eric again. Sebastian does his best to dissuade her. “The human world, it’s a mess,” he insists and throws together an impromptu dance number to confirm it. I love how he can just summon up a ‘hot crustacean band’ at the snap of a claw. Also, some really fantastic world-building is shown here, with it being widely accepted in Triton’s kingdom that fish tanks are just holding cells for underwater captives and humans will eventually eat them too. Sebastian might as well have saved the energy, though. Ariel is already gone.
She’s not even a little bit subtle about her infatuation, her sisters guess in ten seconds flat from all the floating around giggling, and clue in their baffled dad. He’s happy for his daughter but wants to know who the lucky merman is. When he asks Sebastian, the crab flies into a panic and accidentally reveals the truth. Triton’s good mood evaporates; with a roar of rage, he goes after Ariel. The timing is dreadful. Somehow – I have no idea how – Flounder has maneuvered the statue of Prince Eric into Ariel’s grotto as a surprise and she’s squealing over it in delight when Triton arrives to ruin her happiness. Overcome with fury that she could love a ‘spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eater’, he blasts apart her collection with his magical trident and reduces her beloved statue to rubble, then leaves her to cry.
Flounder and Sebastian can do nothing to comfort her. In the moment of vulnerability, she’s easy prey for Ursula’s smooth-talking eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. They suggest she visit the sea-witch, who can make ‘all (her) dreams come true’. It’s official, you can’t trust anyone who delivers that line. Ariel knows enough stories of the sea-witch to be doubtful, but looking around at the ruins of her grotto, she’s willing to take desperate measures. Her friends trail behind, trying to make her change her mind. She’s too angry and hurt to listen. Even the sinister, skeletal architecture of Ursula’s lair can’t make her turn back, though the garden of scared squirmy misery-worms leaves her shaken.
Waiting beyond it all is Ursula herself, all smirks and curves and purring poison. “The only way to get what you want,” she assures Ariel, “is to become a human yourself.” She spins a fiction of herself as the noble do-gooder using her magic for the general populace – but it comes at a price, and if you can’t pay up she turns you into a tortured garden plant. Ariel is given no time to absorb that detail, distracted with the practicalities of her potential bargain. Ursula can make her human for three days. If the prince gives her true love’s kiss before sunset on the third day, she’ll be human permanently; if he doesn’t, she’ll belong to Ursula. Also, in payment for the potion, Ariel must sell her voice.
Sebastian and Flounder can’t say NO fast enough. Ariel is torn. She’ll miss her family – and what can she do ashore without her voice? Ursula whirls around the cave, whipping up the potion and streaming sleazy platitudes about silence being attractive to men. She bullies Ariel into signing a contract that shines too brightly to even read, and that is…that. Ariel’s beautiful voice is trapped inside a seashell. Her tail breaks apart into legs. As the spell takes effect, her friends haul her to the surface, to the same beach where she left Eric. She’s a little stunned but in love with her new toes. Scuttle is raucously supportive, Sebastian is a bit hysterical and it takes all Ariel’s wide-eyed imploring for him to keep the bargain from her father.
Just for the record, Eric’s castle is the most gorgeous beach house ever. He’s not too shabby himself, either, brooding on the identity of his mystery rescuer while playing the snarfblat – sorry, flute – completely unaware that the girl he’s dreaming of has just washed ashore. Luckily, Max is on the ball. He leads Eric to Ariel with an excess of enthusiasm. The prince apologises, checks she’s okay, and she just glows at him. Even wrapped inelegantly in a dress of sail and rope, she’s gorgeous. KISS THE GIRL.
Eric doesn’t. He has manners. I think he wants to, though, he’s sure he recognises her but when he realises she can’t talk he thinks he got it wrong – the girl he remembers was singing to him. Not that he grows one iota less courteous. He takes Ariel home, where she has her first bubblebath and is given a beautiful pink dress. Sebastian’s experience is more traumatic. He gets stuck in the kitchen with a terrifying chef who does his level best to kill him and smashes up the whole kitchen in the process. Meanwhile, in the dining room, Ariel is bumbling her way through dinner. She tries to comb her hair with the fork and steals the chamberlain’s pipe, trying to play a tune on it. Eric is obviously enchanted. The chamberlain ships it. (He ships Eric x marriage in general, but definitely likes Ariel.) They’re both so charmed they don’t notice Ariel hiding Sebastian on her plate.
He proves he’s a fantastic friend by overcoming the distress of his day to plot flirtation strategies when they’re alone later that night. Ariel, as usual, isn’t listening – she’s already fallen asleep, unaware of her father’s anxiety and remorse. He’s ransacking the sea for a sign of her and won’t rest until she’s found.
The next day, Eric shows Ariel around his lands. She’s fascinated by everything, pulling him in her wake as she runs from one discovery to another, taking the reins of the cart and nearly breaking both their necks (though she adapts quickly and Eric lets her keep driving because he’s the best). That evening they go boating in the lagoon. Scuttle, getting antsy for some lip action, tries to warble a ballad. It’s hideously awful and Sebastian is galvanised, pulling together a band out of random ducks and tortoises, crooning a love song in Eric’s ear.
The prince starts trying to guess Ariel’s name. With some prodding from Sebastian, he gets it right and the couple stare at each other while the boat spins idly on the water, encircled by fireflies and flamingos. Just as Eric and Ariel lean towards each other, however, the boat is overturned by Ursula’s eels. She proves she’s the villain by slut-shaming our perfect princess. Turning herself into a beautiful human girl, Ursula dons the seashell necklace and goes walking under Eric’s window. He’s very literally bewitched.
Scuttle wakes Ariel first thing in the morning with clumsy congratulations, thinking that the snap wedding that’s been announced is the culmination of yesterday’s flirting. It’s the first Ariel’s heard of it, but she flies out of the room to find Eric, lit up with hope. Then she sees him – standing beside another woman, ordering the baffled chamberlain to arrange a whole royal wedding in the space of one day. The ceremony is to take place at sunset.
Heartbroken, Ariel is left behind as the wedding ship departs. Sebastian and Flounder do their best to comfort her, but Scuttle, blissfully unaware that anything has gone wrong, is following the ship. Swooping past a window, he sees the prince’s new bride singing triumphantly at a mirror and Ursula’s gloating reflection singing back. Appalled, Scuttle flaps back to Ariel. When she understands what she’s dealing with, Ariel plunges straight into the water – and pretty much sinks, she can’t swim in this shape, she needs Flounder’s help to reach the ship. Sebastian goes to alert King Triton. Scuttle is tasked with stalling the wedding.
He was born for this.
Before you can say ‘enemy of the bride’ he’s summoned up an army of gatecrashers – birds to divebomb the guests, seals leaping on deck – Ursula herself is plastered with crustaceans and thrown into the wedding cake, and amidst the mess the seashell is ripped from her throat. The voice within returns to its true owner. Eric, waking from enchantment, realises he’s found his mystery girl and runs to her, but the sun is already sinking and Ariel is a mermaid once more. Ursula drags her into the sea.
She does not want a lovestruck princess. Ariel is bait and Triton takes it. In order to free his daughter from the terrible bargain, he must take her place and before Ariel’s horrified gaze he is transformed into one of the misery-worm garden plants. Ariel throws herself furiously at Ursula, and receives unexpected support from Eric, who has dived into the water after her. Snatching up the king’s triton and crown, Ursula aims a blast of magic at her ex-fiance, which he escapes only thanks to the efforts of Flounder and Sebastian. The bolt hits Flotsam and Jetsam instead, killing them instantly.
Enraged with grief, Ursula turns herself into a giantess, a queen of the seas. A whirlpool forms as she rises to the surface and wrecks float up with her. Eric, ever the sailor, scrambles aboard one and aims it straight at her. She’s so obsessively focused on trying to kill Ariel that she doesn’t see the jagged prow approaching until it stabs straight through her chest. With a cry, she sinks into the depths. All bargains die with her: the misery-worms are restored into very relieved merfolk, Triton reclaims his property and everyone re-evaluates their lives. “Children got to be free to live their own lives,” Sebastian hints at his king. With only a little sigh of regret, Triton gives Ariel back her legs, no strings attached, and throws in a sparkly blue dress to boot.
Ariel marries her prince. It takes place on board a ship so all her family can watch, and all her friends too (Sebastian wins round two over the homicidal chef. Go Sebastian!). Afterwards Ariel gets a hug from her father, Eric bows to Triton like the dream son-in-law he is and the royal couple sail away under a flawless rainbow. Who needs confetti?
Spot the Difference: Many elements of the original story show up here – the statue, the singing – but the brutal edge is gone. Andersen’s story is one of obsession, rejection and despair, full of religious guilt. His heroine is literally soulless, at least in her own eyes. Disney’s Ariel, by contrast, is vividly optimistic with a decisive sense of self that can withstand the loss of big defining traits like her voice and fishtail. She draws strength from her friendships and falls for a man who is worth her time. Eric has more personality than all the other Disney princes so far put together; he’s attracted to Ariel’s enthusiasm and energy. The Water-witch of the original fairy tale is a malicious cynic who continues to exploit vulnerable girls until the very end, but Ursula has a game plan beyond casual cruelty.
I’ve read criticisms of The Little Mermaid, calling it sanitised – to which I reply, hell yes it is, that’s the point. This is the only film version I’ve ever preferred to the fairy tale. Retellings are not intended to reiterate the source material, they respond to perceived flaws and adapt the story for a different time and/or audience. Ariel is given the agency and confidence her Andersen counterpart could only dream of. Her love story is convincing and the ending allows a healthy balance between both worlds. All the main characters get a ‘hero moment’ during the finale, acknowledging that Ariel needs friends and family as well as her true love in her life. This is a movie for children. It is meant to inspire hope, encourage adventure. Even if it was meant for adults, though, what’s so wrong with a happy ending?
It’s slightly less happy if you acknowledge the existence of The Little Mermaid 2, but I try to pretend that never happened.