Our generation (late X) has made it to the crossroads of cynicism and nostalgia. Our knee-jerk poo-pooing of the things we loved as children is just starting to become knee-jerk wistfulness, in part because we haven’t done much thinking about these things in recent years, and in part because we’re starting to have our own children, and want to introduce them to the things we loved ourselves. However much qualified our interest in the artefacts of our own childhoods, they remain inherently fascinating to us.
Which may explain, in part, the backlash against the so-called Disney Renaissance films of the early '90s that seems to have infected the internet of late. From Hipster Ariel to Cracked.com’s takedown of Beauty and the Beast, it seems that everyone’s talking about Disney these days. And not particularly flatteringly.
And it’s tempting to want to join that hayride. Traditional cel-animation looks impossibly dated in these halcyon days of (occasionally) exceptional CG: the camera doesn’t move, the figures appear too flat and too smooth. Everything just looks so… well, cartoony.
But in talking about our first Monsters & Mullets Disney feature, we have to talk about what made the Disney Renaissance special. By the late ‘80s, animated movies were generally schlocky, cheap affairs. The come-down from animation’s heyday was especially steep for Disney, which by the mid-80s was producing mostly unremarkable placeholders – movies like the The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Co. and The Black Cauldron, each alike in lack of dignity. The animation was nothing special - never terrible but never stunning, either - and the stories so flimsy they’d waft away if you sneezed on ‘em.
The critical consensus seems to agree that Disney’s animation powered back into relevance with The Little Mermaid, but I think we should wind the clock back a little further. The Disney-helmed Who Framed Roger Rabbit preceded Mermaid by a little more than a year and heralded a sea-change in animation. Best known, perhaps, for its unprecedented use of multi-studio animated characters, Roger Rabbit also features a strong story and, most important, exceptionally lovely animation. It had to be lovely, to work in the film’s live-action setting. The animated characters are, if not realistic, then at least fully realized as three-dimensional objects: the way they interact with their live-action sets, the way light and shadow play across the contours of their bodies, and (of course) Jessica’s famous jiggles.
What Roger Rabbit made manifest was that Disney could deliver gorgeous, fully-realized animated characters. It remained to be seen whether, in an animated feature, they would.
Which is why The Little Mermaid was such an extraordinary spectacle when it arrived. The animation is fucking gorgeous. It helps that some of the underwater sequences used background paintings first developed in the 1940s, back when Disney was realizing its full strength as an animation house. And it especially helps that the first half of the film takes place under water, which freed the animators of many of the constraints of traditional animation. The setting gave the animators a three-dimensional environment to move their characters around in, and allowed them to animate those characters without worrying about the reality-imposing constraints of, you know, gravity.
But the attention to detail Disney lavished on Roger Rabbit’s production was not spared, either. Light and shadow play across Mermaid’s figures with the same kind of cinema-realism it did in the previous film, creating the illusion of a fully-realized three dimensional world. For a generations who's primary exposure to animation was crappy Saturday morning cartoons, animation of Mermaid’s depth and dimensionality was like a blow to the face.
Also, it’s a story about a singing mermaid and her talking animal friends. I mean, really. It was like catnip for little girls.
So there’s this girl. She’s 16 – which, when you’re a little girl, is understood to be the perfect age – and has a beautiful singing voice and her best friend is a funny fish and, oh yeah, she’s a mermaid princess. With waist-length hair. And her name is Ariel, which is the perfect mermaid princess name.
Ariel is seriously the apex of little girl fantasy.
Anyway. Ariel is pretty happy being a mermaid princess. She’s the youngest of a family of mermaid princesses, and the prettiest of them all. And she’s her daddy’s favorite. But she harbours a deep secret – she is super curious about humans. They have legs! They can dance! They make cool things like forks! So she spends her spare time haunting sunken ships in search of the detritus of human life, a hobby her dad is aware of and annoyed by. Triton assigns Sebastian, a very small crab, the unenviable duty of babysitting Ariel – which he does by nagging her a lot. Anyway, Sebastian discovers Ariel’s treasure-trove of human crap. Ariel, meanwhile, has fallen in love with some dead-eyed human prince (Eric? Really?) because she watched him dance on a boat and pat his dog. She saves him from drowning in a shipwreck and immediately gets very serious about him. Sebastian sings her a song about how awesome life as a mermaid is (any little girl could have told her that), but Ariel’s pretty set on getting out of Dodge as fast as possible. Sebastian accidentally lets Triton know that Ariel’s in love with a human.
Triton surprises Ariel at her Cave of Human Stuff and yells at her, then blows it all to shit. She bursts into tears. Flounder and Sebastian feel very bad. Enter the villain, Ursula the Sea-Witch. She’s some sort of octopus mermaid, with purple skin and slithery tentacles and totally awesome hair, and also the bestest voice ever. She’s got a bit of a bone to pick; apparently Triton exiled her from Happy Mermaid Land because she’s evil (fat, octopodian) and she’s been keeping her eyes peeled for a way to get her revenge ever since. Triton’s daughter is in love with a human and mad at daddy? Bingo. So she sends her minions, electric eels, off to retrieve Ariel.
In spite of Flounder’s and Sebastian’s best efforts, Ariel presents herself before Ursula, who lives in a creepy old cave full of weed-people. Ursula sings her an awesome song, which would honestly convince anyone anywhere to do whatever Ursula wants. I mean, this in spite of the fact that Ursula's Faustian deal is dodgy as hell and clearly a very bad idea. Still, Ariel’s cuter than she is smart, and agrees to trade her voice for legs. Oh, and she only has three days to get Eric to fall in love with her. This being a Disney film, “falling in love” means “kissing a couple of times.”
Whatever. Ariel transforms, Sebastian and Flounder pull her to the surface of the water, and boom, Ariel’s a human. Scuttle the seagull offers Ariel some valuable advice about how to catch a man and then dresses her in an old sail. Eric comes along and, although his dog recognizes Ariel as the girl who saved Eric's life, Eric himself cannot quite make the same intuitive leap. She may look exactly like The Girl, and she indicates that she’s The Girl, but she can’t talk. Therefore, she must not be the girl. Pity poor Ursula, the only character with two braincells to rub together in the entire film.
In any event, Eric takes Ariel back to the palace and sets her up in a sweet room. She gets her hair done, and is given clothes, including some crazy pink meringue of a gown, and is utterly delighted by her amazing fortune. Sebastian, meanwhile, has an adventure of his own in the palace kitchens. Eric’s all sad because he can’t find The Girl, but he likes Ariel (she is, after all, stonkingly hot) and takes her touring around his kingdom – an ‘80s idealization of a Victorian idealization of a Renaissance-ish French countryside. Or something. Whatever; the film takes place in Magic Fantasy Fairy Princess Land, where everything is a pretty kind of old-fashioned, and Ariel loves it.
Sebastian and Scuttle arrange for a romantic moonlight rowboat cruise and very nearly get Prince Lame-O to kiss Ariel, but Ursula’s eels tip the boat over and scupper that. Ursula decides she’d better step up her game or Ariel might actually get Eric to kiss her in time. So she transforms herself into a human – a really, really attractive one, too – and, using Ariel’s stolen voice, enchants Eric. Seriously, he’s so dumb that all it takes is one look at Ursula’s magical glowing seashell necklace and he’s convinced he’s found his one true love. Sigh. So they sail off to get married on a boat, because why not?
Ariel spends her last day as a human sulking around being sad. This is not a totally unreasonable reaction, under normal circumstances, but seriously, is there any way in which the entire setup isn’t totally shady? Is Ariel so dumb that she can’t find it within herself to get a little suspicious of the woman who sounds exactly like her? Not only is Ariel’s life on the line, so is the life of the man she loves! And all she can do is hang around moping?
Scuttle, right before sunset, discovers that Eric’s not at all suspicious fiancée, who sounds exactly like Ariel, is actually Ursula in disguise. Sebastian swims off to find Triton for help while Ariel, Scuttle and Flounder mount an offensive against the bridal boat. Scuttle marshals various sea-side creatures for wedding-disruption, which gives Ariel enough time to dog-paddle to the boat and clamber aboard. She pulls herself on deck just as the magical enchanted voice-holding sea-shell flies off Ursula’s neck and smashes at Ariel's feet, returning her voice and ending Eric’s enchantment. The light literally dies from his eyes as the magic dissipates. But we’re supposed to be happy at the reunion, so yay. They very nearly kiss but boom! The sun sets, Ursula reveals herself and busts out of her wedding gown, Ariel turns back into a mermaid, and hell doth break loose.
Ursula grabs Ariel and plunges back into the sea. Eric shouts something manly and useless about “not losing her again” and plunges right after them. Ursula monologues a bit about how she’s actually after Triton, and begins to turn Ariel into a shrivelled weed-maid. Triton appears and commands Ursula to stand down. She offers to save Ariel if Triton will turn over his crown and trident. Triton – who has the ability to turn Ariel into a human being, remember – agrees. Instead of blowing Ursula out of the water, he slumps his shoulders in defeat and hands over the goods.
Ursula handles victory graciously: by cackling, turning Triton into a weed, and buggering off to go wreak some havoc. Ariel gets mad and attacks her with her tiny little hands. Ursula shrugs her off and then gets with the torture. Eric appears and nicks Ursula in the arm with a harpoon. (Great aim, buddy.) This pisses Ursula off, and after she bungles blowing Eric up (instead killing her eels), she squidges up a big ol’ cloud of ink and then turns into… Super Ursula. She’s, like, huge. She whips up a storm, drops Ariel into a whirl-pool and starts trying to nail her with lightning. But her storm has also whipped up some wrecked ships, so Eric (somehow) scrambles to the helm of one and drives it into Super Ursula’s abdomen. Ursula explodes. Seriously, there are bits of calamari flying everywhere. (I thought that was a particularly awesome touch, when I was ten.) Triton and all the other weed-creatures Ursula had enchanted over the years are returned to their merpeople forms and yay, bad guy dead.
Sometime later, Triton is watching Ariel (still a mermaid) mooning over Eric, who is again washed up on some beach somewhere. “She really does love him,” he wonders incredulously to his assembled sea-creatures. Everyone assents rather sadly. So he turns her tail into a super slinky sparkly dress, and she trots out of the water to be reunited with her lunk-headed love. The final scene is their wedding (her puffy sleeves would make Anne of Green Gables envious), with all the merpeople waving and laughing and a big ol’ rainbow and hooray, love really does conquer all!
So, yes. There’s a lot that’s questionable about The Little Mermaid – like the fact that Ariel’s 16, that she seems determined to give up every ounce of her agency at every opportunity, that her love-interest has no discernable character but still gets to rescue her… and for developing a formula for storytelling that Disney then clung to, with the intensity of a really needy barnacle, despite its increasingly diminishing returns. And we’ll get to all that in a moment.
But first, there’s the stuff the movie gets right. The animation, as I argue above, is stunning – even after twenty years of advances in technology that make traditional animation look pretty antiquated. Watch how the camera moves, how the sunlight plays through the water, the way bubbles form from the flick of Ariel's tail, how her hair flows and settles, how light and shadow move across her features in "Part of Your World." It's still a breath-taking sequence, after all these years. And the movie is fun: Ariel’s a likable heroine, her companions are cute and funny, and the songs are still pretty brilliant. And, it’s about a mermaid princess. This movie is little girl catnip.
As for what doesn’t work… well, it’s important to think about this movie in context before we get too hot under the collar. Yes, Ariel’s sixteen years old. This film was produced during the heyday of teen-film movie-making; the ‘80s were all about teenagers finding celluloid love. Not to mention that most robust of American myths, the one where you find your soulmate when you’re in high school? You know, about sixteen? Keep in mind, too, that Disney is not exactly a risk-taking studio; they were interested in making money, not a statement, with The Little Mermaid. So feminist parable it is not, and was never going to be. Ariel may be a fairly strong character at the beginning, but by the film's end she's been rescued by her boyfriend and married off. That’s the way most fairytales end, at least according to the House of Mouse.
The larger problems are the film’s characterizations, and lack thereof. Dopey love-interest Eric is the worst offender, just some pretty face to get the plot moving. He plays some sort of tin whistle when he's sad, and likes his dog. And that's about it for him. Eric doesn’t matter in and of himself; indeed, the only important thing about him is that he’s hot.
And then there’s Ursula. She’s interesting, which is her problem – she’s way more fun to watch and care about than Eric, or Triton, or even Flounder and Scuttle (I like worry-wart Sebastian). Ursula has motivation, interests, and a sense of humor. Also, her lipstick is squished-up clam-goo. But she’s the evil one, and – more distressingly – apparently evil in part because she’s a woman who wants power, not love and marriage. So she’s a fat octopus with purple skin and a butchy short haircut, and she dies by being penetrated by a man after proving that she doesn’t have what it takes to wield power well. Ugh.
There is also an argument that the “Under the Sea” sequence is a coded racist screed, to which I don’t give much credence. But it’s undeniable that the production team either didn’t think through or didn’t care about the film’s messages, beyond the happy ending. Perhaps they just didn’t worry much about what people would read into a kid’s film, provided it made a lot of money. Which The Little Mermaid did. I don’t hate the film – I don’t even think it’s boring, which is a criticism I’ve seen elsewhere. And I rate it for ushering in such a fertile period in Disney’s history. Is it a problematic film? Yes. But it’s a classic for a reason. And you know, it’s still jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Monsters: Mermaids! Weed-creatures! Octoladies! French chefs!
Mullets: Eric has a great Ken-doll hairstyle. And how does Ariel keep her fringe so perfectly angled over her forehead?
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Well, Ariel is spunky and interesting for about a third of the film. And Ursula is interested in power, not sex or romance. So The Little Mermaid giveth and The Little Mermaid doth taketh away.
Doesn’t Anyone Think This Shit Through? I’m pretty sure Disney doesn’t care.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: Disney made a couple of straight-to-video sequels and a tv show, all of which I avoided. My childhood is intact.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomness Spectrum Placement: By Excalibur’s Helen Mirren on the Awesomeish end of our spectrum. Mermaid’s songs, animation and villain go a long way toward making up for the film’s deficits of story and character.