While I did grow up dreaming of being a mermaid, and I did like the original tale, I’m not a fan of either the animated or the live-action Disney adaptations for different reasons. I do like the music for the animated feature, but the live-action is too long and seems to have some confusing messages.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid
First published in 1837, the story is about the youngest daughter of the Sea-King. She has five older sisters and a dowager grandmother. Her father is widowed. When the mermaid princesses turn 15, they are allowed to go to the surface. After that, they were allowed to go up when they liked. The sisters were born a year apart in succession. When the youngest was 15, her grandmother helped dress her and the youngest mermaid at the surface the mermaid saw “A great ship with three masts” and “numbers of gaily dressed people; but the handsomest of them all was the young prince with the big black eyes.” The prince is described as beautiful and there is a firework celebration for his birthday.
The little mermaid saves the young prince and takes him to dry land near an abbey. “Now the bells rang out from the great white building, and a number of young maidens came out through the garden…It was not long before a young girl came that way, and seemed to be quite terrified, but only for a moment. Then she fetched more people, and the mermaid saw the Prince revive, and smile on all those about him.” Yet “he had, of course no notion that she had rescued him.”
The youngest mermaid did not tell her sisters what she saw and did initially. But when word got out, someone knew where the prince lived and the little mermaid went up to see the prince and watch him. The grandmother told her that people live short lives and have souls while mermaids live for 300 years and have no souls. The only way a mermaid can gain a soul is by being loved by a human being, “if with all his thoughts and affections he clung to you and made the priest lay his right hand in yours with the promise to be faithful to you here and for ever, then his soul would flow over into your body, and you too would have a share in the destiny of men. He would give you a soul and still keep his own. ” Because mermaids have tails, this will never happen.
While her family is at a great court ball, the little mermaid decides to visit the old Sea Witch. The Sea Witch’s domain is in the “in the middle of a hideous wood” where “All the trees and bushes of it were polypi, half animal and half plant, which looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground. All their branches were long slimy arms with fingers like pliant worms, and joint after joint they kept in motion from the root till the outermost tip. Everything in the sea that they could grasp they twined themselves about, and never let it go again.” These pliant worms have many horrible things. “She saw that everyone of these held something it had caught, and hundreds of little arms held it like strong bands of iron. Men who had been lost at sea and had sunk deep down there, looked out, white skeletons, from among the arms of the polypi. Rudders of ships and chests they held fast; skeletons of land beasts, and even a little mermaid, which they had caught and killed. That, to her, was almost the most frightful thing of all.” The Sea Witch’s house was “built of the white bones of men.”
In return for the shining potion, the little mermaid allows the Sea Witch to cut her tongue. If she fails to secure the Prince’s heart, she will die on the dawn after his marriage and become sea foam.
Once she takes the potion, she has legs and must wrap herself in her long hair to cover her nakedness when the Prince finds her. She can walk gracefully, with a “floating gait” but each step in painful. The Prince takes her to his castle and “she was the fairest of all” but could not speak. The Prince and his family have slave girls who dance and the mermaid becomes one of his dancers, but more than that, she is his daily companion.
When her family learns of her predicament, they visited her at night, with the grandmother and the Sea King not daring to come so close to the land as the five sisters.
The Prince loved the little mermaid as a foundling or a dear good child. The Prince insists the only person he will marry is the girl whom he mistakenly believes saved him. This woman turns out to be the princess from a neighboring kingdom who had been sent to a temple for her education. On the day that the Prince and the Princess marry, but sisters of the mermaid come and tell her that if she kills the prince that night, before she turns into sea foam with the knife the Sea Witch has given them in return for their long her and if she lets his blood touch her feet, the little mermaid will regain her fish tail and become a mermaid again. The choice is that either the mermaid or the Prince. One of them must die at or before dawn.
The mermaid flings the dagger into the water and jumps into the sea, but is transformed into a transparent form, joining the “daughters of the air.” By doing good deeds as a daughter of the air, she can gain an immortal soul in 300 years.
The little mermaid in this translations is described as having dark blue eyes and pretty small white leg and white arms. The Prince has coal-black eyes.
The Little Mermaid (1989) Animated Musical Feature
This 83-minute animated feature was written by John Musker and Ron Clements who also direct. Musker and Clements also directed the 1986 “The Great Mouse Detective.” Songs were written by composer Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (1950-1991).
The seagulls lead the viewer to dolphins surfing the waves in front of a fishing ship (Song: “Fathoms Below”). A fish escapes the ship to the safety of the ocean and leads us to the world of Atlantica. Ariel is introduced to us by her absence. The Sea King King Triton is waiting for a concert arranged by the court composer, Horatio Felonious Ignacio’s Crustaceous Sebastian, who is introduced Harold the Herald (Will Ryan), a seahorse. The sisters are all there to introduce the Little Mermaid, Ariel, but Ariel is a no-show (“Daughters of Triton”).
The 16-year-old red-haired Ariel is exploring a sunken ship with her best friend Flounder who can’t swim as fast as her. She collects things but also meets with a very large shark. “Flounder, don’t be such a guppy.” One of her great finds is a silver fork which she is sure Scuttle will tell her how it is used. Scuttle doesn’t really know how things are used, but he’s willing to make things up. The fork is a “dinglehopper” and used for hair.
While talking with Scuttle, Ariel remembers the concert and hurries off. She’s seen by the moray eels, Flotsam and Jetsam (Paddi Edwards), the pets of Ursula (Pat Carroll). Ursula is sure that Ariel will help bring her brother Triton down. King Triton learns that Ariel was up at the surface. Triton becomes enraged because the surface people are barbarians and it’s dangerous. But he also decides that Sebastian should be Ariel’s minder. Sebastian discovers Ariel’s secret place where she has a collection of things made by the people above (“Part of Your World”). Ariel says, “I don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.” Sebastian tries to convince Ariel, that what they have is better, “Under the Sea.”
While in her secret grotto, the blue-eyed Ariel notices a ship and goes to the surface to witness a firework birthday celebration for Prince Eric. She gets close enough to get a good look at the black-haired, blue-eyed Prince Eric and his blue-eyed English Sheepdog, Max. Suddenly, there’s a storm and the ship is wrecked. Ariel saves Prince Eric, taking to a beach where she leaves him, but she’s deeply in love. The prince wakes up, only remembering the voice of the girl who saved him.
Ariel’s sister notice a change in Ariel and surmise she’s in love. When word gets to their father, Triton questions Sebastian who reveals that the object of her affections is a human. An angered Triton finds Ariel in the grotto of her collection and destroys it, leaving the moray eels an opportunity to convince Ariel to visit Ursula. “Ursula has great powers,” they tell Ariel.
Ariel eventually does visit Ursula and makes a deal, giving Ursula her voice which is stored in a nautilus shell pendant that Ursula wears around her neck. Ariel must get true love’s kiss from Eric before the sun sets on her third day in the above world. If she does, then she’ll become human forever. Otherwise, Ariel will transform back into a mermaid and become Ursula’s slave.
“It’s what I live for, to help unfortunately merfolk like yourself,” Ursula tells her (“Poor Unfortunate Souls”). Ariel goes to the surface and through Max, is found by Prince Eric. Scuttle has supplied her with cloth to cover herself. At first Max thinks she must be the girl who rescued him until he discovers he can’t talk.
Prince Eric takes her home to his castle and after a bath and Sebastian almost becomes a meal (“Less Poissons”), Eric and Ariel go out on a buggy ride and later end up in a boat on a romantic lagoon (“Kiss the Girl”). Sir Grimsby encourages Prince Eric’s interest in Ariel as opposed to Eric’s quest for his unknown savior.
Ursula has sent her eels to insure that Ariel doesn’t get her kiss and then decides to show up herself.
This version of Ariel is dressed in a pink gown and has no problems learning to navigate in a long dress or walk in shoes. Instead of parents, Prince Eric has his loyal steward, Sir Grimsby (Ben Wright in his last film role), and a maid, Carlotta (Edie McClurg).
In this rendition, the Sea Witch, Ursula is an evil, scheming aunt of Ariel. Ariel doesn’t have a grandmother and, as is good for marketing, she instead has cute animal friends: a seagull named Scuttle (voiced by Buddy Hackett) and a yellow tropical fish named Flounder (Jason Marin). Ariel has six sisters (two blonde, two with black hair and two with brown hair). They are Aquata (brown hair), Adrina (blonde), Arista (lighter blonde), Attina (brown), Adella and Alana (black hair). All have blue eyes, like their father.
The movie won two Oscars in 1990 (Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Under the Sea”) for Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.
The Little Mermaid (2023) Live-Action Musical Feature
This live-action film is almost an hour longer with 135 minutes compared to the 85 minutes of the animated feature. This 50 minutes are not an improvement. Director Rob Marshall, who also directed the 2018 Disney musical fantasy “Mary Poppins Returns” as well that nouveau Orientalist version of Japan–the 2005 “Memoirs of a Geisha,” wades into the murky waters between the kid-friendly Disney G and PG. While in the 1989 animated feature there was mild nudity, and that’s true for the 2023 live-action version, but there are other problems.
This Ariel (Halle Bailey) is just as irresponsible as her animated alter ego. Instead of missing rehearsal and the debut concert in which she is the centerpiece and central singer, this Ariel forgets about the Coral Moon Festival meeting with all of her sisters and her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). Only Ariel is still living with her father. Her sisters are living in other seas and this is their annual reunion. Just as in the animated feature, in the live-action film Ariel was exploring a shipwreck, looking for things to add to her collection. Ariel and Flounder escape a shark attack and then go to the surface to ask the northern gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina) what the human objects are and what they are used for.
You’d think with something as threatening as a shark would not just be a one-time threat and might necessitate that the mermaids wear armor like their father. None of King Triton’s daughters wear clothes–not even the shell bras as in the animated feature, not that shell bras would be a good defense against a shark.
But the film actually starts with the churning waves and a great ship carrying Prince Eric. On this ship, the sailors aren’t hauling up fish, they have treasures and trade from distant lands. Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) years to explore, but he had duties at home.
We learn that King Triton has forbidden all of the merpeople of Atlantica from going to the surface because Ariel’s mother was killed by humans. Yet Ariel still goes to the surface and sees fireworks from Prince Eric’s ship. Ariel hears Prince Eric telling his prime minister, Grimsby (Pakistani British actor Art Malik), that he wishes to explore the world in order to improve the economic of his island kingdom. A storm suddenly comes upon the ship and Ariel saves Eric, taking him to shore. She sings to him and he briefly sees her face through bleary eyes. Before he can fully regain consciousness she flees because there are people coming to the beach which is just below Eric’s castle home. Eric’s adoptive mother, Queen Selina (South African British actress Noma Dumezweni) forbids her son from sailing again. Diversity is complicated.
Ariel is smitten and her sisters notice, alerting Triton to her lovesickness. Triton learns from his advisor Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) that Ariel saved a human. That leads Triton to confront Ariel at her grout of human objects. In a fit of rage, Triton destroys her collection. As in the animated feature, this is an opportunity for Ursula’s moray eels to entice Ariel to see the Sea Witch Ursula, her father’s younger sister.
Ariel exchanges her fish tail and voice for legs, but she only has three days to get “true love’s kiss” from Eric in order to become a human permanently. Otherwise, she will be transformed back into her mermaid form and become Ursula’s servant. Her voice is stored in a nautilus shell pendant that Ursula wears around her neck. After she is brought to the surface by Flounder and Sebastian, she is caught up in a fish net by a fisherman. Her nakedness is covered by her hair and coy camera angles and that keeps it family friendly. The fisherman takes her to Eric’s castle. Eric hopes that Ariel might be the woman who saved him, but is disappointed when he learns she has no voice.
Ariel and Eric do bond over his collection of items brought back from his travels. He even has a small green figure of a mermaid which he gives to Ariel. For the most part, the rest of the film follows the animated feature with a few deviations that I won’t spoil here.
There was some backlash with the casting of Grammy Award-winning Halle Bailey. I have no problems with that, but this was a tale that originated in Denmark. I don’t know how people in Denmark feel about it. I wasn’t offended by the diversity casting until I saw her sisters: Spanish Colombian British actress Lorena Andrea as Perla, British Indian actress Simone Ashley as Indira, Asian British actress Karolina Conchet as Mala, Filipina Polynesian Hawaii-born actress Sienna King as Tamika, Swedish actress Kajsa Mohammar as Karina and British actress Nathalie Sorrell as Caspia.
In the cringy diversity casting, the daughters of the Sea King appear to be of different races. Audience members have almost two hours to ponder this. How many wives did the Sea King have and did Disney kill them all off and how? Moreover, while the 1989 animated feature from the beginning shows mermen topless from the waist up, including the king, and the mermaids with shell-bras for modesty, the king in the live-action is provided with abalone-shell armor and we don’t really see mermen or merboys half-naked until the ending scenes. By then, it is too late.
There’s a feeling of sexualization of Ariel, with her glowingly glamorously scaled breasts sometimes given better lighting than her face in certain scenes. Further, the Sea King’s posterior is never filmed in the same manner. This is a film meant to also please the male gaze, more so than the animated feature and that seems awkward at best for a Disney family film.
Of course, there’s plenty more that’s troubling in both, such as the characterization of the male heir (with no spare) as being an adventurer instead of paying someone else to go off on adventures while he tends to matters of the state. Then there’s the question of death and dying which I argued with my husband about. I do recognize, having read an English translation of the original where some of the visual references come from.
Bailey has a beautiful voice and, as an actress, she holds her own against both Bardem and McCarthy.
McCarthy makes a worthy villain, but her assessment of the human race is less cynical in this live-action adaptation. Her song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” loses its third verse where she describes men: “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber. They think a girl who gossips is a bore,” she sings. “Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can! But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn, it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!” In this manner, the live-action film attempts to be less sexist and even ignore a patriarchal system which is why I guess there’s the queen, Eric’s adoptive mother, and no king. And yet there’s still that very modest representation of Triton and the very sexy bathing suit like variations for the sisters. In the photo, more attention is brought to her breasts.
The lyrics for “Kiss the Girl” have also been altered. Let’s just admit, the original film wasn’t the best representation for women in the modern world.
The live-action film adds a bit more detail to Ariel and Eric’s day out on the island together which is supposed to be madcap, but just seems silly as the film just paddles on. Despite the climatic battle scene, as a whole the film feels like swimming in molasses.
The live-action film adds three new songs by Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Ashman passed away in 1991): “Wild Uncharge Waters” which shows Prince Eric’s thirst for adventure, “For the First Time” which Ariel’s inner monologue and “The Scuttlebutt” which provides Scuttle’s confused interpretation of the human world. None are particularly catchy, and the new score altogether doesn’t seem a unified vision. “Les Poissons,” the song which has a French chef detailing how he loves to prepare fish while chasing poor frightened Sebastian is gone.
The original Hans Christian Andersen story talks about the “gift of tears.” Disney’s story takes this away and gives us true love without true communication. A reckless prince finds love with a girl he has known for only 3 days who is characterized as inconsiderate and irresponsible. She seems to be more in love with a fantasy and her obsession with the human world, but this is a fantasy film. In the live-action, at least these two share an interest in exploration.
As with many Disney princesses, Ariel has no mother figure, not even her sisters take on that role. Eric has no father figure, except, perhaps in the form of Grimsby, but Eric has no best friends like Ariel does, even if her best friends at a fish and a bird. That is, unless we include Max, but while the fish and the bird seem to communicate with Ariel, the same cannot be said for Eric and Max.
“The Little Mermaid” premiered in Los Angeles on 8 May 2023 at the Dolby Theatre. The film had its London premiere on 15 May 2023. It was released nationwide in the US on 26 May 2023.