Art and commercialism are major competitors in film. Film is inextricably linked to industry, and many argue that the art form suffers for it. Popular cynicism claims that movies are based more on what the people want than for art itself; major studios like Disney are the worst culprits. They tell people simply what they want to hear, everything is happy, and they distort stories. Arguably, Disney faces a greater challenge because most of their films are adaptations of well known literary tales. Many fail to grasp, though, that film and the written word are two very different mediums for story. In the traditional narrative structure of film, the audience watches the story unfold as though a fly on the wall. Written word allows the audience to hear inside the characters’ minds and have important details directly articulated to them. In other words: writing tells, film shows. As such, an adapted film has to transmit a story that was meant to be told rather than shown. To complicate matters further, an adapted film is subjected to extra scrutiny for remaining true to its source -- regardless of how old or outdated its message is. It must achieve the perfect balance between tradition and innovation. Walt Disney Animation’s 1989 feature, The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same title achieves this balance. The mermaid’s journey is preserved, but its message is translated into a modern worldview. The mermaid in both Andersen’s and Disney’s versions of the story goes through an incredible journey. Both mermaids seek the love of a prince. In their pursuit, they both go to the sea witch for their ticket to the human world: splitting their fishtails into human legs. From there, they are able to join the human world and seek out the prince. However, their respective stories carry subtle yet substantial nuances. Andersen’s mermaid goes through a journey of penance, a fairly archaic value, whereas Disney’s mermaid journeys to find her true voice, a very contemporary ideal. Upon examining the filmmakers’ own journey to create the film, one can see how this shift occurred.
Andersen’s mermaid yearns to gain an immortal soul, which is only available through incredible sacrifice. Her first journey to the human world at age 15 is a rite of passage to adulthood, introducing her to an opportunity to achieve her goal: the love of a prince. As her grandmother tells her:
Only if a man should fall so much in love with you that you were dearer to him than his mother and father; and he cared so much for you that all his thoughts were of his love for you; and he let a priest take his right hand and put it in yours while he promised to be eternally true to you, then his soul would flow into your body and you would be able to partake of human happiness. He can give you a soul and keep his own (Andersen 66).
She pays the witch for passage to the human world by cutting out her tongue, effectively making her mute. After causing the mermaid incredible pain by splitting her fins into legs, the witch’s spell continually maims her by causing stabbing pains in her feet that draw blood. Considering that her ultimate reward is an immortal soul, the mermaid’s handicaps indicate punishment for sin. She is guilty for wishing to use the prince for her own gain. Continuing on the theme of punishment, her chance for an immortal soul is taken away when the prince marries another woman. He can no longer bestow a soul upon her, so the mermaid is doomed to die upon the coming sunrise. Upon facing the ultimate test - taking the prince’s life in exchange for return to her life as a mermaid - she triumphs by choosing her own death over murdering the prince. In reward, she is given another opportunity to achieve an immortal by serving for 300 years as a daughter of the air. This path is pure because it does not require the mermaid to use another being to achieve her ends. Her path is one of reward through penance and redemption. How, though, does a contemporary young audience relate to this message? The filmmakers had to address this while still at the same time remaining true to the story’s legacy -- the old paradox of tradition versus innovation.
Ironically, the filmmakers were facing a similar conflict in the filmmaking process itself. The Little Mermaid was made during one of the most unstable points in the history of the Walt Disney Studios, which had a distinctive impact the story the filmmakers told. “The 1980s were a time of transition at the Disney studio. A lot of the veteran animators and artists who had built the company and the studio’s reputation were retiring, some passed away . . . Disney animation was at risk. There was some talk of or thought of shutting down that department. Unthinkable -- and yet it was something that was being considered” recounts film historian Leonard Maltin (Treasures Untold). The animation department was displaced from its famous studio in Burbank where Pinnochio had become a real boy and Cinderella had found her prince, and shipped away to a warehouse in Glendale. Further, there was an administrative change in 1984. Frank Wells and Michael Eisner came to Disney from Paramount, men who were masters of their craft. However, their craft was live action, not animation. The mediums’ different processes were highlighted when Jeffrey Katzenberg, a hire that Eisner had brought with him from Paramount, asked to re-edit their latest feature, The Black Cauldron. He was told that animated features do not get edited. That was not how Walt did it. “I kept hearing this refrain over and over and over [what would have Walt done?] I said, ‘you know, we’re not Walt; we’re us. We have to find our own way,” reminisces Katzenberg (Treasures Untold). The crew was in a new place with new management; they had to focus on their own self-actualization just as Ariel has to in the film. As Glen Keane, supervising animator of Ariel, remembers, “It felt like ‘Okay, the writing is on the wall. We’ve got to prove ourselves’”(Treasures Untold).
The result was the most successful animated feature since Walt Disney’s death in 1966.
The new generation’s masterpiece is colored with the theme of self-realization. Disney’s mermaid, Ariel, longs for the human world and a life with her prince, but she is only able to achieve it by being true to herself. In contrast to Andersen’s mermaid, Ariel is forbidden from the human world by law rather than granted access through rite of passage. However, it is the place where she feels she truly belongs. Her reach toward the surface is a reach toward her true self. Like Andersen’s mermaid, her key to the human world lies within the prince, as exemplified in the song “Part of Your World - Reprise”:
What would I give to live where you are?
What would I pay to stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you smiling at me?
Where would we walk?
Where would we run?
If we could stay all day in the sun, just you and me,
And I could be
Part of your world.
I don’t know when.
I don’t know how.
But I know something’s starting right now.
Watch and you’ll see.
Someday I’ll be
Part of your world.
When Ariel goes to the sea witch, Ursula, she is maimed similarly to Andersen’s mermaid. Not only is Ariel’s fishtail painfully split into legs, but Ursula intentionally thwarts her by magically removing her voice, her only identifying characteristic to Prince Eric, and imprisoning it in a shell. Upon taking Ariel’s true self, Ursula teaches Ariel the performance that will supposedly win Eric. As Laura Sells writes in her essay “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?”, “Ursula uses a camp drag queen performance to teach Ariel to use makeup, to ‘never underestimate the importance of body language,’ to use the artifices and trappings of gendered behavior. Ariel learns gender, not as a natural category, but as a performed construct” (Sells 183).
The performance works. After endlessly playing the song of his mysterious dream girl on his flute, Eric eventually throws the flute into the sea and smiles up at Ariel, clearly intending to choose her over his fantasy. Ursula uses Ariel’s voice, however, to bewitch Eric. Ariel has compromised herself to the point that her own true self is being used against her. Upon realizing this, Ariel fights back despite the weakness she has imposed on herself. This point is illustrated when she struggles to swim out to the wedding boat despite having lost her ability to swim. Finally, Ursula’s bewitched seashell breaks and Ariel’s voice and mermaid form is restored. Only in her true form is she able to defeat Ursula and help her father, King Triton, understand that her place is in the human world. In the end, she is able to join Eric in the human world. Unlike when she first joined Eric under Ursula’s spell, however, she is able to live in harmony with her life in the sea rather than cut off from it. She triumphs in full rather than in part -- just like the filmmakers.
When continuing a legacy, there is always a lingering question: “What would have Walt done?”. History provides a n answer. Writer/director John Musker recalls some notes the crew found in the Disney archives several months after story and character development on the film had been solidified. Apparently Walt Disney himself had attempted to adapt Andersen’s story in the 1940s. Among the transcripts of story meetings, there was a message from Walt about how to develop the film. As Musker recounts, “In the 1941 version, [concept artist] Kay Nielsen and the story guys at the time were really trying to stay closer to the Andersen story. Walt’s big note was like ‘we don’t need to do Andersen literally, we just need to adapt it to make it work for our medium’” (Treasures Untold). Among the story notes were plot changes such as the mermaid’s intimate scene with the prince after his rescue and the enchanting characteristic of her voice, changes that Musker and his writing partner, Ron Clements, had already included in their script. “So it was as if Walt was looking over our shoulders as we were developing this, because a lot of the things we were thinking apparently he was thinking too” (Treasures Untold).
The filmmakers achieved their goal. They made an animated feature of their own that lived up to the legacies of both Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney. On a finer note, they were able to frame Andersen’s story in a context that was more relatable for modern audiences. Rather than focusing on redemption and penance, they focused on self-actualization -- which had been the key to making the film in the first place.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid” In Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, 57-76. Translated by Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: Anchor Books, 1983.
The Little Mermaid. DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.
The Little Mermaid. Audio Commentary. DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.
Sells, Laura. “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?” In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 175-192. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Treasures Untold: The Making of “The Little Mermaid.” Featured on The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2007.