Here’s a story: Last week I was discussing Disney movies with a rather reclusive primate researcher and after revealing that I had never seen “The Little Mermaid,” I was unceremoniously labeled a “damaged youth.” Now anything said by someone who gets paid to watch monkey sex all day should be taken with a grain boulder of salt, but I was worried that she may have had a point. As a child, I singlehandedly wore out the VHS reels on our copies of “Pinocchio” and “101 Dalmatians.” We even owned the bottom shelf stuff like “Simba’s Pride.” In my defense, that was a gift from the grandparents and the reason why I refused to go to the funeral. Principles, man. It goes without saying that I’m no slouch when it comes to Disney movies. Still, having never experienced the undersea adventures of Ariel firsthand, I felt a pivotal gap in my formative years was missing, so I figured I’d save myself any further humiliation, sit down and finally watch “The Little Mermaid.”
That sounded much better in my head.
The real appeal in all of this was learning that I had another story for comparison. Apparently some Danish dude, Hans Christian Andersen, completely ripped off the movie and gave it a grittier re-imagining. And get this: he did it 152 years beforehand.
beloved children’s classics since 1837
- Animal Companions – The more, the better. Can your squirrel talk? Perfect.
- Catchy Songs – If Randy Newman can’t play piano to it, it ain’t worth my time.
- Source Material – Is that an original screenplay? Well get it out of here and find a Tibetan folk tale for us to rip off.
- Royalty – If the main characters are human, chances are we’re going to need a princess.
- Broken Homes – You’re not an interesting character unless you’ve lost a parent in a tragic hunting accident. Orphans get bonus points.
- Decades – If we made it in the last ten years and PIXAR wasn‘t involved, you’re probably better off re-watching “Toy Story”
- Stereotypes – Sometimes we do it just to see if you’re paying attention. When you get a chance, re-watch that Chinese Dance segment in “Fantasia.”
Doc went to Johns Hopkins and got his M.D. in high comedy. What I find strange is that there is no “Ariel” in the fairy tale. The little mermaid doesn’t have a name. She’s like Clint Eastwood in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Just, you know. With boobs. Regardless, she makes for a pretty flat protagonist either way. Sure, her curiosity defines her, but what’s her motivation? Better yet, what’s the moral of this story? In the movie, Ariel gets what she wants (Prince Eric), but for some reason she has to be human to reach that goal. There’s an important lesson to be learned here, girls. If a guy thinks you’re kinda okay but would prefer it if you changed one little thing, like say…. your entire genetic makeup, you should go ahead and do it. And be thankful because you’re probably not going to do any better than this anyway. Now go make me a sandwich.
Andersen’s version presents a more obtuse lesson:
You will be able to live your three hundred years down in the sea with us, before you die and become foam on the ocean... But men have souls that live eternally, even after their bodies become dust. They rise high up into the clear sky where the stars are… they rise up to the unknown, the beautiful world, that we shall never see.
Sure, it’s obvious, but when you look at some of the other changes, the whole religious caveat is pretty mild. In both versions, Ariel loses her tail and grows a temporary set of gams. What the movie leaves out is that every time the little mermaid walks, it feels like knives are stabbing the bottoms of her feet. It gets worse. By the end of the story, the pain is so excruciating that she literally starts bleeding from her soles.
In keeping with this theme of anonymity, Ursula is also just “the witch.” Here’s her introduction:
At last [the little mermaid] came to a great, slimy open place in the middle of the forest. Big fat eels played in the mud, showing their ugly yellow stomachs. Here the witch had built her house of bones of drowned sailors, and there she sat letting a big ugly toad eat out of her mouth, as human beings sometimes let a canary eat a sugar candy out of theirs.
Now I’m as guilty as anyone of spoiling the crap out of my canary, but that is a messed up image. Ursula’s already weird enough with that creepy Chia Garden of Souls. The worst is when she crawls across the ship deck using only her arms:
Yeesh. It’s like if Lieutenant Dan joined the Carnival of Horrors. The real kicker is when Ariel loses her voice, though. We’ll go ahead and ignore any sexist implications that might arise from silencing a female protagonist for thirty minutes and stick specifically to the changes Disney made. Here’s the scene from the film:
Here is a knife that the witch has given us. Look how sharp it is! Before the sun rises, you must plunge it into the heart of the Prince; when his warm blood sprays on your feet, they will turn into a fishtail and you will be a mermaid.
We, daughters of the air, have not received an eternal soul either; but we can win one by good deeds… If for three hundred years we earnestly try to do what is good, we obtain an immortal soul and can take part in the eternal happiness of man. You, little, mermaid, have tried with all your heart to do the same… Do your good deeds and in three hundred years an immortal soul will be yours.