Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Musings on Characters: The Little Mermaid

I am currently in the middle of a two weekend run of The Little Mermaid Jr., a shortened version of the Broadway musical based on the Disney movie (loosely adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale).  The songs are loads of fun but I have come to realize that the Disney version of the story is filled with characters who are either lousy people or lousy at their jobs.

Spoilers for the five people out there who haven't seen the movie or are unfamiliar with the story.

Ariel is the worst Disney princess ever.  She is selfish, irresponsible, and has no regard for authority.  The second scene in both the movie and the show features a concert in which Ariel will make her big singing debut.  And yet, when the time comes for her big entrance, she is nowhere to be found.  She is too busy looking for human stuff to bother with trivial things like concerts (or rehearsals).  And it's not as if she made the choice not to go - she simply forgot.  This shows wanton disregard for Sebastian as her director, her sisters as her fellow performers, and all the merfolk who came to the concert hoping to hear her sing.  When she makes the selfish decision to become human, she does it without thinking about her family who just might worry about where she is when she suddenly disappears.  When King Triton makes rules about not venturing to the surface, he is doing so with good reason.  In the first minute of the movie three dolphins and a seagull are almost run over by a ship manned by sailors who are hauling a net full of fish onto the deck.  These are dangers Triton is trying to keep his people safe from, but every time he tries to enforce these rules on Ariel, she busts out with the "You're so unfair!" language.  And apparently the only qualification for being the love of her life is to be really handsome.

In the musical, Prince Eric's father is dead, and yet he is continually avoiding taking up the crown, much to the chagrin of his valet, Grimsby (who may be the only truly respectable person in the entire cast of characters).  Instead, Eric spends his time roaming the seas, actively thwarting Grimsby's attempts to provide the kingdom with a king, a queen, and a subsequent heir.

As bad as Ariel's decision is to trade her voice to become human, it is King Triton who makes the worst decision in the story.  He surrenders his power to the witch Ursula in order to save his daughter.  This is the WRONG decision.  As king, his first responsibility is to his kingdom and his subjects.  Delivering them into the hands of a power hungry woman who wants to dominate everything in the ocean is not in their best interests.  And it's not as if Ariel is his only child and heir; he has six other daughters, all of whom are older than Ariel, and therefore presumably higher up in the line of succession.

Triton is lucky Ursula was even worse than he was as ruler of the seas.  Sure she's really good when it comes to manipulating and conniving, but when she finally gets all the power she wants, her reign of terror lasts about five minutes before she loses control of her powers and is undone.

Sebastian is a terrible director.  Not only does he persist in crafting a concert around a singer who consistently misses rehearsal, but he is so incompetent that he starts the concert without knowing whether or not his star is even in the building.  Ariel's sisters are just as bad.  Could even one of them take the time to remind Ariel of when the concert is and then check in with her right before it all starts?

Even Chef Louis is a failure if he can't catch one simple hermit crab that is running around loose in his kitchen.

The more I think about the Disney version of the story, the more I prefer the original ending.  The Little Mermaid makes the bad decision to give up her voice to get legs to try and woo her prince.  But he ends up choosing someone else.  The Little Mermaid is doomed to die when the sun sets.  But her sisters show up at the last moment to give her an out: if she kills the prince, letting his blood spill on her feet, she will turn back into a mermaid.  But this time she makes the right decision and spares the prince and as a result dies.  It's tragic, especially since she dies directly as a result of making a good choice, but it shows that choices have consequences, while the Disney version has Ariel getting everything she wanted even though she consistently makes the wrong choice.


Nate said...
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Nate said...

Matthew, Matthew.

I suppose you prefer Disney's crass commercialization of Beauty and the Beast, with its politically correct Belle and male chauvinist Gaston, its showy Broadway musical numbers, or its humpbacked, Vader-voiced, ox-in-a-corset Beast (who morphs in the end back into Fabio Lanzoni).

The Little Mermaid's primary focus is on enchantment, and in that regard it succeeds admirably. The storytelling is swift and urgent (even the musical numbers help propel the story forward), the animation first rate, and the timeless themes of impossible romance and teenage rebellion create a timeless quality for which Disney always strives (but only occasionally succeeds).

Plus, if the The Little Mermaid hadn't been so good, we might not even have Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, et al. Not only is it my favorite Disney film of the modern era, it could be the last great animated classic the studio ever--or will ever--produce.

Herch said...

Why, yes, I do prefer Beauty and the Beast with its two leads who are willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of another. Unlike Ariel, Belle is more interested in who a person is than what he looks like. And you say "showy Broadway musical numbers" like it's a bad thing. (Though you do have a point about Fabio.)

I do not disagree with you on the enchantment issue. I myself was swept up by it when I first saw it at the tender age of nine or ten. It was only when I got older and started looking with a more analytic eye that its narrative and character shortcomings became apparent.

The Little Mermaid's place in Disney history is undeniable (and so important I almost mentioned it in the introduction). But I am still a Beauty and the Beast man. (And Aladdin's pretty awesome too, but for different reasons.)

Which films would you consider to be Disney's great animated classics?

Nate said...

You're right; Belle behaves more selflessly than the pampered mermaid. But Ariel is just a teenager--give her time! (I'd change nothing about the sea witch Ursula, who easily ranks among the best Disney villains ever.)

My taste in WD animation inclines toward the archaic. I love The Flying Mouse, Wynken Blynken & Nod, Pluto's Playmate, The Art of Skiing, Snow White, Pinocchio, the Mussorgsky segment of Fantasia, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty (the last masterpiece of the classic era). I find it unlikely that these achievements can ever be equaled by human hand. Computer animation is another matter.

ardensia said...

Don't forget that in the original, the mermaid's desire wasn't simply for a prince but for a human soul. She didn't want to simply become sea foam when she died, but she wanted to go to heaven and be with God. And in that aspect she is rewarded at the end of the day, for she dies as a human and her soul is carried off to heaven.