(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
Would you like me to review a particular animated film? I’m currently fundraising for my play Joanna and I need your help! In exchange for every donation of €10 or more I will review ANY cartoon you like. Details HERE.
Wow. We’re finally here. Have you been looking forward to this? I know I have. After all, we’re finally going to review the movie that unquestionably, I repeat unquestionably, ushered in the Disney renaissance…
I’m sorry, a mob of angry Disney contrarians has amassed below in the comments. One moment please.
No. I’m sorry, I’ve taken some controversial positions in my time but on this one the conventional wisdom is right. The Little Mermaid marks the beginning of the massive leap in quality in Disney animation that is known as the Disney Renaissance of the late eighties/early nineties. How did this come about? Well it was a perfect storm of a million different things and people coming together but I’ve got a lot to say on this movie so I’ll try and boil it down to the main causes.
1) Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Now, I don’t consider Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the start of the Renaissance because it wasn’t wholly a Disney movie. It was a Disney/Amblin co-production featuring not just Disney characters but Warner characters and those of many other studies and also it isn’t considered part of the canon. But it did lead directly to the Disney Renaissance in a very important way. Remember last review I mentioned how the makers of that movie brought in their own animators because they didn’t think the regular Disney animators were up to the task? Well after Roger was wrapped many of those animators were brought in to work on Mermaid which meant a huge transfusion of energy and talent. This is why Mermaid looks so much better than the films that came immediately before it.
Jeffrey Katzenberg is a controversial figure in animation and with good reason. He is in many ways the quintessential Hollywood executive, brash, abrasive and confrontational. His artistic instincts could also leave a lot to be desired (he wanted to cut Part of Your World, a choice that would have absolutely gutted the movie and which saner heads were thankfully able to talk him out of). But credit where credit is due, Katzenberg knows how to create entertainment if not always art. His track record before and after Disney is one of a man who knows how to make real crowd pleasers. Also, Katzenberg brought an energy and a drive to a studio culture that had perhaps been a little indolent. If you worked for Katzenberg you fucking WORKED for Katzenberg. I think of Katzenberg as a Blue Lantern.
What do I mean? Okay, well in Green Lantern comics you have these alien beings that wear power rings that are fueled by different emotions. The Green Lanterns have green rings fuelled by willpower that allows them to create incredible energy constructs. The Blue Lanterns have blue rings fuelled by hope that do jack shit on their own but when they’re near the Green Lanterns gives them an incredible energy boost because hope fuels willpower. Wow, this is probably the longest and nerdiest explanation I’ve ever given to anything. What I’m trying to say is, Katzenberg is not much of an artist on his own. But if you have him working with talented people he provides the energy and drive to push them to dazzling creative heights. Also, he’s extremely vulnerable to yellow fear energy (citation needed)
3) Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken created the sound of the Disney renaissance, which was important because with one notable exception, all the Disney films of the Renaissance era were musicals. There had been Disney musicals before, of course, but Ashman and Menken created something very new; Broadway Disney. The movies of this period are Broadway musicals in ink and paint. Everything about them, the big emotions, belting musical numbers, the dance numbers, the spectacle…it’s pure Broadway. Ashman and Menken, probably more than any other individual person, defined the feel of Disney movies of this period. And it all started with The Little Mermaid, whose success basically ensured that it was the template for every Disney movie that came after, triumph after triumph after triumph… until the whole formula was basically squeezed to a desiccated husk and everything came crashing down like a house of wet cards. But we’ll get to that eventually. For now, let’s take a look at The Little Mermaid.
Okay, not to brag but…my wife is fucking awesome.
It was her birthday recently and you know what she wanted to do? Go on a shopping spree in a comic book shop.
She is completely, utterly amazing and I lucked out so much to end up with her I’m a little jealous of myself. But…she’s not perfect. In fact, she has one very grave flaw that has at times threatened to destroy our otherwise rock solid marriage. I mean, we don’t let pretty much anything get between us. Religious or political differences? Mere trifles. The ongoing debate on the merits of a vertical toilet seat versus a horizontal model? Love conquers all. The occasional extramarital liaison with certain unnamed persons slash national sports teams? Hey, the Venezuelan basketball team are on my list and no backsies.
No, the source of this friction is…
I can barely bring myself to say it…
My wife…my wife hates The Little Mermaid. Not, The Little Mermaid I hasten to add. The Little Mermaid. Ariel. My wife hates her. Can’t stand her.
I fucking love Ariel. Sad as it is for a twenty-nine year old man to admit to the world, but there you go. I absolutely love her. This puts me in a bit of a bind because I am…
You know, being a guy and being asked “Are you a feminist?” kind of puts you in a lose-lose situation. You say “No” and it’s “WHY NOT?”, you say “Yes” and it’s “OH YEAH, PROVE IT! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?“
But yeah, I’m a feminist, for what it’s worth, and I know that the character of Ariel raises a lot of hackles amongst feminists. And…sure, I can see why. But I don’t actually think the character is nearly as bad from a feminist perspective as some make out. Let’s take a look at some of the arguments against her.
“She trades her voice for a man and a vagina.”
Wait, vaginas are bad now? I…I thought vaginas were good. Wasn’t there a bafflingly successful play about how vaginas are symbols of feminine power and so on? Would you feel better if she was given legs and no vagina? Would that be better? Okay, all joking aside it’s the fact that she gives up her voice. And yes, that can be read as a rather troubling subtext. Legs open, mouth shut. But you remember back in my Jungle Book review when I said the first thing that we need to consider when addressing troubling subtext is whether it was intended by the author or not? Now, some will argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter and that any reading of subtext is valid regardless of whether the author intended it or not. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But in cases like this where the piece in question (and by extension its creators) is being charged with misogyny or racism, then that question becomes very relevant. So. Did Disney have an anti-feminist agenda in having Ariel selling her voice, and if not why is it in the movie?
Well, that’s easy. For starters, it’s in the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, and secondly, if Ariel didn’t sell her voice the movie would go something like this:
Yeah. That took five seconds and there was no giant octopus-lady battle. Good job everybody.
Sure, you can read negative subtext into it if you want, but I think it’s pretty obvious that Ariel losing her voice is just there because it’s necessary for the plot to function. Now, the sentiment that Ariel should simply shut up and sleep with Eric to get what she wants is expressed in the movie, but it’s expressed by Ursula (the villain, I remind you) who subtly hints it by braying “Don’t underestimate the importance of the BODY LANGUAGE!” and thrusting her hips like she’s riding the mechanical bull. The only overtly anti-feminist statement comes from the villain, and the scene where Ariel trades her voice to Ursula should leave you in no doubt that what she is about to do is a very bad idea.
“Ah ouis!” I hear you cry “But you forget, at ze end of ze movie, she marries ze prince, and lives ‘appily every after, so validating ze stupid and reckless decision to sell ‘er voice!”
To which I reply….
What’s with the accent?
But also, sure. Yeah. It does all work out. A happy ending in a Disney movie. Which means…tell ‘em what it means Walt.
Fuckin’ aye. It’s a Disney movie. Of course there’s a happy ending.
“Her only motivation is to get a man.”
This perplexes me a bit. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Character A meets Character B and falls instantly in love. But Character B lives in a world so different and removed from that of Character A that their chances of being together are practically nil. But Character A is determined, makes a deal with magical Character C to be changed so that Character A can woo Character B. After a few twists and turns and perhaps a giant monster battle, true love conquers all and Character A and B end up happily together. Oh, why am I being so coy, you know who I’m talking about, right?
So, is it somehow demeaning to all men that Aladdin’s only motivation is his love for Jasmine? Would it somehow be more feminist if instead of Ariel playing the Aladdin role, she was more like Jasmine waiting in Atlantica for Eric to scam a pair of gills and join her in the ocean? Roger Ebert, God rest his soul, articulated very well why Ariel is such a step up from the last three Disney princesses. She’s active. She goes, she seeks, she fights for what she wants. She’s not someone who stuff happens to. Incidentally, “someone who stuff happens to” still describes the vast majority of female characters in every damn medium so you’ll forgive me if it irks me ever so slightly to see a character I love belittled as being anti-feminist just because her motivation stems from love. Love is not anti-feminist. It just seems like such a confused argument to me. Sorry, I realise I’m probably just not getting it. I mean, the only other possibility is that “feminism” has become a catch-all term for a vast array of differing and often contradictory standpoints leaving the movement fatally prone to infighting and utterly unable to coherently articulate what it actually wants.
Okay, in all seriousness, yes. There are parts of the movie that are definitely problematic from a feminist perspective. A big one for me is that Ariel gets progressively more passive as the movie goes on. She starts out a rebellious, shark dodging treasure hunter and ends up pretty much totally helpless, needing Eric and Triton to rescue her. So yes, minus points for that. But…I still think the character gets a raw deal, and that there’s a lot more to love than to loathe.
Okay, okay. Dismounting from my soapbox now. Let’s take a look at the movie.
We open with a ship sailing across the ocean blue and a strapping young youth declaring to his puking aged guardian that it’s a perfect day to be at sea. This is Eric…
…voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes who was only sixteen years old at the time. Which means Eric is a minor, so please fangirls, let’s not make this weird. Barnes has got one of those voices that pops up in animation all the time and you can never quite place it and the question lingers, always there. Like a splinter. In the back of your mind.
So let me put your mind at rest. He’s Peter Parker.
The sailors take in a catch of fish (rather low-level work for a vessel carrying the Royal Prince, no?) and the ship’s maritime law mandated Old Sea Dog (ya gotta have one) tells Eric about King Triton, ruler of the merpeople. Grimsby, Eric’s…butler? Legal Guardian? Sugar Daddy?
Well anyway, whatever he is, Grimsby tells Eric not to listen to listen to this “nautical nonsense” and Old Sea Dog responds in the time-honoured way of his people.
But he drops the fish and it escapes overboard into the ocean, presumably to write a book and go on the lucrative undersea talk show circuit.
The music leading up the reveal of Atlantica is phenomenal, working the main theme from Part of Your World into a wonderful rippling melody that perfectly evokes water and depth before building up to the big crescendo where we see our first merperson.
All the merpeople are gathering at the palace for a big concert being held in honour of King Triton. Triton is voiced by Kenneth Mars which I just found out literally this second and I cannot believe because holy shit I would not have guessed that in a million years.
I’ve heard it argued that The Little Mermaid is actually Triton’s story, not Ariel’s and sure, there’s something to that. He certainly grows more as a character than she does. Mars does absolutely fantastic work with Triton, making him by turns badass, frightening, loving, and heartbreakingly vulnerable. I do have one tiny regret, though. Brilliant those he is, Mars was not the first choice to play Triton. In fact, were it not for scheduling clashes our Triton would have been…
Sigh. A Mouse can dream.
We’re also introduced to Sebastian, a crab, who’s Triton’s court composer. Sebastian would probably rank among my all-time favorite Disney supporting characters. Partially that’s just down to nostalgia. This was the first Disney movie I ever owned on VHS and I watched it again and again to the point where I’m reasonably sure I can recite it from memory and Sebastian was always my favourite. But Sebastian is something quite unique. Disney supporting characters tend to be stereotypes. I don’t mean that in a racist sense, goodness no!
I mean, they tend to fit pre-defined character types. Which makes sense, they’re mainly there as comic relief and they don’t have as much screen time so it makes sense to use stereotypes. Sebastian was originally going to have a posh British accent, which they felt would suit his roles as both a composer and as Ariel’s royally appointed cock-blocker. But Howard Ashman wanted Sebastian to have a Jamaican accent to suit the reggae-influenced Under the Sea and so both character concepts were merged. Sebastian is refreshing because he defies stereotype. You don’t get many uptight, highly strung Jamaicans in movies and Samuel E. Wright makes good use of the accent for comic effect. At the same time, it never feels like we’re supposed to be laughing at the accent itself, it just gives a little extra kick to the gags.
Wow. You know, some reviews I feel like I have to pad a lot so the review isn’t too short? This is not going to be one of those.
Anyway, Triton says he’s really looking forward to his daughters’ performance, particularly Ariel’s. Because you know how parents shouldn’t play favourites? Triton isn’t “parents”. The concert starts and we get Daughters of Triton, a brief, zippy little piece where Triton’s various daughters set up Ariel’s big entrance only to realise that she’s pulled a Von Trapp Family and hasn’t bothered showing up to the show. And as a theatre man I have to ask; NOBODY CHECKED THAT THE STAR OF THE SHOW HAD ACTUALLY TURNED UP?! WHO THE FUCK WAS STAGE MANAGING THIS THING?!
The show is a disaster and Triton is absolutely furious.
We finally see Ariel, exploring a sunken ship with her best friend Flounder.
You know, when Pixar started working on Finding Nemo, the animators essentially took a degree course in ichthyology in order to accurately animate the different species of fish. I’m guessing the Disney animators who worked on Mermaid did not do that, otherwise they might have known that flounders actually look like this:
Ariel is voiced by Jodi Benson, probably my single favorite female voice artist. As well having an absolutely phenomenal singing voice (hell, they work the fact that her voice is amazing into the damn plot!) she’s a brilliant performer and has some pretty awesome comic chops to boot.
Animator Glen Keane, who was mostly known for animating child and animal characters, overheard Jodi Benson singing Part of Your World and was so entranced he pretty much demanded that he be allowed to animate Ariel. Despite never having animated that kind of character before, Keane created one of the single most beloved and influential animated characters of the Disney renaissance. You only have to look at the Disney princesses that came before Ariel and after her to see the impact that she had. The animators also used footage of astronaut Sally Ride in zero gravity to get the animation for her hair floating just right. In short, she’s a work of art.
Ariel’s something of a humanity fan-girl, and as they explore the galleon she finds a fork and a pipe to add to her collection. They get ambushed by a shark but Ariel manages to lure it into the ring of an anchor, trapping it. And now that I think of it, since sharks need to be constantly moving forward in order to breathe, he’s almost certainly now dead.
Ariel takes the swag to Scuttle, a seagull who’s basically been posing as an expert on human paraphernalia despite his only experience with humans likely being enjoying their many scenic landfills. Scuttle spins her some BS about the fork being a hair straightener (“a dingle-hopper”) and the pipe being a musical instrument called a banded, bulbous Snarfblatt. The mention of music reminds Ariel that she really should be standing in front of thousands of people wowing them with her vocal awesomeness, so she swims back home with Flounder. As she goes, she’s watched by Flotsam and Jetsam, two moray eels who work for Ursula. Now, I get asked this question a lot so in case you’re wondering; Flotsam and Jetsam are male, but they’re voiced by a woman named Paddi Edwards. They’re two of the most sinister villain sidekicks in the Disney canon, creepy and almost never comedic. They’re also very effective. Even the best Disney villains have been let down by incompetent henchmen (Maleficent and her pig-orcs, Scar and the hyenas, Rattigan and Fidget) but when Ursula tells Flotsam and Jetsam to do shit, shit get done, yo. They also work as a kind of organic CCTV feed, with Ursula able to watch Ariel as she swims. Ursula tells the eels to keep an eye on Ariel, as she may be the key to ruining Triton’s day.
Triton’s day is already a hot mess, and he tears into Ariel when she finally gets home. Flounder tries to help, but ends up making things worse when he spills the beans that Ariel went to the surface. Triton is furious, saying “You could have been seen by one of those barbarians, by one of those humans!” and I am absolutely, 100%, on Triton’s side with this. Seriously. I mean, think about it. Triton is the ruler of a kingdom of sentient, thinking fish. That scene at the start of the movie where Eric’s ship hauls in nets full of fish? How many of Triton’s citizens were killed in that moment? Four hundred, five hundred? And that was from one ship! How many millions of his people are being slaughtered every day by these things? No wonder he doesn’t want Ariel going to surface! And when you look at it this way, Ariel’s fascination with human beings is kind of creepy. She’s like those weird scientists who keep popping up in the Alien franchise who are in love with the xenomorphs because they are the ultimate killing machines.
After a blazing row, Ariel swims off. Triton worries that he may have been too hard on her but Sebastian says “Hell No!” and suggests that she should be under constant supervision.
Triton, liking the cut of Sebastian’s control-freaky jib, puts him in charge of constantly guarding his daughter which I would have thought was a job for the secret service, but whatever.
Sebastian sees Flounder passing off a bag to Ariel (and teens passing each other bags never looks unsuspicious) and follows them to the cave where Ariel keeps her secret stash. Ariel pulls the rock away from the entrance and WHAT THE FUCK??!
Okay, thin-as-paper sixteen year old girl moving a giant rock bare-handed? Borderline impossible. Doing it on the ocean floor? Flat out impossible. Doing it when there’s differing water pressure on either side of the rock? No, no, no, no…
I mean, I suppose you can rationalise it when you remember who her father is.
So okay, Ariel has super strength. But this just raises all kinds of troubling implications. You ever read Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex? Eric better watch out on the wedding night, that’s all I’m saying. That girl will snap him like a cracker.
Sebastian follows Ariel into the cave and is shocked to discover that she’s been hoarding artifacts from that voracious fish-eating race of nightmare creatures from up top. Ariel sings Part of Your World which just…umph.
My God this song. This song, this song, this song. One of the virtues of doing an animated musical is that it gives you the chance to be subtle. Howard Ashman walked Jodi Benson through every line of this song, helping her bring through the emotion of each verse. Onstage, you don’t really get to do that as every line has to be belted loud enough to be heard in the cheap seats. But here, Benson can whisper as well as roar. It’s a magnificent song, the heart of the movie.
Sebastian is furious, and probably not a little creeped out…
…but before he can read Ariel the riot act a shadow passes overhead and Ariel swims up to see what it is.
She sees Eric’s ship, launching fireworks into the sky in celebration of Eric’s birthday.
One of my favorite stories about this movie is that when directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker were first contemplating the idea of doing The Little Mermaid they wondered why Walt had never considered the idea for adaptation. It was only later when they were going through the Disney archive that they found lost treasure; concept art for an unproduced Little Mermaid short from the 1940′s. This sequence with Eric’s ship and the storm were largely inspired by these pieces of concept art. I just love the idea that the film that returned the Disney studio to its former glory had a little help from the master himself.
Ariel climbs up the side of the ship and watches the party. She sees Eric and is instantly smitten.
Grimsby presents Eric with his birthday present, a massive marble statue of himself. Grimsby’s a little pissy because it was supposed to be a wedding present, but Eric laughs that off saying “You’re not still sore I didn’t fall for the Princess of Glowerhaven, are you?”
Jeez. I kinda feel sorry for the Princess of Glowerhaven. I mean, that’s the thing about royals, it’s not like you can just privately tell someone you’re not into them. Your relationship choices basically decides the future of two kingdoms. And if you get rejected, everyone knows. That must be pretty rough. I just hope the Princess of Glowerhaven didn’t grow up to be embittered and utterly self-conscious about her appearance.
Grimsby says that the whole kingdom wants to see him married off, and Eric says that when he meets the right girl he’ll know, and that the realisation will hit him, like lightning.
Well, because Eric is apparently a thunder god, lightning strikes and the ship catches fire. The crew escape into the lifeboats but Eric goes back for his dog Max and gets caught up in the explosion when the fire sets off the ship’s gunpowder stores. Ariel rescues the unconscious Eric and pulls him to shore. Scuttle lands and performs a medical examination.
Ariel sings a reprise of Part of Your World and Eric wakes up just long enough to get a glimpse of her before she escapes into the water. Grimsby arrives and Ariel watches from a safe distance as he takes Eric away.
Ariel now completes the reprise of Part of Your World and if you get a chance I want you to watch what happens next and really listen to Jodi Benson’s voice. Listen to how much anticipation, and fear, and longing and hope she manages to work into those first few lines, “I don’t know when, I don’t how, but I know something’s starting right now.”
And then the music swells, and the wave builds up behind her, and the orchestra and the animation and the music and Benson’s voice join together to build in one perfect, joyous, ecstatic crescendo…
Goosebumps. Every time. Every damn time.
Back at Atlantica, Triton notices that Ariel is acting a little funny, and the other daughters tell him that she’s obviously in love. Or that Flounder is getting her some better weed. One or the other.
Sebastian is getting increasingly nervous because sooner or later Triton is going to learn what happened and he is going to (as my junior infants teacher used to put) fucking murder him. Ariel swanning around like a lovesick…swan isn’t helping his odds of survival, so Sebastian tries to set her head straight with the reggae infused awesomeness of Under the Sea. Jeez. What can I say about this one? The most popular Disney song of all time? Maybe not, but certainly up there in the top five or so. It’s just Ashman and Menken at the top of their game and the brilliant, intricate lyrics are complemented by the animators going nuts showing all the different fish and marine life who want Ariel to stay with them under the sea, the carp, the ray, the fluke..
Well, that notwithstanding, it’s still a phenomenal song. With his big number over, Sebastian looks around to see that Ariel’s disappeared. To make matters worse, a message arrives for Sebastian. Triton wants to see him. Something about Ariel.
Triton grills Sebastian for information on Ariel’s boyfriend, but gets more than he bargained for when Sebastian cracks under the strain and confesses everything.
Meanwhile, Flounder has brought Ariel to the cave because he has a surprise for her.
And yeah. The fact that a small fish was somehow able to transport a massive marble statue weighing many tonnes into an undersea cave with only two entrances, one capped with a massive stone and the other a little skylight far too small to fit through…that would indeed qualify as a surprise. I am genuinely surprised by that. You might almost call me “dribbling with shock and confusion”.
HOW THE HELL DID FLOUNDER DO THAT?!
Anyway, Ariel is overjoyed but her delight is cut short when Triton arrives and he is PISSED when he sees the statue. He starts yelling at Ariel and things quickly go south when Ariel blurts out that she loves him.
Triton…does not take that well, and proceeds to blast the shit out of everything in sight, finally destroying the statue.
Triton leaves and Sebastian tries to console Ariel but she tells him to screw off. Sebastian leaves with Flounder and Ariel is left alone, sobbing in the cave. Flotsam and Jetsam slink out of the shadows and tell her that Ursula can help her. At first Ariel is outraged at the very idea and this is something that always fascinated me. There’s obviously some backstory going on here that we’re not being let in on. Ursula mentions earlier in the movie that she used to live in the palace but was banished. And Ariel has clearly heard of Ursula and knows that she is very bad news. What happened? What did Ursula do? I would love so much to know what these characters were doing before the movie began…
Outside the cave Flounder and Sebastian look up to see Ariel swimming away with the two eels. Sebastian demands to know what she’s doing with “this riff-raff” and Ariel coldly tells him she’s going to see Ursula. Sebastian’s reaction to this, sheer terror, is very telling. He tries desperately to talk her out of it, but she says “Why don’t you tell my father? You’re good at that.”
Actually, that’s a wonderful idea. And he is good at that. He maybe should have followed her advice. But no, Sebastian and Flounder tail Ariel to Ursula’s lair. How fantastic a villain is Ursula? While other Disney villains are content with dark rambling castles or abandoned riverboats, Ursula has an undersea stegosaurus skeleton for a lair.
Ursula is right up there in the top tier of Disney villains. Maybe not quite my favourite, but a very strong contender. It helps that she’s very distinct from all those frosty, refined, pencil-thin villains. Ursula is a sensualist, a creature of massive appetites and she’s wonderfully voiced by Pat Carroll, who manages to imbue her with both camp and real menace. Which is doubly impressive when you remember that Pat Carroll is humanity’s sweet old granny.
Ursula sings Poor Unfortunate Souls, a fantastic villain song where she tries to convince Ariel that she’s changed her ways and only wants to help her. Again, Ashman coached Pat Carroll on how to sing the song, and many of Ursula’s bitchy asides (“Pathetic!”) were originally ad-libbed by Ashman and then incorporated into the performance by Carroll.
Ursula sets out the deal; She’ll turn Ariel into a human for three days. If she manages to get Eric to fall in love with her and give her the kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day, human forever. If not, then she’ll turn back into a mermaid and Ursula will turn her into one of the creepy anemone things she keeps around to brighten up the place. And of course, Ariel has to give up her voice. Ariel, having come this far, agrees, and signs the contract without being able to bring herself to look at it.
Once she has the contract, Ursula makes this face:
Ursula takes Ariel’s voice in one of the eeriest and most beautiful images in a movie chock full of ‘em and transforms her into a human.
Of course, being a human, Ariel can’t breathe now, and Sebastian and Flounder have to get her to the surface before she drowns. Which makes me wonder, what exactly was Ursula’s plan if they hadn’t been there? Would she just have watched Ariel thrashing and flailing for a few minutes and wondered why she was turning blue?
Oh, as an aside, have you ever played “Breathe When They Breathe”? It’s a game my brothers and I used to play. Basically , when you’re watching a movie and a character can’t breathe, you have to hold your breathe until they can breathe again. This scene where Ariel is being raced to the surface by Sebastian and Flounder is pretty tough, but it’s doable.
Up on land Eric is playing the theme from Part of Your World on his flute, a sign of just how much Ariel has gotten into his head. Max leads him down the beach to where Ariel has been getting herself dressed in some sails from the shipwreck.
There’s a pretty instantaneous attraction, but Eric has sworn eternal fealty to the woman he briefly glimpsed for one second through a sea-water raddled haze and seeing as Ariel is now mute, he figures that’s not her. He does, however bring her back to the palace.
Ariel has a little trouble adapting to all the wonders of the human world. Although to be honest, she seems so lost and mesmerised by everything I’m starting to wonder if Ursula didn’t take her memory too.
At dinner time she makes a few faux pas like combing her hair with the fork and trying to play Grimsby’s pipe which needless to say, does not go over well.
I love these scenes, and the later ones where Eric shows Ariel around the kingdom, because holy crap! She’s actually getting comic business! Quick, name me one time Snow White, Cinderella or Briar Rose were allowed to be funny. Another reason why I think Ariel is such a step up from the previous princesses.
They end up on a boat in the middle of a lagoon, but Eric is still being a perfect gentleman, the bastard. So Sebastian decides to take matters into his own claws and gets the whole lagoon to play Kiss the Girl.
Another all-time classic (my God but this movie has awesome songs). It was nominated for an Academy Award but lost it’s more famous big brother, Under the Sea, but I think I may like it even more. I love the way it starts off small and intimate with just Sebastian singing before building to a riotous crescendo with all the animals in the lagoon joining in.
And it almost works. Eric and Ariel are just about to kiss but Flotsam and Jetsam capsize the boat (see? Shit getting done.) Watching from her lair, Ursula realises that Ariel is in it to win it and that it’s time to bring out the big guns…
Okay, now we get one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. Eric is standing out on the balcony, playing that damn tune over and over again. Grimsby comes out and gently says:
“Eric, if I may say…far better than any dream girl is one of flesh and blood. One warm, and caring, and right before your eyes.”
I always find this line striking. Disney movies are often accused of promoting an unreal, fairytale vision of love. And yeah, fair enough, they totally do that. This movie as much as any of them. And yet, there is something very grounded in Grimsby’s line to Eric. Sometimes the impossible dream, or the unattainable dream girl, is not a noble quest but a distracting chimera. Sometimes obsession with someone you can’t have, and who probably really only exists in your own mind, can blind you to the fact that someone wonderful and amazing is right under your very nose.
Eric looks up to see Ariel, combing her hair with a fork. And he smiles.
Yeah, she’s nuts. And she can’t speak. She’s not some perfect, idealised goddess. She’s better than that. She’s real.
And he flings the flute into the sea, the wind catching it and making it sing one last time (such a lovely, eerie touch.)
Eric turns to go to her. And then he stops.
And he hears a voice on the wind.
Eric made his choice. He chose the real girl. But obsessions are not so easily discarded.
The next morning Scuttle flies excitedly into Ariel’s room to congratulate her. He’s heard it around town that the Prince is getting hitched that afternoon and assumes it’s to Ariel. Ariel is overjoyed and whoah whoah whoah back up.
Do you really think that if you were getting married today he wouldn’t have told you? Hell, don’t you think he would have actually, you know, proposed? I mean, I’m glad you’re happy, but if he actually was the kind of guy to do that you probably shouldn’t marry him. Surprise proposals are romantic. Surprise weddings, not so much. You know what kind of asshole arranges a wedding without even asking the girl if she wants to marry him?
Later that day, as sunset fast approaches, a heartbroken Ariel watches the wedding ship depart from the dock (she didn’t even get an invite? Harsh.)
Scuttle flies past Vanessa’s window and hears her singing with Ariel’s voice to her mirror.
Ursula’s been playing a long game, and she now has Triton exactly where she wants him. She offers the deal; his daughter’s freedom in exchange for his. And of course, Triton accepts. She turns him into an anemone and claims his crown and trident. Ariel flies into a rage, screaming “YOU MONSTER” and is just about to tear Ursula’s head clean off with her super strength but Eric arrives and flings a harpoon at Ursula that just nicks her arm. Flotsam and Jetsam try to drown Eric but Sebastian and Flounder manage to fight them off. Ursula raises the Trident to blast him, but Ariel yanks her hair, causing the shot to go wide and disintegrate Flotsam and Jetsam. Devastated and enraged, Ursula watches Ariel and Eric escape to the surface, checks her watch and sees that it just turned Not Fucking Around O’Clock.
Ursula grows to massive(er) proportions and towers over the terrified Ariel and Eric like Cthulhu’s lesbian aunt.
Ursula summons a whirlpool that descends all the way down to the ocean floor and raises sunken ships to the surface. Ariel falls hundreds of feet down the whirlpool onto the ocean floor. Which should kill her but…fuck it, if she has super strength who’s to say she doesn’t have invulnerability?
Oh what, so I’m forgiving of nonsensical bullshit in movies I love, sue me.
Eric manages to climb onto one of the raised vessels (I had actually forgotten just how much of a badass Eric is) and Ursula raises the trident to strike the final blow, bellowing “SO MUCH FOR TRUE LOVE” which I have decided will be my last words.
And then ERIC STABS HER WITH A FUCKING SHIP.
With Ursula dead and the storm over, Eric is washed up on the beach, because he gets washed up on the beach more often than six pack rings. Ariel watches him from the rock, and Triton watches her, and Sebastian watches Triton, and I watch Sebastian…
Anyway, Triton finally realises just how much Ariel loves Eric and sadly sighs that there’s now only one problem left.
“How much I’m going to miss her.”
Triton turns Ariel into a human, the pair get married, Sebastian narrowly escapes being killed by the chef who I didn’t have time to mention because my fingers are bleeding and they all live happily ever after.
So as you can probably guess from the fact that this review is longer than some editions of the King James’ Bible, I absolutely adore this movie. This was my entry point into Disney. Without this movie, this blog would not exist.
Not since Snow White had a Disney movie received the kind of critical acclaim that greeted The Little Mermaid on its release. It was instantly recognised as a classic of the genre and almost overnight Disney was once again a focal point in American popular culture. The animation department, for so long considered the weak sister of the Disney company, was now the the golden child. A new wave of creative energy and enthusiasm and (not least importantly) money swept into the animation wing. The animators couldn’t know what they had created and how it would ultimately come crashing down. But as the curtain fell on what had been a largely miserable decade, they could be sure of one thing;
Something was starting, right now.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!