by Tony Hansen
Itís been all of 18 years since the theatrical release of "The Little Mermaid," and finally, now that the dust has settled, the mermaid fever has subsided, and its substantial audience has had a bit of a chance to digest the film, it seems clear that what the world really needs right now is to read another review of this 1989 Disney offering. People are clamoring for a well researched, incisively written, and amazingly thought-provoking piece of criticism. Humankind needs the truth, the real truth, raw and unfettered by fuzzy feelings and soggy nostalgia. Unfortunately, this is not such a review. On the contrary, this is an examination full of hunches, uneducated guesses, and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants intuition. Concepts like ďlogicĒ will not be used, and the original Hans Christian Anderson text will not be considered. But does Ariel deserve any better? "The Little Mermaid," with all its magic and pluck, presents its fish princess as nothing more than a socially irresponsible and destructively inconsiderate brat. And all of us, filled with enchantment, sat and smiled.It has been stated that this film was the beginning of a new Disney renaissance. Following the success of The Little Mermaid, Disney produced such films as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Tarzan. With these filmic accomplishments, Disney, once again, became relevant. After the creative nadir of the 1980s, the studio began to make something greater than simple animated films Ė they created event pictures. The result was a decade in which palpable excitement existed for each Disney release. And while this sense of anticipation has eroded with the rise of so many exceptional competitors, Disney remains a name that you can trust . . . mostly.
"The Little Mermaid" is Rotten Sushi"
Writing, specifically, from a purely scientific viewpoint, it seems impossible that such an objectionable film create such offspring. How does a bad tree produce good fruit? Perhaps, this question is best left to our pop culture theorists. Perhaps, we may never know. Some might hypothesize that the answers rest with the clever marketing of the film or, maybe with the perky, hummable soundtrack. Whatever the reasons, the simple unavoidable truth is this: people like the movie. They do.
But they shouldnít. The Little Mermaid is an animated feature that carries with it a protagonist who is completely odious and, perhaps, irredeemable. Ariel lives her life as a mermaid princess with no respect for the feelings of others. She is selfish and irresponsible. Even in the first few scenes of the film, Ariel demonstrates her flair for heedlessness. As the central figure of an underwater Broadway-like production that is meant to showcase her budding talents, Ariel fails to take part in the rehearsals. She also fails to take part in the performance itself, leaving her sisters in quite an embarrassing situation. Certainly, they have practiced a great deal in an attempt to please their father. Their singing and choreography demonstrates this. But, the practice is wasted. Undoubtedly, the pain of this moment for Arielís sisters must cut deeper because of the fact that Ariel seems inexplicably to be King Tritonís favorite. One can only speculate as to why this is the case. Ariel doesnít have a mother and, maybe, as the youngest child, she reminds her father of the married life that he once had. Also, and unfortunately, there is the chance that King Triton respects Arielís essential joie de vivre. While caring for her well-being, he secretly admires her freedom and youth. Not knowing the intricacies of mermaid mores, it is difficult to ascertain with certainty any type of truth on these issues.
However, we know what we see, and what we see is an incredible disrespect, not only for Arielís father/king, but also for those whom she calls friends. Again, early in the film Ariel is instructed by her father not to go to the surface. Itís dangerous and, as a loving parent, he cares for her safety. But, to put it frankly, Ariel doesnít care about her fatherís wishes. She only cares for herself and nothing will stop her in her pursuit for human contact. In chasing this dream, Ariel also puts her friends in danger. She takes Flounder through shark-infested waters in an attempt to get closer to humans, whose garbage she is hording in an underwater cave. After Sebastian enters her life as a chaperone, she continues on her decadent ways without caring how her choices will affect Sebastianís standing with the king. While King Triton loves his daughter, he also proves to be vengeful and impetuous, which are not exactly the ideal traits to work under for Sebastian, especially if you are doomed to fail.
In a jarringly ironic scene, Sebastian pleads with Ariel to change her ways. His entreaty comes in the form of a song. ďThe seaweed is always greener in somebody elseís lake,Ē Sebastian opines. ďYou dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake. Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor. Such wonderful things surround you. What more are you looking for?Ē Itís truly a lively, plucky tune, and Sebastian attempts to amplify its affect by arranging it as an accompaniment to a dynamic dance sequence, featuring a diverse group of undersea life. But it has no affect on the selfish princess. In fact, she leaves in the middle of the song. Here is the irony. During a sparkling performance that makes the human viewer want to join the sea, Arielís resolve becomes greater Ė she will ďbe where the people are.Ē The affect that this decision must have had on Sebastian and the other sea creatures cannot be overstated. Whatís wrong with their lives? Are they not good enough for Ariel? Clearly, to Ariel, there is something wrong with their lives. Clearly, they are not good enough. And so it goes that Ariel essentially chooses the prince over her father. Her infatuation with humans usurps any type of feelings that she has for her home.
It should be stated now that Ariel is only sixteen years old. The repercussions of this fact are immense. In contemporary terms, she is, after all, underage. It might be legal for her to marry the prince in his culture, but is it right? Is she emotionally prepared to commit to an adult male of a different species? Of course, Ariel is quite precocious, but the film gives no indication that she will have the maturity to handle this change. Interestingly, by following through with these morally questionable actions, Ariel shows as much disdain for contemporary culture as she does for her own culture. She breaks the acceptable standards of King Tritonís laws and does likewise with the elementary values of the viewer. Surely, this should alienate Ariel from all who know her. Yet, somehow, it doesnít. Apologists may surmise that Arielís age explains her impetuous behavior and even justifies it, but itís certainly undeniable that her actions throughout the film are negative and hurtful. Arielís deeds might be understandable, but they are not acceptable.
Most shameful of all is Arielís insistence on fraternizing and even desiring to become part of a society that is certainly the mortal enemy of her own. After all, the humans eat fish. In fact, as the human society rests on the seashore, itís clear that the inhabitants of this township depend on shipping and fishing for their livelihood. What could be worse than a sea princess desiring to become part of a civilization that must destroy her own civilization to survive? Ariel, for whatever reason, cannot see the moral and mortal implications of her choices. Surely, a love affair between Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler would be a fair comparison to the deleterious decisions of Ariel. When she receives her legs, Ariel is ethically and literally a fish-out-of-water. Sheís sleeping with the enemy. Sheís endorsing the genocide that is taking place everyday in the home of her family and friends. To make matters worse, there is always the possibility, and maybe probability, that Ariel will ask the humans to stop eating fish, a request that is both laughable and misguided. What will happen to the humanís economy? How will they survive without their chief source of food? Even after choosing to reject her own civilization, Ariel must make another choice: will she allow the humans to continue to eat her old friends or will she destroy the livelihood of her new friends? Perhaps, the answer comes in a scene late in the film. After Ariel receives her legs, she dines with the prince. In a remarkably horrifying sequence, a food-crazed Frenchman chases Arielís friend Sebastian around a kitchen. Sebastian flees onto a plate that is meant for Arielís dining party. Following a bit of funny business, Sebastian escapes, but Ariel is left with a quandary. Does she eat the fish that must have been prepared for her or does she refuse to eat someone who could possibly be one of her friends? Later, Arielís subsequent choice is made clear, as the prince never mentions any difficulty that Ariel has had living in his kingdom. She must have eaten the fish. Thus, Ariel must have made the conscious choice to become a cannibal.
While itís questionable whether Ariel had difficulty swallowing her friends, itís clear that fans of The Little Mermaid had no difficulty in swallowing Arielís choice. As the main architects of this film, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as screenwriter Roger Allers, have given the people what they wanted. They have created a world where the Anglo-Saxon hegemony rules. To truly live, one must be a European descended white person. This is what Ariel believes. Thus, some viewers might find Arielís desires reasonable and tolerable because they are themselves European descended white people. ďObviously, Ariel would want to be one of us,Ē these people might assume. ďWhy wouldnít she want to a part of my culture?Ē Hence, The Little Mermaid succeeded at the box office. This fact produces a grim portrait of modern-day society. Many canít understand the value of other cultures Ė in this case, the world under the sea. With this in mind, clearly, each person who saw the film and left with a smile on his or her face must have felt the inherent acceptability of Arielís actions. People need others to want them. Ariel fulfills this need. She wants to be like the culturally dominant majority in America.
Yet, the value of this is arguable. What about the richness of difference? What about distinctiveness? To be sure, in a more progressive version of this film the prince might have ended up in the sea or Ariel might have remained among her people after realizing the uniqueness and greatness of her own culture. Interestingly, Arielís journey becomes, expectedly, a lateral move. She goes from being a princess to being a princess. For the filmmakers, it would be horrific to imagine Ariel falling in love with, say, a peasant or a lowly farmer. However touching this sacrifice of status would be, itís not what the audience, this movieís audience, wants to see. Certainly, these things would have given the film a message and an inimitability one could more fully respect. But Clements, Musker, and Allers didnít see it that way, and their blindness guided them right into the hearts of millions.
Some have said that the process of watching a film (or, in this case, a movie) is less demanding than the process of partaking in any other form of art. Movies envelop us. They require so very little. They give and give, never asking us to take. The Little Mermaid, then, seems like a most gracious philanthropist. It offers cotton candy for the soul, and it does so without any sense of its own shortcomings. Accordingly, we eat, never considering that we are being made fat with the unfathomable, selfish yearnings of a fish. Maybe moral constructs should not be placed on a fictional cartoon character such as Ariel. Maybe successful family movies donít deserve harangues from not-so-successful film critics. But, it is my belief that, with Arielís desire to walk, she is, in fact, standing for something. She represents the lazy and misguided efforts of filmmakers everywhere who believe that frolicking magic, whether it is special effects or dancing, singing anthropomorphized animals, can replace thoughtful excellence. Attentive decency isnít required. I just donít want to watch any more whining brats passed off as heroines.Thus, our favorite little mermaid proves to be a self-centered, inconsiderate, possibly racist, cannibalistic, wasted piece of fish flesh. Thatís my opinion. And my opinion isnít wrong.
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originally posted: 11/09/07 09:48:39