Reflections on the Water: The Little Mermaid

            The Little Mermaid is the first movie my parents ever took me to see in theatres. From then on, I loved it. Until the release of The Lion King, it was my favorite movie. I very nearly wore out our VHS copy by watching it nearly every day. Some things never change: my current DVD has two parts where it messes up regularly. It’s very irritating, but the Blu-ray is being released in a few months, so it isn’t a long-term issue.
            The Little Mermaid came about at just the right time. The Disney animators were pared down; only 125 animators inhabited the huge animation building that Walt had built for his artists. They were moved to trailers in a parking lot off of the studio lot—a very clear signal that the feature animation division needed a hit or else the division might be cut completely. There was a lot riding on Ariel’s shoulders. On top of the fate of the animation department, Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale to be produced since Sleeping Beauty thirty years earlier.
            With so much riding on the film, the storyline, animation and technology all had to be unique, innovative and have huge earning potential. The director’s also co-wrote the feature, with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken teaming up with Disney for the first time ever. Their influence is a huge aspect of the Disney Renaissance. The creative combination of those three creative geniuses is the best thing to happen to animation since the multi-plane camera (in my opinion, that is. And I happen to think the multi-plane camera is insanely important, as well.). The special effects department spent a year finishing just the storm sequences; their hard work clearly paid off. There are some digital backgrounds that were utilized, but the integration of CAPS (the early Disney computer animation) and hand-drawn isn’t subtle. Of course, I watch a lot of animation, so my opinion may be biased. But those few backgrounds looked completely different to me than the rest of the film. It wasn’t until I knew there were computer animated backgrounds that I looked for them. So it’s kind of like hide-and-seek: if you’re looking, they’re easy to find, but if you aren’t looking, you probably won’t find them.
            There was one executive at Disney during the 80’s and 90’s that I’m not a fan of, but I’m a lady so I won’t mention names. (If you want to know, he identifies himself in the special features of this film). During the test screening, Ariel’s “Part of Your World” sequence wasn’t completely animated. One boy, the one sitting in front of the executive, dropped his popcorn and focused his attention on cleaning it up instead of watching the song. Because of that, this executive wanted to cut the song completely. I’ll give you a minute to collect your shocked and shattered thoughts, as I know I can’t think about this movie without instantly having that song stuck in my head (in a good way). It’s my go-to sing in the shower song. I wouldn’t hold one terrible suggestion against this guy, but he’s also the person who wanted to cut “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King and succeeded in cutting “If I Never Knew You” from Pocahontasuntil the 10-year anniversary DVD was released. One day, I might be able to forgive this person, but it’s terribly difficult. (Hmm, I think it was the same person over and over again, but I could be wrong!)
            The first character we actually meet isn’t even a merman or mermaid; we meet Prince Eric and the sailors before entering the world ‘under the sea’. It’s a fish who escapes the nets that truly leads us into the world of Ariel and her family, which is most appropriate. It makes sense that we meet Eric first, because he’s Ariel’s motivation for really wanting to become a human. Before she rescues him, she wants to experience that world, but she doesn’t really dream of being a human, and staying a human, until she observes him and rescues him. It’s also important that she doesn’t necessarily fall in love with how he looks, but how he acts. She sees him playing music, dancing, playing with his dog. Of course I love Max the dog, how could you not? I also love how Eric risks his own life in order to save his dog during the shipwreck.
            Max also serves to identify who is good and who is not. For instance, he’s excited to see Ariel as a human, running up to her and licking her. Whereas when Ursula walks down the aisle to marry the entranced Eric, he growls at her. She kicks him in the face, making me hate her even more. He also plays a part in stalling the wedding, which is a great scene. We know Eric marries the right person when, after their wedding, Max interrupts their embrace with a huge, wet kiss. And they love it.
            Over the years, you can see the Disney princesses age. Not age as in become dated, but they literally grow older. The early princesses are young; even Ariel is only 16—and she gets married at the end! The two princess movies of the 2000’s are older: Rapunzel starts her adventure on the eve of her 18th birthday, and Tiana is old enough to buy a building to start a restaurant. Personally, I like that the princesses are growing up a little more before setting out on their adventures. As a kid, I thought turning 16 would unlock every door, window and attic hatch. While turning 16 is a big deal, I didn’t get married, open a restaurant, begin to rule a country. I just started driving. By having our heroines be a little older, we’re saying it’s okay to wait until you’re a little older to have giant adventures. It’s great to have little adventures as a teenager, but a certain level of maturity is required to have huge adventures, like moving 4,000 miles from everyone you know to a place you’ve only spent a few days in.
The tour of the kingdom– my favorite scene!
            Ariel is an interesting character. James isn’t a huge fan of this movie because he chooses to see it as a girl disobeying her father, instead of them both being a little wrong. King Triton shouldn’t have been so bigoted and Ariel shouldn’t have run away. However, James went a little too far by saying he didn’t want our kids watching Little Mermaid at all, and refuted my counterpoint that most Disney princesses disobey someone in order to achieve their dream by saying our children shouldn’t be allowed to watch Disney films at all. To which I replied, “If that’s the case, I’ll be leaving you.” He replied, “I can tell you’re more serious now that you’re stabbing your salad with more ferocity than before this conversation began.” So it was settled that our kids can watch any Disney movies they want!
            James also made a very astute observation: despite their short comings, the Disney villains all have a lot of ambition. Ursula is a great example of this. She doesn’t only want revenge for being banished, she wants to rule the seas. The more people who get hurt in the process, the better (that’s what makes her a villain).
            Originally, the Disney studios had some qualms about releasing a mermaid movie so soon after they released Splash. As a result, Ariel’s hair color became a topic of hot debate. One executive said in a meeting that everyone knows mermaids are all blonde! But the director’s won out, with Ariel being a redhead. This suits her fiery personality as well as the incredible adaptability of red hair. The way light and water work with her hair is truly marvelous, and it allows for Eric’s enchantment, as he only saw her silhouette.
            The importance of sacrifice is also a theme. Ariel has to sacrifice seeing her family in order to be with the man she loves, in a different kind of world. I relate with her even more after moving to Alaska, as I chose to live away from my family in order to have this great adventure for a few years. Granted, the man I love isn’t a different species and our relationship doesn’t depend on where we live. But it isn’t only Ariel who has to sacrifice: her father finally decides her happiness is more important than how much he’ll miss her. This particular sequence at the end of the film was difficult for me, with the recent passing of my own father. Having to do what’s best for your children can’t be easy for you. I know our living so far away wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t. But we’ve built our life here now, with our jobs, church, friends, and a house we bought last December. Thankfully technology helps immensely with living far away.
            Despite a fear of crabs, I love Sebastian. In fact, there’s a humiliating story of an eight year old me when my family visited a crab shack in Maryland. In this story my parents love to tell, a waitress carried a platter of crabs by our table, and I gasped, “Sebastian!” Then I ordered a hamburger and a salad, staring at my plate only for the remainder of the meal.

            One of the special features of the two-disc DVD is a short animated film directed by Roger Allers entitled “The Little Match Girl,” which is quite possibly the saddest short animated film I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, but heartbreaking. We watch as a young homeless girl tries to sell matches during wintertime in Russia. We see everyone pass her by, not even acknowledging her. At night, she huddles alone and battles against herself to not light the matches. Finally, she lights one and sees a warm stove. When the match burns out, the stove disappears. Next she lights another and sees a feast, which again disappears as the flame flickers out. The next match brings a horse drawn sleigh, leading her to a warmly lit home. As the door opens, a grandmotherly looking woman welcomes her. Before they can embrace, the mirage dissipates. Finally, she lights her last three matches. She embraces her grandmother, lights candles on the Christmas tree. The matches burn out as the snow falls heavier, and we see her slumped over in the snow. Then the grandmother appears, picking the young girl up as her face lights up with joy. It’s not until they both begin glowing and walk through a wall, and you see the young girl’s lifeless form still in the snow, that you realize both characters are no longer alive. There’s no dialogue at all, yet it’s a beautifully heartbreaking film, a reminder to always care for the wandering and the lost.


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