I’m skipping ahead a little. After Sleeping Beauty, the Disney franchise didn’t make films that were as big and, frankly, expensive. There are real classics from this era, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the idea of making more male-focused cartoons is not recent. In fact the second major Disney film after Snow White was Pinocchio, and in this era we have our Jungle Book and our Robin Hood and Peter Pan. Some of these, like the previously mentioned three, are classics. Some are underrated and unfairly forgotten, like The Great Mouse Detective, and some are just not that interesting, like the original Rescuers and Oliver and Company. And, eventually Disney went through a bit of a slump, in an era dominated by classic Don Bluth cartoons, and culminating in a really terrible adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and bits of The Black Cauldron, but going by the latter book’s title because the studio didn’t care about that project.
Despite the handful of classics, I am skipping ahead simply for two reasons. The first is that the technological innovation sort of plateaued, despite some greater sense of “camera motion” in the animation. But, in general, in Disney’s age the focus seemed to be on creating solid and recognizably Disney pictures, and after his passing many of the features began to take a bit of a downturn in quality. And, furthermore, there wasn’t another big, controversial film until the princess movies came back. And, yes, I know that technically I am skipping probably the most controversial Disney film, Song of the South. This is because I haven’t seen it. It’s also not really a cartoon, but more of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit type meld. I have heard reviews saying it isn’t as controversial as people think, and I’ve heard counter reviews saying that making the treatment of black people in the South so happy is actually horribly offensive. But, I haven’t seen it. I don’t know how the movie plays out. I’m inclined to agree with the arguments against the film, as they tend to be historically and socially stronger, but, again, I can’t speak for the movie’s quality myself.
So, instead, I want to jump ahead to 1989.
The so-called Disney Renaissance films may or may not have been started by technological innovations in Roger Rabbit but the look, style, and storytelling comes firmly from The Little Mermaid. Here’s where we get our ’90s Disney formula, of “wanting more”, and heroes who feel insecure and out of place, and big Broadway-styled musical numbers matching the mega-musical style of the ’80s, like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this trend would continue to dominate Disney from this point onward.
The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name, but shares basically nothing with that plot outside of the title and the mermaids. Otherwise, this is a very loose adaptation. This is the American Disney fairytale, with happy endings, cute animal friends, and big songs. Interestingly the original story is very quiet and dark, and, spoilers, she dies in the end. So, the man who brought us The Little Match Girl killed The Little Mermaid as well. I think that whatever unfair criticisms of Snow White‘s lack of darkness are, they are better served here, because this is truly the first time that Disney has completely chosen its wholesome, happy image over the source material in a princess movie. (It did this in The Jungle Book, previously, however, and I think that adaptation paved the way for audiences to be okay with these changes.)
So, let’s jump right into the controversies:
On the left: Ariel sells her soul for a man.
On the right: Ariel is disobedient and doesn’t learn much from her disobedience. Also, the modesty movement finds her shell-bikini offensive.
Everyone: Ariel is a brat who never learns anything.
First of all, Ariel is absolutely a brat. That’s completely accurate. And, I think that her character is why this, after Cinderella, is the most controversial Disney princess. She gets on a lot of parents’ nerves. She makes poor choices. I think a lot of people find her not only a bad example for kids, but kind of an annoying character. You see, Disney has always been involved with the budding youth culture of America since its inception, but by 1989 the youth culture brand of teenager was fully recognized. This is the first teenaged princess, not youthful but straight up teenaged. And, boy do they play this up!
I want to address this first because a.) I loved this movie as a kid and b.) I think that the storytelling is really pretty interesting here. You see, I think Disney’s wholesome image has led a lot of people to see the studio not simply as happy and family-friendly (you can trust that Ariel does not die in this version), but instead that it serves as some moral compass, the fables of America. And, I think that’s really bad. While definitely a parent who worries that her child will imitate Ariel’s moodiness might wait on showing this film, Disney really should not be America’s beacon of morality. On the one hand, these are pretty abstract and simplistic stories, with very basic good-vs-evil morals that need to be supplemented by parents and teachers with meatier ethical instruction. On the other hand, it hampers the studio’s artistic freedom to be constantly worried about people who seem to want their entire moral instruction to come from The House of Mouse.
I am going to posit that Ariel isn’t meant to be a fully didactic, good character, an example of princessly goodness. The earlier Disney princess films, both artistically and structurally, have a sort of diorama feel to them. This is because they basically are dioramas of images placed upon one another in layers of transparent cells and shot into. On the one hand, it makes for some of the most lush and detailed animation in the studio’s history. On the other hand, there’s not a strong illusion of “camera” movement. The characters are mostly shot straight on, which allow for the scenery to be far more detailed than future productions simply because it didn’t have to move. It’s like they are shot on beautiful sets. But, with more movement and less lush detail getting adapted into Disney, and some new computer innovation (first used to create movement in Oliver and Company, I believe, which was released the year before), the stories moved away from the beautiful stage play look. They created worlds you could more freely move around in, which from a movement perspective is really wonderful, but which also loses something by ending those static but gorgeous background pieces.
However, with more movement came more room for the characters to express themselves physically, to “act”. While early Disney works in a sort of comedia dell’arte style of archetypal characters (the sweet princess, handsome prince, funny sidekicks, cute animals, scary villains) the increase of movement let the animators and writers create characters with more personality and, well, flaws. And here is where Ariel comes in. Ariel is a very flawed character. She’s naive, disobedient, moody, full of teen angst, and, interestingly, she also isn’t as graceful and poised as her predecessors. Can you imagine Cinderella tripping around the way Ariel does when she first gets legs? Or Snow White brushing her hair with a fork? Or Aurora running around barefoot in her nightgown, her hair a mess?
I think when people critique Ariel they forget just how innovative she is as a character. She isn’t an archetype. She’s not a didactic image of goodness. She’s a character, and she has flaws and quirks. But, what I will suggest is that these are actually good. Ariel is selfish, awkward, naive, and moody, just wanting to do her thing and hang out in her room with her collection of stuff, and sing her songs, and dream of romance, and awkwardly want to grow up. Sound familiar? Disney has always had this great knack for picking up on young concerns, and that’s usually where the controversies come from: that Disney is addressing the concerns and anxieties of young people rather than the rules and concerns of grownups. But, honestly, I think that the adults will survive. Truly. I think there is a place for Disney creations that aren’t just teaching “be good” but understand that sometimes kids don’t do the right thing, and can be moody, angsty, and selfish, and have a collection of junk, and sing songs alone about how misunderstood they are. I think Disney actually really captured this aspect of teen years, and, frankly, weren’t we all a little like this? Should we all be punished for being teens? I kind of like that Ariel is simply understood, as flawed as she is, because teenagers are flawed. And this doesn’t make them bad. In fact, in some ways, we can learn from these flawed teens, learn from their aspirations, their stubbornness, their joy at some pretty silly stuff, their passion.
I said before that Ariel would be the feisty princess, and she is, but she’s also the angsty princess. And, that’s good. That’s a part of growing up. If Snow White shows you can get through scary situations with a positive attitude and some friends, Ariel shows kids that you can get through your own major screw-ups, and that being an angsty, teenaged screw-up isn’t the end of the world. That people will still love you, your parents will still love you, and that this kind of parental love may not make sense at first but eventually you’ll understand and appreciate it. Which, I think, should counter the right’s concern that Ariel is too disobedient. Because sometimes kids disobey, but that doesn’t mean that we want them to be killed by Sea Witches. And, reassuring kids that sometimes the parent who seems harsh really does love you is probably a better deterrent for disobedience than just having her be obedient.
The left’s concern is that Ariel encourages girls to give away everything to get a man. Honestly, I don’t think that’s accurate to the story at all. For one thing, did you know that originally critics liked how Ariel was active in her romance, that this was considered progressive? We don’t think that Prince Philip is giving away everything when he literally risks his life to fight a dragon and save a woman he only just met. I think that the idea that a woman might be the pursuer is somehow anti-feminist only reflects the critic’s own preconceived notion that women cannot have it all. It’s love or a career, kids! No, no, I don’t buy that. Also, I think that, again, Ariel isn’t a didactic character. She’s a character, and sometimes characters aren’t perfect for any one political movement. Besides, I’d like to point out that the entire beginning of the movie is devoted to showing how obsessed with humans Ariel is, so it’s reasonable to say that her crush on the prince isn’t her only motivation. In fact, it seems like her real motivation is that her dad broke her collection of human stuff and she rebelled out of emotion. So, I think that criticism might be made by people who didn’t watch the show very carefully.
As for the modestly argument, can I just say that first of all, this is a cartoon. It’s not a real body. It’s a collection of circles, inking, and coloring effects. So, there’s that. Furthermore, traditionally, mermaid characters would be topless, so there’s that, too. And, lastly, she’s sixteen and wearing a bikini top. If you think that’s murderously immoral, then we probably aren’t going to be able to discuss it. But, for me, personally, the drawing of a sixteen-year-old fish-woman in a bikini isn’t immodest, and usually this argument comes from the same fringe group that thinks Sleeping Beauty is bad.
Now, from an art history perspective, the show doesn’t reference or draw from art as much as the previous princess films, other than a quick reference to a sculpture of The Little Mermaid.
I’ve heard people make claims that she is inspired by Waterhouse, but I don’t see it and haven’t heard anything about that in cinema history studies.
No, the artistic direction here is based more on the animation itself, the movement. It has illusions of cinematography, and this is really probably the most interesting thing about the film. I am not kidding. Cinematography has been a huge discussion recently, what with the use of CGI. What does it mean anymore? What does it mean, say, for a film like Gravity?
What do we mean when our “camera” is a computer? How does this change our perception of what cinematography is, as an art form and from a technical level? This year, especially, the subject has been on all the film nerd sites. But, I say we can take the discussion and look back, retroactively, and apply it to animation, as well. Animation has to create an illusion of a world that isn’t there. While the earlier princess movies did have illusions of crane shots, they were mostly shot straight on, like an audience watching a play. In this film, however, we get an idea that a “camera” is moving in and out, capturing all sorts of angles and movement, following the characters around.
This is a fascinating illusion and technologically masterful, because there obviously is not a moving camera in the water with Ariel or following her through the scenes. It’s all illusion, done by animation angles and perspective shots. That’s fascinating. Also, this would be a great time to introduce kids to perspective art…
The film’s other strength is, of course, its music. While earlier Disney does have some classic songs, they don’t tend to be as catchy or as pop-memorable as the pseudo-mega-musical numbers of ’90s Disney. A lot of this, I think, comes from character developments in the Disney films we kind of skipped, like the desire to make The Jungle Book more fun and reference a lot of popular music styles, and how that film and The Great Mouse Detective introduced us to villain songs. Little Mermaid is the first princess movie with a villain song, and man is it a classic. (Also, fun fact, Ursula’s character was based on Divine, the drag queen from Pink Flamingos.) But, it’s not just Ursula who has great songs. In fact, the music was what really captured audiences and, I think, may have been why people wanted a resurgence of Disney princess stories instead of, say, more Oliver and Company. Ariel’s songs are catchy, pop-ballads, still wonderfully sing-able, and other characters, like Sebastian, the crab, have great tunes, as well.
There is some controversy over Sebastian, like the fact that he is Jamaican and everyone else is so white. And there is a throw-away scene of “the blackfish” which… yeah, if you catch it, it is pretty bad. But, I don’t think that kids catch this. I never did. So, I think that if you are introducing kids to racially diverse media, this is unlikely to create subconscious racism. I don’t think they’re going to notice, although I also wish it wasn’t in the film. But, for me, it’s like the naked woman in Rescuers. She’s there, but did anyone notice her as kids? I certainly didn’t.
Also, I think Sebastian is Jamaican because of the music the studio wanted to do, and probably that’s where the entire rationale went. For better or for worse, I don’t think he’s meant to be offensive. And, for better, I think his songs are great. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are catchy, fun songs, at least as memorable as a lot of stuff Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing at the time.
So, in the end, I wouldn’t say this is the greatest film ever made, but I do think it is important. It ushered in a new era of Disney, and it created a new kind of female character. I know she’s flawed, but I like that she’s flawed, because as a teenager I was also very flawed. I still am flawed. And, somehow having a princess be this flawed is really reassuring.