"Writings of a Damaged Youth"

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.

Hans Christian Andersen.  Plagiarizing the s%*# out of
beloved children’s classics since 1837
I didn’t even know there was an original version of “The Little Mermaid.”  Of course I knew the Brothers Grimm popularized folk tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White,” but even those interpretations are vastly different from what most of us know today.
I took the time to read a condensed (and probably flawed) version of the story and noticed quite a few differences.  Hans’ first transgression takes the form of one of the Seven Disney Sins; there are no cutesy animated companions to be found.  That’s right.  No Flounder.  No Sebastian.  Christ, not even Scuttle.  And in case you’re curious, here’s the complete list:
  1. Animal Companions – The more, the better.  Can your squirrel talk?  Perfect.
  2. Catchy Songs – If Randy Newman can’t play piano to it, it ain’t worth my time.
  3. Source Material – Is that an original screenplay?  Well get it out of here and find a Tibetan folk tale for us to rip off.
  4. Royalty – If the main characters are human, chances are we’re going to need a princess.
  5. Broken Homes – You’re not an interesting character unless you’ve lost a parent in a tragic hunting accident.  Orphans get bonus points.
  6. Decades –  If we made it in the last ten years and PIXAR wasn‘t involved, you’re probably better off re-watching “Toy Story”
  7. 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.”
Despite having seen “The Little Mermaid” exactly once now, I still feel confident in saying it may have my favorite Disney cast of supporting characters.  It’s refreshing to see a lobster with charm and the balls to take matters into his own claws.  And really, what’s the competition here?  A French candlestick and a clock?  Abu and a magic rug?  Timon and Pumbaa take almost half an hour to even show up.  That scene where Sebastian and Flounder double-team Flotsam and Jetsam is totally awesome.  Let’s see Rafiki pull some shit like that.  I’m also surprised how little love Scuttle gets.  I honestly haven’t laughed out loud at a Disney movie since hearing Doc sputter like a sqoodlebug in “Snow White.”

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:

Andersen’s version tells it the exact same way.  Well except instead of using magic the witch literally cuts out the little mermaid’s tongue.  Still, when you add that to the misogynist code of silence and copious amounts of foot stabbing, it isn’t all that bad.  Nineteenth century Denmark was a different time and place.  Lighten up. There’s also a pivotal point in the original story where the little mermaid has to decide whether to remain a slave to the witch or break the spell and return to her mermaid form:
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.
Thank God.  I was worried she’d have to do something really fucked up this time.  To spoil the ending, she pussies out and throws herself into the sea instead, her self-sacrifice transforming her into a “daughter of the air.”  Check it out:
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.
I find it a bit odd that Disney would go to such lengths to avoid these religious connotations when they’ve embraced them in so many other movies.  There’s that one about the kids and the magic wardrobe.  Then that Narnia movie.  Oh, and what about that one with the Jesus lion?  And to answer your question, no I don’t understand this story’s apparent obsession with the number 300.
The truth is, this damaged youth didn’t feel anything watching this.  Maybe it’s because the whole nostalgia factor only works with “The Lion King,” movies I’ve habitually watched over and over again.  It’s entirely possible that you just can’t experience this stuff as an adult for the first time – not in the same way at least.  I realize that’s not some huge secret, but this reminded me of when I watched “Labyrinth” for the first time a few years ago.  Mother of God that was rough.  And I actually like Muppets.  Maybe it was all the David Bowie pedophilia going on there.  At the same time, I could just be an overly cynical bastard.  It doesn’t quite seem fair to sit back and pick on this stuff now.  I can only assume I would’ve enjoyed it more seventeen years ago, though it’s hard to imagine how my five-year old self could relate to a ginger mermaid-turned-princess.   And no, I don’t care what my Dad might argue to the contrary.

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