What can I say? I'm a sucker for nautical crap. I like to imagine I’d enjoy being an explorer on one of the early journeys to map the New World, though my husband assures me these trips were terrible. (I know they were, but wouldn’t the thrill of discovery outweigh the inconvenience of being eaten by your starving shipmates when you ran out of rats and mast-bark? Some people have no sense of adventure.)
So it was this, more than the prospect of the Disney movie, that drew me in. To be frank, I never cared for this particular studio offering. In general, 1990s Disney always struck me as too precious and cloying, too snide and self-congratulatory. I don’t hate Disney. I respect the animation and even like some of the songs (though not all – again, many of the ‘90s songs struck me as too Broadway, and I despise Broadway musicals). And there are some sequences in Disney films that are almost literally enchanting: the dwarves’ “Whistle as you Work” song in Snow White, the terrifying spindle-pricking scene in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella’s opening credits. And Alice in Wonderland entranced me as a child (it still does). Though I can respect, appreciate and even enjoy certain aspects of the Mouse’s imagined universes, I can’t help but loathe certain Disney princesses.
Some are less irritating than others – Sleeping Beauty, for instance, I find quite elegant. But I have the usual feminist gripe with Walt’s stable of fair maidens, and little Ariel seems to bother me most of all. Her unnecessarily enormous eyes, for instance. All Disney heroines are wide-eyed, but there’s something about her proportions that irritate me. Obviously I’m not looking for verisimilitude in a cartoon character; I just don’t find her aesthetically pleasing. I do like that she has red hair, though, so I’ll give her that.
I have another issue with The Little Mermaid: I think it frankly butchers Hans Anderson’s exquisite story. I realize it is irrelevant and useless to compare filmic adaptations of literature to their source material in such a way. There’s nothing worse than hearing some nerd whine, “It wasn’t like the booo-oook!” Film is an art form unto itself. So I will concede this point is critically irrelevant but note that it biases me against the film from the get-go, since I cherish the tragic original story so very much.
So maybe I should check myself here, and try to locate the locus of my hatred: other than twisting a delicate tale of love and loss into a cheerful fable about “being yourself” and spoon-feeding it to hordes of already over-entitled, delusionally self-confident little girls, is the movie really so bad? I don’t know. Plot-wise it dutifully hits all the requisite points. Song-wise, I guess it’s all right, if a little poppy (thought thankfully nowhere near as appalling as The Lion King). The sidekicks are average, neither especially charming or especially annoying. The sense of place is nicely rendered. It is mentioned at one point that they dwell in the Caspian Sea, and Prince Eric’s seafaring kingdom boasts a dreamy beachside castle. (Though I would have liked to spend more time in the undersea kingdom; I think the lack of time spent in this world merely demonstrates the lack of imagination put into this film.) There are interesting little touches here and there (Ariel’s stash of human detritus includes a de la Tour painting of “A Penitent Magdalen,” an interesting choice). So far, it seems to be coming up a draw. Now what about the villains?
This may be the only area where The Little Mermaid really shines. Ursula the Sea-Witch is the best Disney villainess since the evil queen in Snow White.
Her oozing flesh jiggles and quakes monstrously, as she quivers with delight in her own evil. Her big musical number is actually pretty decent, very lurid and smoky and filled with obscene suggestion. I’m unclear as to what her motivation for evil is exactly, other than mere generational jealousy – she seems to motivated partly out of an admirable desire to displace King Triton and rule the sea (who wouldn’t want to rule the sea?) and a generalized dislike of the willful, self-regarding Ariel – obviously something I can understand. Whatever the reason, she pursues evil with resounding style, from her clip-on earrings to her fire engine lipstick. Her flabby, fulsome body is a masterstroke of monster design; you can hardly tell where her back-fat ends and her octopus legs begin. And the final showdown, in which she turns Triton into a weird sea-ghost, raises a thunderstorm, and attempts to murder both Eric and Ariel, is an astoundingly frightening climax for a children’s movie. You can’t help but respect Ursula.
Overall, there is a nullity to The Little Mermaid that I just can’t quite get behind. I feel hollow after I watch it, experiencing neither joy for Ariel nor pity for her father, the imposingly rendered King Triton, who sacrifices everything to let her join Prince Eric’s kingdom. I don’t even feel feminist rage* at Ariel giving up everything she knows for a man, because all she ever knew before was a petulant, sullen sort of discontent. In essence, she gets everything she wants, no matter how many people she has to destroy (Ursula) or almost destroy (Eric, her father) to get it. When the movie begins she is spoiled and selfish, and when it ends she is spoiled and selfish. (How many months will go by before she wakes up one morning next to Eric and says, “Darling don’t you that I long to live in the air!”?)
But most of all (and I realize now I veer dangerously close to "it wasn't like the book!" territory here) this is a tragic tale of longing (not petty whims, Ariel!) and loss, utter, utter loss! This is not a peppy story, it shouldn't have a happy ending, damn it. The message of The Little Mermaid seems to be “let your children do what they want.” Surely this isn’t a lesson American parents need to learn.
* On a side note, Disney's pandering to feminism is quite blatant and enraging here: Ariel finds her voice, don't you see? I'm not buying it, no sir.