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


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

Thoughts On: The Little Mermaid

In the previous post, we started the exploration of this film by looking into a question of why we like Ariel. This is what we'll continue...

To pick up where we left, to understand why we like Ariel and her narrative, we have to consider her in terms of her story. This is where we can really sink our teeth into this movie, and is also where themes and a deeper analysis of narrative meaning come into the picture. So, what this movie is clearly about is, being a teenager. As many Disney films do, The Little Mermaid focuses on the transition we all make from adolescence to some weird place beyond that comfort. In such, naivety is a crucial element to this story. Which is why Ariel is a bit...

... ditsy. This isn't just a moment of levity in the film, however. The fork is symbolic of a larger paradigm present throughout the narrative. There is a clear divide between an 'up there' and a 'down here'; an under the sea and beyond the ocean. Ariel is interested in the other side, in... what's it called?... land. (Sorry). Due to the divide, Ariel is both curious and unknowing. This is what the fork simply represents. But, just as she enthusiastically brushes her hair with the dinglehopper, she wanders into Ursula's cave and gives her voice away. To delve into the subtext of this, it has to be noted that the 'up there' and 'down here' discussed are, in Ariel's view, characterised by others:

Eric is land, is humanity, is up there; King Triton is the ocean, is... mermanity? is down here. Eric is the ruler of his kingdom just as Triton is his. With this, the almost irrefutable cliche of parent/child, daddy/daughter issues has arisen. Through Eric we thus see the convoluted relationship Ariel has with her father. Whilst she loves him, there's that teenage rebellion which has her seek out the near-equivalent in a different context. This is the crux of why she never really changes throughout the film; people's parent issues don't just fade. Bergman surely made a career out of the fact...

Staying with The Little Mermaid though, another core reason why Ariel doesn't change is that she has little to learn given the current themes. The only person who really needs to have a character arc with romantic themes of adventure and change at hand are the likes of Sebastian and Triton.

P.S. Who the fuck is Sebastian? He's the royal conductor/composer and babysitter-to-death of a princess? I really don't understand the hierarchical system of Triton's ocean. Nonetheless, with romantic themes of change at hand, the ultimate goal of this narrative is to say that Ariel's spirit and yearning for adventure isn't only a good thing, but something all parents should embrace. Thus, I see the true crux of this film to be in the lesson Triton learns: even if your kid's an asshole, you've still got to love them.

There is greater depth and details to be found in this film's message, however. We'll start with one of the most popular sequences in the film, the Part Of Your World song...

This is where the greatest bits of teenage commentary come into the film, but also where we see the crux of The Little Mermaid as a representative of the Disney resurgence. As we've been covering in the last few posts in the Disney Series, after Sleeping Beauty, Disney films changed...


What these films represent is a move away from the classical Disney formula, away from their traditional fairy-tales. This, in my opinion, was a much needed breath of fresh air. 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats in particular are great Disney new-wave classics that hold their own in face of any other. However, there was a commercial decline that ran over this period, one almost completely reversed by The Little Mermaid. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is the first in a string of monumental box office smashes:


These films, whist holding onto some elements of the previous period of change around the 60s and 70s, came back to the softer aesthetic of the classics as well as embraced the traditional romantic themes. This of course welcomed The Little Mermaid - which is probably the most extreme and, in certain respects, vapid example of a Disney cliche or paradigm: a young princess finding prince charming. However, the film isn't as flat-out bad as this description. Because of character, music and aesthetic, this simplistic narrative has been elevated. Nonetheless, it's the Part Of Your World song that truly makes a call back to older themes. We see this in the blind yearning perfectly symbolised with this juxtaposition:

These two halves of the narrative display the yearning and the receiving; Ariel's blind desire clumsily realised. This is the epitome of almost every Disney classic, but with all looming conflict discarded as fat. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is Cinderella without the stepmother, keys and locks; Snow White without the witch, huntsman and apple; Dumbo without the circus, ring master and cage. All of these characters have a blind and burning desire that drives them; for Cinderella, a dream of freedom, for Snow White, true love to take her away, for Dumbo, a mother to comfort him again. Their conflict justifies their struggle, their pining, their songs. This isn't so true in The Little Mermaid though. All conflict in this film is a projection of Ariel's character flaws. This is where we see the deviation from the classical Disney pictures in a certain sense - in a lack of tragedy and malice. Whilst the characters, themes and goals are similar across the mentioned films, the conflict filling the gaps is not. However, what lies at the emotional core of this song is incredibly reminiscent of such moments:

A young girl sings to us her hopes and dreams, ones that come true by the end of the movie. In such lies the idiosyncratic magic of the Disney feature, in such is best representation of a romanticised optimism that's irrefutably indicative of a more classical Disney.

Beyond conveying a change in the form of story telling, Ariel's key song puts across the essence of the film and its commentary on teenage-hood. To pick up on this we'll just need a few lines from the song:

Wouldn't you think I'm the girl,
The girl who has everything?


But who cares?
No big deal
I want more


Flipping your fins you don't get too far


Up where they walk
Up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wandering free
Wish I could be
Part of that world


Betcha on land
They understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand


Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

With the first two sections, we see Ariel's blind desire put to words. She has it all, but wants more. This is something that combines with the next two sections to further comment on something Sebastian picks up on frequently; the grass being greener. It seems so strange that Ariel would choose the physical attributes of land-life as symbolic of freedom. With the ocean being a voluminous and three dimensional liquid realm in face of the flat two-dimensional experience of land-life, wouldn't the ocean be the physically freeing place? You can swim in any direction you want, whereas feet can only fight gravity to drag you forwards, backwards, side-to-side - which leaves those fins getting you pretty far--and with ease, However, Ariel doesn't speak in terms of physics (even though that'd be a huge deciding factor - for a mermaid especially). Again, the sea is Triton's domain. Ariel simply doesn't feel free under these conditions--which is what leads on to the line, 'they don't reprimand their daughters', meaning everything is perfect on land for teenagers. This is of course nonsense, everyone is reprimanded in some sense growing up - just look at Eric...

... he's constantly moaned at for not being married, gossiped over, such and so on. This line then speaks directly to Ariel's naivety and her irrational optimism. The last line of the song sums everything up; she just wants to be out of the sea and apart of another world. This cites that Ariel's internal conflict and goals are sourced from this reflexive and semi-conscious need for change. She wants to grow into her own person, but doesn't really know that that's what she wants. This may imply that her 'falling in love' with Eric is a white lie, and that the ending isn't really a happy one, but, within the confines if the movie this blind chase is justified. This is all because Triton is the one who learns his lessons. Ariel is a character that facilitates this - which is ultimately tantamount to a slightly obnoxious teen getting their way. However, this only equates Ariel to...

We picked up on this in the previous post, but Ferris Bueller here doesn't have a huge character arc, he just gets his way by the end of the movie.

It's Jeanie that has to change, that needs a character arc. The only difference between The Little Mermaid and Ferris Bueller in this respect is thematic. Ferris is a bit of an anarchistic while Ariel is a romantic. However, both of their narratives are enjoyable because of the stories flourishing out of these rebellious teens, each under their respective thematic connotations.

In a certain sense, it's this senselessness that lies at the core of Ariel's character. She doesn't really know what she wants. She probably likes the security of being a princess linked to a king, of being able to explore freely, which is why she gravitated towards Eric. But, because upbringing stigmatise the teenage perception of parents, Ariel feels the need to relocate - not change as a person, just relocate. I think this is what we all understand as she sings her song in spite of concepts of character arcs or more complex and mature messages. There is a maturity in this acceptance of Ariel as a stupid teenager which gives this film a natural flow, and so room to breathe, to be a flippant musical where being eaten by a shark...

... is just no big deal. It's this embrace of teenage-hood and Ariel as a character that has us find our way here:

It's in Ursula's cave that Ariel, of course, gives her voice away. This is the most interesting part of the story. Not only does it mark a transformation of character...

... not just that one, but, it is the ironic epitome of the movie. Why, if there are such strong pro-freedom and pro-woman undertones to this movie; again...

Betcha on land
They understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand

... would you symbolise one of the most damaging non-physical forms of suppression: taking away a person's voice? The answer lies in another ironic aspect of Ariel's transformation:

When Ariel can't speak, she's a much better character. This isn't too surprising to anyone familiar with silent films. This is the all-important factor of figures such as Chaplin and Keaton. It's because they can't talk that they have a disability in the way they may present themselves. Just as a novelist may only really describe images, and so is constricted, a silent film actor may only use action. This doesn't mean silent film characters or novelists are inexpressive though. They work around their confines and manage to turn them into positives. Ariel as a silent figure is a great example of this. Without her voice, she charms Eric inadvertently; again:

This action reveals Ariel's true character. Words could not have done the same for her. So, in a certain sense, it's Ursula taking Ariel's voice that allows her to reinvent herself - not only to us, but to the characters in her world. What happens when we get to the big reveal, Ariel having got her voice back...

... is that Eric sees Ariel in her best lights. Ariel's song is representative of her saving his life - which is why Eric initially fell in love with her and, in realising that it was her that saved him all along, marries her. Combine this with the essence of her character being inverbally voiced perfectly and their bond seems to make sense. Ariel not only demonstrates the best parts of her character, but the heart of it to Eric, the truth resulting in this...

This is why we can be swept along by this narrative. it's not just about getting to know Ariel and what she wants, but that desire combining with a myriad of other intricacies to produce something almost magic - in the perfect Disney fashion.

We then see the crux of this entire film in its flawless tagline:

An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

The adventure is what Ariel pursues throughout this narrative; it's fun, it's change, it's the new. All of this is born out of a teen fantasy, catalysed by daddy issues. But, this fantasy is beyond imagination; Ariel doesn't know what she wants, she can't imagine it. This is why she blindly pursues her emotive compass as it pricks in any direction away from her father. All of this reduces the narrative to romantic goop, but intentionally so. It is very clear that this narrative was designed around Ariel getting what she wants without any true conflict. The reasoning for this is so that, we, the audience, are sucked into story and setting through characterisation. We take Ariel's side throughout the narrative, feel as she fells, and enjoy her narrative as it unfolds.

So, that's it. The Little Mermaid is a very enjoyable film. It's a great lesson in how character may work with both the audience and story to create a great narrative and timeless film. Though there are risks in the characterisation of a narrative through such an excruciatingly teenage character, Disney has pulled this off well.

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