In 1989, The Disney Corporation began a renaissance for it’s animated feature film business with the release of The Little Mermaid. Today, Pop Culture Blind Spot attempts to borrow a bit of that restart juju by providing you with a glance into the past at that very same movie. It’s kind of hard to fathom how I completely and utterly missed seeing The Little Mermaid the first time around…or at least how I missed seeing it later in high school during my “Watch sappy, girly, nostalgic kids movies because girls like them” phase. But somehow, I completely missed the boat (zing) on the first of the string of Alan Menken & Howard Ashman Disney movie musicals.
When you read what I think about a movie that so many of you hold very dearly in your hearts, I worry that you’ll immediately jump to some conclusions that aren’t quite true. It’s not as simple as saying “You just don’t like musicals”. On the contrary, I love musicals. There is a playlist in my iTunes right now called “Show-Stopping Numbers” that only contains numbers which I consider among those that stop a Broadway show. It’s also not as simple as saying “You just don’t like Disney.” It’s just not true because I love Disney. I still count the 1967 version of The Parent Trap among my all-time favorite movies of all time. At some point, we’ve all wanted to have Mary Poppins appear at the window and help us jump in and out of chalk painting. And before you say it, my feelings about The Little Mermaid have nothing to do with my disdain for the world’s least effective, non-super “superhero”, Aquaman. He sucks all on his own and I can’t judge others just because they have a passing resemblance to that failure of imagination. No, my feelings about The Little Mermaid are more complicated than that. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same brine-soaked page…
A Brief Synopsis of The Little Mermaid: Ariel is a 16-year old who doesn’t listen to her father and gets into trouble for it. Spoiler Alert! She’s a mermaid and her dad is King Tritan, the king of the ocean (take that, Aqua-dumbass). Although she has a guaranteed spot in her father’s undersea burlesque show with the rest of the king’s daughters, Ariel dreams of being a human so she can put to use all the great SAT vocabulary words she’s learned…like “street.” For years it seems, Ariel’s been collecting bits of human trash and collecting them in her creepily-named “grotto” which she can visit to bask in all her hording tendencies. Among her treasures: a fork (oooooh!), 20 corkscrews (whaaaat?) and an in-tact print of Georges de La Tour’s Repenting Magdalene (no, really). Whenever she finds a new trinket, she takes it to the surface to have it identified by the only trusted source of information in the entire ocean, Scuttle the Seagull (played by the always intoxicated Buddy Hackett who you may remember as the always intoxicated mechanic from the Herbie the Lovebug series in the 1960′s). It’s during one of these trips to the surface that Ariel sees Prince Eric (played by Christopher Daniel Barnes who you may know from either the two 90′s Brady Bunch movies…or from the “Tiger Beat” poster you had on your wall from ages 10 – 15, depending on your point of view). Although she’s been assigned a full time protector by her father (in the form of Sebastian the crab), Ariel still manages to travel to the surface to watch a celebration for Prince Eric which, unfortunately, is struck by a sudden storm. The storm tosses Eric into the ocean and it’s up to Ariel and the rest of her sushi platter friends to save him from drowning. After rescuing him from a watery grave but before disappearing into the world of the merpeople, Ariel sings to Eric in a way that only future Disney princesses and stalkerish ex-girlfriends can. Upon waking, Eric can barely remember why he agreed to be in this movie in the first place, but totally remembers the beautiful voice that woke him from his almost coma.
Meanwhile! all is not happy in the world of the half fish/half hotties (seriously, even her dad is rocking a six pack, look it up). Although King Triton is the unofficial dictator of anything below sea level, Ursula the Sea Witch is desperate to control the kingdom…which is hard to believe since this is a Disney movie and things like that never happen. Triton finds out that even though he assigned a tiny crab to watch her, Ariel has once again disobeyed him and gone to mingle with the humans. In an act of dad rage, Triton uses his weapon (which, ironically, is also called a triton) to destroy all of the crap that Ariel’s worked so hard to collect (including that print of Georges de La Tour’s Repenting Magdalene. Ursula uses that moment of sadness to strike, offering the distraught Ariel the chance to get legs and become a real girl once and for all…which is odd since this is a Disney movie and things like that never happen. Unfortunately, there’s a catch and Ariel must give up her beautiful voice for a set of what are B-/C+ legs, at best. Ariel agrees and Ursula removes her voice and gives her legs (which are needed for both jumping and dancing, as Ariel pointed out earlier). She’s got three days to get true love’s kiss from Eric or she’ll be stuck as Ursula’s personal assistant forever. Sebastian the crab and Flounder the “Lenny” of fish, drag Ariel to the shore where she’s eventually discovered by Eric and his dog, Max. Max, although a member of the animal kingdom just like the talking fish and talking crab, can’t talk at all continuing a long line of Disney prejudice towards some dogs in their stories. Eric takes Ariel back to his castle where she’s treated like the survivor of a shipwreck, given free things and never once asked for identification. She still can’t speak though and she’s beginning to realize just how hard it is to mime “I used to be a mermaid who saved you from drowning and sang to you beautifully before becoming a human girl so I could hook up with you” even though that’s a beginner level phrase in charades. On the second day of her stay at Eric’s castle, they almost kiss while on a boat ride. A kiss that would have broken the spell and let her live happily ever after with Eric (which is weird, because this is a Disney movie and kisses never do things like that) but is instead broken up by Ursula’s non-talking eels (either personify everything or personify nothing, c’mon).
Hearing how close Ariel got to breaking the spell, Ursula goes all Veronica on her Betty ass and uses a spell to become “Vanessa” (which, if you look it up in the Disney dictionary is a synonym for “harlet”). Ursula’s plan is to use Ariel’s voice to seduce Eric away from Ariel so the spell won’t be broken and a distraught King Triton will have to give her the kingdom in trade for his bratty daughter. Eric, being a guy, is immediately drawn to the idea of “new girl” (Ursula also casts an enchantment on him so he’ll fall in love with her) and they decide to get married. This follows the logic that if a girl sounds like someone you heard in a half dead state you should marry her immediately (which is actually strange because this is a Disney movie and that actually doesn’t happen all the time). Ariel runs away crying because the boy she’s known for less than two days is marrying someone else but luckily drunken Buddy Hackett is there to discover that super cute Vanessa is actually kinda chubby Ursula. He tells the news to Ariel who immediately grabs her slow witted fish friend Flounder and heads after the wedding barge that Vanessa and Eric have set sail on (since everyone knows that all royal weddings must take place on barges for legal purposes).
Sebastian runs (swims?) to tell Triton what’s happening and Buddy Hackett becomes as useful as Aquaman by summoning all kinds of sea creatures to help him stall the wedding. In the struggle, the shell that Vanessa/Ursula is wearing that contains Ariel’s voice is broken and she’s able to once again sing like Jodi Benson. Realizing that it was Ariel that saved him and not Vanessa, Eric runs over to kiss her but it’s too late and she turns back into half a Long John Silver’s #7 meal. Ursula switches from hottie to hideous and absconds with Ariel. Even though the ocean has a strict “Don’t negotiate with terrorists” policy, Triton relents and agrees to give up control of Waterworld in order to save the red-headed brat. Ursula becomes the ruler of the ocean (you’re not even #2, Aqua-douche) but is confronted by the Ginger Fish and Prince Eric (who’s feeling guilty about just how far he went with Vanessa the night before). During that fight, Ursula kills her non-personified eels which totally pisses her off. Ariel and Eric make up just in time for gigantic Ursula to rise from the seafloor and attempt to kill them. Even though she’s wrecking ships left and right and despite the fact that they totally made out the night before, Eric steers a ship into Ursula’s big belly and kills her. Ursula’s death breaks all of the spells that she had cast (which is odd because this is a Disney movie, yadda yadda yadda) and Eric barely makes it to shore without drowning.
With Ursula’s death, Triton immediately becomes king again and uses his power to permanently transform Ariel from fish-lady to lady-lady since he sees just how much Ariel loves Eric. It actually reminds him of when he and Ariel’s mother first met and fell in love…before she drown? or disappeared? ran off with Jonah? Who knows. The movie closes with Ariel and Eric married on a boat (with T-Pain) surrounded by their human and merpeople friends. And then a Disney artist paints a giant dong on the VHS cover for the movie. No joke.
Why is it a PCBS? For most of the girls that I grew up with, The Little Mermaid holds an almost mythical place in their hearts. I cannot tell you how many talent show performances of “Part of Your World” I had to sit through between the ages of 10 and 14. Before it became synonymous with ads for the Disney Cruise line, it was ubiquitous in Disney commercials, specials, parades and all other manner of singing events. There was merchandise galore and even a Saturday morning cartoon that basically retconned the whole story and had Ariel still as half a fish. In essence, The Little Mermaid took over popular culture for a while even though I didn’t see it. The other reason that it’s a huge PCBS is the simple fact that it brought Disney back from the animated dead. Before The Little Mermaid, Disney animation was lost in a sea of odd choices (Who greenlit The Great Mouse Detective?) and terrible musicals (sorry Billy Joel but Oliver & Company was a trainwreck and a half). The Little Mermaid kicked off a string of hugely successful Disney musicals that each went on to have their own “dong castle” moments (like Aladdin’s “All good teenagers take off their clothes” and the flying “SEX” in The Lion King). The Little Mermaid was the first step in the revitalization of hand drawn animation at the studio that really pioneered the art form. They brought luster and pride back to artists who slaved over celluloid for years to make a single animated feature and animation was returned to it’s former ink and paint glory…till Pixar came along and totally ate everyone’s lunch.
How does it look in the rear view mirror? Well…as unpopular as this stance may be (and judging from the reaction I got when discussing the idea of writing this with a friend), I think the movie comes off as dated both in style and in substance. And I don’t mean dated as in “belongs in 1989.” I mean dated as in “belongs in 1959.” You don’t have to dig too deeply into the story before you can see what I mean. For example, the basic premise of the movie is that a teenage girl who has everything (and that’s not hyperbole, she actually refers to her self as “the girl who has everything” in song) decides to disobey her father and run off to fall in love with a boy…at 16 years old. And when she does run off to meet him and gets into horrible trouble, her father bails her out and gives up everything just to save her disobedient ass. Now, it’s true that I’m not a parent and that I was that disobedient 16 year old child…but come on. In the end, Ariel suffers no consequences at all and is allowed to do exactly what she wants…at 16 years old. How is that a lesson for children? “Don’t want to do what your parents say? That’s ok! Run away and at worst you’ll get to live in a castle for free. At best, you’ll become a princess.” And all of her rule breaking and running away is for what? A prince who at first almost makes out with her even though she can’t talk because some fish are singing about how he should and then dumps her for a chick he’s never met because she sounds like a girl he had vague hallucinations about during a near death experience. Prince Eric falls right in with a long line of completely stupid Disney princes (sold separately). He’s one dimensional, completely clueless and willing to use completely arbitrary qualifications in order to find the girl he’s going to love forever (see: Prince Charming in Cinderella who’s weird obsession with shoe size almost cost him the girl of his dreams). Is Eric the ideal that girls should be skipping town in order to find? No. Is he a pretty good Peter Brady impersonator? Yes. If he’s willing to almost fall in love with one girl who doesn’t speak and then agree to marry a different girl just because of the way she sounds, what does that say about his character? The story also seems to be playing pretty fast and loose with the rules of this reality. I’ve already mentioned how there seem to be some animals that were in the bathroom when they were handing out human personalities but why is Ursula half human/half octopus? Does that mean that throughout the ocean there are more half human/half _______ things in existence? The under sea world seems like a weird mix of autocratic rule and Island of Dr. Moreau experiments and not the happy-go-lucky musical extravaganza that Sebastian would have us believe. All in all, the story comes off as a retread of all the other Disney movies without any of the lessons learned. At least Belle learned that she could truly love someone for who they were on the inside, Aladdin learned that eventually Robin Williams will shut up and Simba learned that life moves pretty fast so he should stop and look around every once and a while so he doesn’t miss it (I may have that last one wrong)
Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, is The Little Mermaid a bad movie? No. Would I watch it again? No. Do I understand why so many people around my age remember it so fondly? I guess so. But to those that read this and vehemently disagree with my opinions about Ginger Fish and her under sea adventures, I challenge you to go back and watch the movie now with fresh eyes. Isn’t it a little strange that the only chubby person in the entire kingdom is the evil one? If the eels can’t talk, how can they understand the very specific instructions that Ursula gives them via dialogue? Was Buddy Hackett really the best choice for the seagull or was he just the only person available to record that day on the Disney lot? Ladies, if a man either loves you in a day even though he doesn’t know your name or loves you specifically because of the way you sound when you talk or sing, call the authorities.
When you compare it to the later Disney renaissance movies (Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) it just feels a bit empty and soulless. Put it up against the masterworks from Pixar (Toy Story, Wall-E, that movie about the fish that gets lost, etc.) it just doesn’t hold a candle. In the end, it’s just like that copy of Repenting Magdalene by George de La Tour that Ariel has in her grotto…something pretty that’s just completely out of place.