Ariel has always been my favourite Disney Princess. She’s different from the others, and it’s not just her species. Perhaps it’s the long red hair that reflects her fiery nature; or maybe it’s her reckless curiosity; or the way she makes the familiar seem so very alien.
I have to admit, I don’t know the Hans Christian Anderson version of this story (upon which Disney based these 83 minutes of underwater magic) so I don’t know how to compare. Disney start above deck with the handsome Prince Eric and his crew debating the truth in the myth that is King Triton.
A fish narrowly evades heading to a dinner plate and leads us, through the starting credits and schools of tropical fish (and other sea creatures, vast and small) to the mermaid kingdom. It’s a breathtaking landscape and the animators have nailed the movement of different creatures through water, especially the gliding mermen and women whose hair and accessories flow around them convincingly – there’s never a static moment that makes characters look superimposed on the water instead of under it.
Those anthropomorphic animals Disney are renowned for are acting as the King’s aides (landlubbers, he is real!). The King himself is a muscular, imposing figure with a hearty chuckle and a flowing white beard that makes him that bit less intimidating and that bit cuddlier (like Father Christmas). Sebastian, the Caribbean crab, is the king’s confidante and also conductor of the undersea orchestra. His exaggerated accent and enormous lips might be another of those racial slurs that are identifiable in other Disney classics, but I think it mainly serves to make the whole thing seem a bit more exotic – we are dealing with an essentially alternate world, after all. It also means he’s naturally gifted with that calypso rhythm that influences the soundtrack to this film.
The orchestra is a wonderful example of the way Disney harnesses the characteristics of an animal to bring them to life; the drumming octopus, using all his legs simultaneously is the most ingenious. As the sisters, who are all older, less pretty and less musically gifted than Ariel appear from giant seashells to perform a musical number for their father, there’s a big build-up to our first encounter with the Little Mermaid herself. None of the sisters seem to mind this blatant favouritism and still gasp in horror when it transpires that Ariel is entirely absent.
We meet her in a much more appropriate setting for a bold and inquisitive mermaid – exploring a shipwreck with her best friend, Flounder the wimpy fish. Narrowly escaping the clutches of a lurking shark, Ariel takes some ‘treasures’ – a fork and a pipe – to The Surface for analysis by her human ‘expert’ friend, Scuttle the seagull. He gives the objects ridiculous names and attributes yet more absurd uses to them, which delight me as a child and still make me smirk now. It’s a whole new way of putting a distance between audience and their own people, something Disney are very accomplished at (usually through showing us the viewpoints of animals rather than a race somewhere in-between fish and human).
Then it’s down to the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean, Ursula’s lair. With her deep voice, ruby red lips and nails, and cropped hair, there’s a hint of a Drag Queen about Ursula. Her evil eel spies, Flotsam and Jetsam, are very menacing in appearance with their glowing eyes and protruding fangs, but not nearly as menacing as the Sea witch herself. Black and purple often seem to signify evil in Disney’s world (look at Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent), as does being on the large side (for example, the Governor in Pocahontas or Stromboli in Pinocchio). Political correctness is a recurrent issue as I watch these as an adult, but perhaps that’s due to modern society’s obsession with it rather than an actual lack. After all, these are simply children’s tales and stereotyping is also an easy tool for communicating a character’s nature quickly.
Meanwhile, defiant Ariel has returned home to face the music and is insisting to her father she is 16 and therefore not a child. 16 seemed a lot older to me when I watched this in the 80s, but now it seems to me she is in fact a child and – like most of the Disney princesses – really rather young to be getting married. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Triton seems to agree with me that 16 is young; too young to be gallivanting about the sea unsupervised, and he assigns poor Sebastian to watch over his wayward daughter. The mer-people perceive the human world as something evil and dangerous, and a positive message can be read from this (if we’re going to go down the analytical road after all!); that just because something is different or unknown, doesn’t make it bad.
Ariel, despite her youth, embraces the differences between life on land and her world and cannot understand her father’s disdain. This is where Ariel sings her first song, “Part of Your World”, showing off the voice we’ve heard the other characters praising. There is a clarity and innocence to this song which is wholly endearing, especially when she ‘forgets’ words she has learned from her fascination with human artefacts. The way she treats the most mundane objects as valuable trinkets sweeps you up in her awe and fascination and encourages us to appreciate the wonders of modern living (Ariel gets excited over cutlery; imagine how she’d react to an iPod?). Her enormous, neotonous blue eyes surrounded by swirling red hair (that, if dry, would create an enviable ‘swish’. Eat your heart out, Cat Deeley and Pantene Pro-V!) are unnervingly captivating considering she’s a 16-year-old cartoon.
Before Sebastian can stop her, she’s back up at the surface admiring the fireworks being set off from Eric’s ship to honour his birthday. She gets as close as she can and marvels at them, dancing and revelling, but soon a storm breaks out and throws the human lives into jeopardy. It’s dark, fiery, dramatic and no place for a princess but, as we know, Ariel’s no ordinary princess. She wades in to rescue the drowning prince and, once he’s on shore, they share a romantic moment as she sings to him. She looks almost seductive – perhaps this is the scene that led to the reference to her hotness in American Pie? – But Eric falls in love with her voice, as opposed to her face which is the standard recipe for love with Disney.
Ariel becomes besotted with Prince Eric and is set on seeing him again. Sebastian tries to convince her in song (how else?) that life “Under Da Sea” is much better than in the world above. Arguably the greatest Disney song of all time, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing number with a “hot crustacean band” and indisputably catchy! The colour, the movement and the music is as distracting for the characters as it is the viewers and Ariel seizes the opportunity to escape Sebastian’s watchful eye.
Unfortunately, Sebastian inadvertently discloses to the King that his daughter’s distraction is down to a human, not a merman and the King morphs into formidable father mode. When he finds his daughter dancing around Eric’s statue, a birthday present that was lost in the sea after the shipwreck, he becomes enraged and starts condemning the human race. Then, he destroys his daughter’s beloved collection of human objects using his glowing, all-powerful trident (probably the equivalent of confiscating a human child’s mobile phone; it’s the worst thing that can possibly happen during your youth!). With a guilty glance backwards, he leaves his daughter sobbing on a rock and unknowingly gives Flotsam and Jetsam the chance to lure her to Ursula with their eerie, hissing, in-stereo voices.
She rejects Sebastian and Flounder’s attempts to dissuade her from going; a typical teenage girl, she’s bearing a grudge against the pair. The strange, living weeds in Ursula’s garden grab at Ariel, letting us know she is swimming straight into the jaws of evil. Ursula’s number, ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’, bathed in a purple glow, convinces Ariel that the evil octopus can help her – for a price. In exchange for Ariel’s voice – which, remember, is what Eric fell in love with! – she can have three days on land to win the prince’s heart and true love’s kiss, or become forever Ursula’s property. Poor Ariel is torn – her family and friends, or the man she loves? In reality, anyone who sold out their family for a man they just met would be branded a bit of a fool but let’s remember it’s her first love and that most fairytales follow the road to a Happily Ever After. Also, The Little Mermaid is captivating enough a story that it’s only upon sitting down to review it that I truly became aware of just what an insane bargain is struck, and how irrational Ariel’s decisions are sometimes (even for a 16 year old in love).
Ursula’s suggestion that Ariel try body language, as human males don’t like girls who talk a lot anyway, is a little bit saucy and a little bit sexist to boot (now’s not the time to debate whether it’s true though, ladies!). Mute Ariel, her modesty barely covered by her seashell bra, becomes a perfectly-formed human woman with a figure that could start a small girl questioning her own appearance, but her sex appeal is diminished by the ‘outfit’ Scuttle helps swathe her in.
She can still communicate with her sea creature friends, but she can’t tell the prince that she really is the owner of the voice he keeps dreaming about. Fortunately, they do both speak English, so she understands him perfectly .And he appreciates how beautiful she looks when she’s put in an enormous, meringue-style pink and white dress that makes her look a lot more Princess-like and covers up her Barbie-esque proportions adequately. She gets the use of basic objects entirely wrong – I’ve often pondered what it’d be like to brush my hair with a fork! – Which entertains Eric, but he’s clearly still pining after that voice.
While Ariel is pampered at the castle, poor stowaway Sebastian is run ragged and finds himself in the kitchen where another racial stereotype – the French chef with a nasal laugh and a ridiculous moustache – is carving up seafood. It’s enough to make you consider vegetarianism as he dismembers fish corpses in front of a visibly sickened crab we’ve come to know and like. Fortunately, Sebastian outsmarts the dim-witted Frenchman and escapes the boiling pot to the tune of the can-can.
While Ariel sleeps blissfully in bed, King Triton is beside himself with worry. The kingdom looks dark and empty as he worries, guiltily, that he has driven his daughter away. Little does he know, she’s getting to grips with life on land and has even mastered dancing – impressive, as she struggled to walk just 24 hours earlier! Scuttle spies on them from the sky and Flounder occasionally bobs to the surface for the latest updates on whether or not they’ve shared a kiss. As the sun goes down, they decide to help her and Sebastian knows just how to set the mood for a romantic rowboat outing; with the romantic sounds of nature. It appears the animals, unlike in other Disney films where they speak their own language (e.g. Oliver and Company), can speak to Eric and Sebastian sings “Kiss The Girl” in his ear. Peter Andre nearly ruined this song for everyone by covering it, but nothing compares to the original whispered calypso ballad.
Sebastian also manages to secretly tell Eric Ariel’s name and the two grow closer in the navy hues of twilight. It’s impressive that, even though the action is taking place above the water, Disney manages to integrate the watery world with view of the boat from below, surrounded by a swirling school of fish, and choreographed flamingos, frogs and pelicans watching over the young lovers.
Sadly, because the sea world is so integrated with the land folk, Flotsam and Jetsam manage to intervene and prevent the kiss. Ursula, intent on seeing Ariel fail and incensed by her near-triumph, devises a new scheme and takes Ariel’s voice to the surface. The prince is bewitched and while Ariel and friends believe the impromptu wedding being arranged is for her, it is in fact for Ursula’s raven-haired, slender landform. She’s got similar features to Ariel, but just the way she cocks one eyebrow makes her look evil instead of sweet and childlike. As the wedding party sails away on a gilded boat, the water sparkling under the sun (an effect that recurs throughout the film and one which looks simply beautiful), it seems our heroine’s fate is sealed.
Scuttle catches ‘Vanessa’ looking in the mirror, singing in Ariel’s voice, and sees Ursula reflected in it. Realising what’s afoot, he flaps to tell the others. Even though Ariel’s mastered dancing, she doesn’t know how to swim using her legs, which seems a bit strange and needs towing out to the ship.
There follows the controversial scene where it has been repeatedly rumoured to actually the bishop is sporting an erection (it’s actually his knee, apparently). Once again, Ariel’s world venture above the surface to try and stop the sham wedding – Eric’s dog, Max, even gets involved with the other animals and bites the bride-to-be on her behind! Ariel’s voice is restored in the chaos and the spell is broken; Eric realises she’s been the one all along.
Before they can kiss, the sun sets dramatically and both Ursula and Ariel return to their true forms, the sea witch crawling along the deck with her arms like a creature from a horror film to snatch the princess. Triton tries to destroy the contract binding Ariel to Ursula but it’s indestructible; “legal, binding and completely unbreakable.” Ursula’s willing to bargain – was this her ploy all along? – and take the King in Ariel’s place. As any father would, Triton sacrifices himself and is transformed into one of Ursula’s pathetic garden seaweeds, leaving her to seize the crown and trident.
Eric’s not giving up on Ariel, even if they are different species, and tries to take on the witch, who upon putting on the crown, grows to an enormous and terrifying size. Her distorted, booming voice and lashing tentacles are genuinely frightening and as a child, every time I watched I still feared she was impossible to defeat, no matter how many times I saw her impaled on a broken ship, flashing like lightning. The way Eric drives it into her is surprisingly graphic and violent for a Disney battle, but mercifully it’s over quickly and happiness is returned to the aquatic kingdom.
Trident has a complete change of heart, having seen his daughter and the prince together, and graciously grants his beloved daughter the legs she’s always dreamed of – and a glittering, purple gown which is the coolest outfit any of the Disney princesses sported until Jasmine came along in 1992.
Flash-forward to a wedding, where Ariel and Eric are waved off by her undersea friends and family. (Dig that 80s puff-sleeved wedding dress, Ariel!) It’s actually very touching to see the King literally give his daughter away, but the two worlds have met and become intertwined through this union so it does finish with a happy lesson in acceptance.
I’ve no idea why a story that suggests women should give up their whole lives for the right man appeals to me so very much. And I’ve no idea why anyone thought a poorly-animated sequel AND prequel were necessary. But I have every confidence that Ariel’s obstinance and strength will keep appealing to generations of little girls, and little women like me, for a long time.