The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements, John Musker, 1989)

 Whoozits and whatzis and thingamabobs

There is a video doing the rounds on Youtube showing grown men singing Ariel’s beautiful song ‘Part Of Your World’ while at work. They’re all fathers of little girls. What an excellent illustration of the enduring appeal this film has on that group!

Disney princesses are of course always appealing, but there’s something about Ariel. She’s an independent spirit. Not exactly bright (the only classic Disney lady with some brains is probably Belle from Beauty and the Beast), but full of ambition and gusto. She longs to find a prince, longs to go on an adventure and be free of the future set before her. The lesson is: if you have a little girl, prepare to engage in the world of mermaids.

King Triton, Sebastian, Flounder – they all know the truth of the human world. Humans are not to be trusted and least of all spoiled princes. What a gag when Ariel finally surfaces and finds the world is exactly according to her youthful fantasy! Prince Eric is pure of intent and kind and wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of a beautiful maiden. Everyone in the castle is accepting of this complete unknown entering their household and automatically bethink her a noble princess instead of, say, a homeless beggar. It’s completely ridiculous and demands perhaps the biggest leap of logic of the audience.

But let’s not be childish. The little Mermaid is a great fairytale. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story may have been fully altered to suit the saccharine Disney universe, but there is much to enjoy. The sea witch Ursula is a joyous caricature of every burlesque, perfumed aunt that ever pulled nephews and nieces into her bosom. Triton’s rage at Ariel’s insubordination is believable and even a little scary (they sure used that upwards lighting to good effect!). And the finale, placed in a churning maelstrom, is absolutely epic.

Having said all that, the film also has a problematic side. Ariel is an annoying brat when she's under the sea, and the only thing that turns her into an attractive deal for the prince is losing her voice. Relegated to facial expression and sign language, she becomes charming and hilarious. What does this say about women holding their tongue? The running theme is finding your own way in life. In that sense, Ariel is deliberately held back by her overbearing father, Triton the Patriarch. But rather than escaping into freedom, she flees right into the arms of another man, another father figure she will depend on in meek submission. The only voice of independence is Ursula, who has succesfully turned her back on the stifling royal rule. She is the true hero here, the only one to oppose Triton and approach him on equal grounds. She and Ariel should've been of a kind, but regrettably Ursula is depicted as a villain lusting only for power and vengeance. The 80s were obviously not yet ripe for a feminist voice, and suppressed it as by a magic spell.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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