22/12/2016

The Little Mermaid - Character & Audience

Thoughts On: The Little Mermaid


A teen mermaid dreams of living among people.


First things first, The Little Mermaid is a terrible title. It doesn't have the finesse and punch of titles such as Dumbo or The Aristocats nor the acceptable directness of Cinderella or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. It's just as on-the-nose and inexpressive as The Jungle Book. However, because these films were based off of books and are so famous, they kind of just roll off the tongue. For that, critiquing the title seems pointless and nit-picky, but... yeah, that's just what it is. To restart, The Little Mermaid is a fairly harmless film on the surface and a slightly interesting one when pushed deeper into. In terms of form, however, this is a staggering film. The animation of the many tiny details throughout this film to imply an underwater effect, details such as hair, eyes and fins...




... are a testament to the diligence and focus that went into producing such a smooth and believable cinematic world. The greatest scene to look at as an example of the sheer detail of movement animated in this film has to be the Poor Unfortunate Souls sequence...







Second to this has to be the ship sinking sequence, which took a year to animate.


On a side note, something of a theme, no?



But, whilst all of these films (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Frozen) have been theorised to be linked through these very events and their setting, this isn't something we're going to get into. (Just Google "Little Mermaid Tarzan Frozen theory" if you don't know what I'm talking about). Beyond boats and form, The Little Mermaid has some great songs and characters. It's Ariel herself that is definitely the strongest and most compelling part of the film. However, it's with Ariel that you find the rabbit hole of critique in this film - one that'll quickly spiral into gender politics. In short, the plotting of this film isn't considered very strong as Ariel's character arc is quite flat - arguably, non-existent.

Taking a slight side note, it often seems that when you hear terms such as 'character arc' being used to analyse or review a film, it's often used in a very flippant way. This is also true when you critique actors' performances - but this is a side note in a side note we won't explore. In short, 'character arc' in a sentence produces a statement that is often very banal. You have to delve deeper into the term, 'character arc' to justify its use. To say a character doesn't have a strong arc is amateur screenwriting nonsense. That is not to say that to be a professional screenwriter your characters mustn't have arcs though. I simply mean to imply that character arcs are incredibly subjective concepts; subjective to story. This means that, whilst Ferris Bueller doesn't have a great character arc...


... he still exists in a great film. The same may be said for Scarlett O'Hara...


... Jordan Belfort...


... even Rocky...


Rocky is a very interesting example of a character that doesn't change much. Whilst he goes from rags to riches, a bum to a true contender, that is all an external change. The true heart of Rocky lies in the story of an underdog - and to sustain levels of empathy and to maintain a real character, a screenwriter won't change who they are. They won't alter Rocky as a hard-headed crook who can't sing or dance, only dig his heels in and take a beating--dish one out when he has to. Just check out Rocky III to see what I mean; The Italian Stallion's character arcs are always incredibly subdued or back to a more familiar place. What screenwriters then do instead of putting characters such as Rocky through an arc of character is put them through some shit - what is often a very cinematic (translation: slightly contrived) plot. This creates the illusion of change, but it's not an arc in character, just in plot. This is simply because some characters need no arc or growth to become great - they just are. This is true of Rocky, just as it is O'Hara, Belfort and Bueller. The aforementioned archetypal anti-heroes are so fun, are so absurd, are so ridiculous from the very get go. It then seems that the plot is often there to facilitate mere time we get to spend with them - Ferris Bueller being a significant example of this. What this says about films with character arcs is... nothing. The two types or approaches can co-exist. This is mainly because figures like Luke Skywalker...


... and Thomas Anderson...


... don't start off as great characters. They're either boring or annoying. They have to become great - and that's the point of their narrative. All of this indicates the stark subjectivity of character plotting; it's all very much intertwined with the plotting of your story and so dependent on a specific narrative. Keeping this idea at hand, we can come back to Ariel...


This is an incredibly interesting character considering her arc. She doesn't change by the end of the movie, but she doesn't start out as a particularly likeable character--yet, she is the strongest part of the film. In such, we have what seems like a paradox, at the least, an outlier. To understand how Ariel works, why we like her by the end of the film, we only have to consider two points. The first is of emotion, and the second of story.

Starting with emotion, we only need to turn to the audience. There are a plethora of biases that few but casting directors probably focus on when it comes to movies. We often like characters because of what lies beneath them, the piano playing the concerto...


... the actor. Whether it's an unpopular opinion or not, we usually like characters because of something we often sugarcoat with a term like screen presence. What lies beneath this sugary term is the truth that Will Smith...


... Scarlett Johansson...


... Brad Pitt...


... and Margot Robbie...


... are near-perfect human specimens - attractive ones at that. No, not to all, but to most. Sure, they can be great actors on top of this, and sure skill, talent and craft can mask looks, can allow you to transcend facade, skin deep judgment...


... but...


... the whole package is so much easier to sell... so much easier... because, as they say, if you like it, you put a ring on it - our proverbial ring being attention, money and an unwavering gaze. What this says about characters, about Ariel...


.... about the teen drawn with perfect facial and bodily structure, with all the primally ingrained targets embellished, who is almost always in nothing but two shells, who is innocent, naive, in search of--let's not make things pornographic. The point is, if you have a dick, yeah, you've probably whacked off to this child's cartoon character. If you haven't... I don't know how the other half of the species works. Nonetheless, the point stands that a huge part of characterisation is aesthetic. Whilst looks and sexuality are the most obvious example of this, there are a plethora of other details to this concept. If you, again, look to the likes of Will Smith and Margot Robbie...


... you don't just see two attractive human beings, but two attractive personalities. The latter can also be said of...


Not really a good actor. But, an iconic one nonetheless. This is very clearly down to the fact that John Wayne plays John Wayne in almost every single one of his films. This is a notoriously recognised phenomena by both critics and audiences. Whilst critics may sometimes moan, sometimes embrace, this paradigm, audiences almost always welcome some amount of predictability in their films. We see John Wayne movies because... duh, they're John Wayne movies. With this recognised we can begin to put on the hat of a casting director. Who do you want in your western? A John Wayne, a Clint Eastwood, or, a Jim Carey, an Eddy Murphy? With the answers being obvious, take off the casting director's hat and put on the screenwriter's one. How do you write your protagonist in this western script? If you're paying attention, yes, this is a very subjective question. However, you will approach this character with an understanding that what fits into a classic or spaghetti western won't fit into a comedy. You only need to look to Blazing Saddles to see comedy born from antithesis...


With all of this said, it should become clear that Ariel's role is one that draws upon an archetype:


No, Snow White and Ariel aren't the same character, but they're both teens; naive and fair maidens under duress who seek true love and have a nice voice. There are many other similarities to draw upon, just as there are across all Disney princesses. And in such, you see the archetype hidden behind the character which holds an emotional grip over your viewing experience. Ultimately, because we're draw to patterns, we are drawn to Ariel as a Disney Princess. This covers the broad emotional angle of why Ariel as a character is one we like.

Moving to a more acute angle, an essential part of characterisation is perspective, is putting an audience in the shoes of your protagonist. To quote Howard Ashman who co-composed the music for The Little Mermaid:
"In almost every musical ever written, there's a place that's usually about the third song of the evening...[where] the leading lady usually sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and then routes for her to get it for the rest of the night"
A major reason why we like Ariel is that we understand her - all because we understand what she wants in life. She resonates with us through theme and implied relation. You find this to be true in many aspects of life. The people you often don't like are the people you don't get, are those who don't resonate with you. Moreover, one of the most annoying things in life is dealing with problems, worse, dealing with people with problems, that don't want to be solved. When people make you go around and around in circles because they don't know how to fix things, they don't know how things can be changed, they don't know where the solutions are, and they manage to drag you into that horrid cycle... it's soul crushing. Screenwriters would never in their right minds leave you with these kinds of people without a concise point to be made. Characters often need goals and something to do because we don't want to be stuck with inert conflict that cannot be resolved or faced with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I would have opened with this reasoning for why we like Ariel, but it's not the whole truth - especially the former part of the explanation. The people we don't like aren't always those that we don't understand. This is a point made in the film...


Without knowing each other, Ariel and Eric fall in love. Is this unrealistic? Somewhat. But, it's a clear truth that the people we like, those we are drawn to, aren't the people we know best...




... right? In such, we see the crux of Ariel's characteristic paradox made comprehensible by aesthetic and perspective. In other words, because she's attractive, archetypal and we understand her, we like her. However, because characterisation is subjective to narrative, we have to look at Ariel in the context of her story.

But, for that, you'll have to wait for a part 2. Sorry, not sorry...

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The Little Mermaid - Character & Story: An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

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