I wrote earlier about my troubling relationship with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and my bad first experience watching it as an 8 year old kid (you can view that post here). But in reflecting on the problems I had with the circumstances regarding the witch, it got me thinking about the films story as a whole. I have issues with this movie regarding Ariels actions as a character and where the consequences of her actions ultimately leads her. But as a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that I do recognize the positive aspects of how this movie won audiences over, which ultimately lead to the revival of Disney Animation. I won’t dispute that because I consider that to be a very good thing for animation as a whole. And in regarding my own opinion, I’m not saying its wrong for anyone to love this movie for what it is. But that doesn’t mean I have to believe that The Little Mermaid is a good movie.
In writing this, I’m going to assume anyone reading this has seen The Little Mermaid and is familiar with the films story, so I won’t really go into a synopsis about what happens in the film. There are a lot of storytelling elements in this film that work very well that contribute to its success, some of which includes its terrific songs and the overall pacing and rapid build to the end. But the message the film sends at the end about Ariel is a little confusing to me, and I think in a lot of ways she comes off as being much more spoiled and self centered than most people are willing to acknowledge.
What a lot of this boils down to is the major change that had to be made from the dark ending in the original story to the happy ending Disney wanted in the film. So the story was changed to be about Ariels relationship with her father, and in the end its her father Triton who learns that he needs to let his daughter go so she can make her own choices in life. But the problem is that Ariels independent choices in the film came at a considerable price…one where her father winds up having to sacrifice himself and his kingdom to save his daughters life. Is Triton really to blame for being too hard on his daughter? Maybe…but he’s hard on her for a reason, and that’s to keep his kingdom safe from being exposed by humans. And he’s not entirely wrong. Humans can be dangerous. I’m not sure why he’s in the wrong when he did what he did to protect his own people, and the frustration he feels when his own daughter is violating their exposure for her own personal gain.
But my biggest issue is the aftermath of everything that happened after the climax of the film. If you really look at the end of the film, Ariel shows no gratitude to her father that he just sacrificed himself and his kingdom to save her. She never thanks him. She never stops and has a moment of clarity about the seriousness of the consequences of her actions. In short, she never thinks that she could have been WRONG for doing what she did. Instead, she only tells her father she loves him AFTER he makes her human and he decides to let her go. Just a little dysfunctional don’t you thing? It disturbs me a little that she wouldn’t say “I love you” after the fact that he just saved her life, but only instead says it after he gave her what she wanted.
So I have to ask…is this really the right message the film should be sending? Up until the ending, I completely understand Ariels motivations that she would do what she did because she’s a teenager searching for her independence. But when the cost of her actions turns out to be so great, and the fact that she doesn’t think about the consequences, and that it doesn’t change her as a character leaves me worried at the kind of message this story is sending to kids. This also winds up being the price of changing the original Anderson story, making the Mermaid much more self-centered, which goes against the spirit of the original story. In the long run, I think Ariel was wrong, and yet she gets away with her own self-centeredness.
When you really think about it, at the end of the film, Ursula actually would have won. She got her revenge on Triton, she left his daughter without a father, and a kingdom in ruin without their king. That’s definitely a great way to get back at someone tenfold. But she stupidly takes the crown as a grab for power and winds up shooting herself in the foot (tentacle…whatever). I never bought into the idea that she was after Triton’s kingdom the whole time. That to me always came off as an arbitrary story point so it would be easier to maker Ursula super evil and lead to her destruction at the end. But my take on Ursula was that her real motive was revenge…for being exiled, or for whatever happened with her relationship with Triton beforehand. That to me was always the real motivation for her actions, and its too bad because she actually would have gotten away with it had she not fallen into the cliche that what every Disney Villain wants is power. She could have been so much more than that.
I suppose if they went for the ending I suggested where Ursula won, then Disney would have had a much darker ending on their hands. But that’s what The Little Mermaid is. That’s the whole lesson of the story and where the consequences of her actions lead her. Even if Ursula won, they wouldn’t have had to have killed Ariel, but Ariel’s life could have been ruined. There’s something wrong with violating that. I’m sure if Hans Christian Anderson ever knew about this film, he’d be rolling in his grave. It’s a shame too, because now kids today aren’t going to recall the lessons of Anderson’s classic tale, they’re going to think of the Disney version, where the main character only gets lucky she didn’t have to suffer the major consequences of her actions. Because in the end, it’s everyone else who winds up taking the fall for her.
Like I said, I know the endearing popularity The Little Mermaid has on audiences everywhere. But me personally, I never got the same experience everyone else did regarding this film, because the witches transformation at the end terrified me and ruined the film for me. But in a way, I’m kind of thankful it happened because it actually allowed me to step back and look at the film with a different set of eyes. I love Disney for a lot of reasons (hell, I wouldn’t have a career path without them), but they are fallible, even when they’re successful. The Little Mermaid is an example of this. It may have been a whopping success and the savior of Disney Animation, but because of the overall message the film sends about its main character, I never really believed it deserved that honor.