Monthly Archives: May 2010

May 1, 2010

Disney Canon #28: The Little Mermaid (1989)


ADAM I thought I was going to be blown away by how this looked — and it looks fine — but what I was actually impressed by was its wit. Which surprised me. I did not remember that, and I was tickled.

BETH I didn’t think it looked that amazing either, though it wasn’t bad — but it was very tight. The music was good, the story was good, and it felt like everyone working on it was excited by the idea of an under-the-sea movie. They were very inventive in coming up with fun things to animate.

ADAM There were a whole bunch of visual touches that were really pleasing to me. When Sebastian is creeping into Triton’s chamber, the camera pushes toward him and then suddenly leaps even further at him. Or I liked the way Sebastian’s eyes would bulge out just for a second. Things like that were actually funny! There was even redeeming humor in the turgid romantic parts.

BROOM I think that all of the movie’s greatest strengths were in what we would attribute in a live-action movie to “directing.” I’m not sure enough about how the process works behind the scenes to know whether the people named as directors here are the ones who deserve the credit. Probably they are. But probably a lot of other people do too. There’s a documentary out now about the process of reviving Disney in order to make this movie, and I’d be interested to see how that came about. Anyway, its new strengths were all to do with actually delivering the story and the entertainment and making it all work. Because, really, that’s what had been lost. The Fox and the Hound had a perfectly good story idea, and it looked pretty enough, and they had all the basic talent they needed — but it didn’t have any force of storytelling.

ADAM Or character.

BROOM Yes, but in movies like these where you only get about twenty seconds to establish any given character, characterization really has a lot to do with finessing individual moments. Every moment in this movie had been thought about and was smart.

ADAM The comic minor characters were funny without being just, like: “hey, it’s the French guy!” (except for the cook). Like Sebastian, and the seagull, and Grimsby — they were all pretty smartly done. And the little gag moments actually worked — like when the seagull is trying to sing romantic music and he’s singing badly — I smiled legitimately at a lot of those details. The big setpiece of “Under the Sea,” though it wasn’t as CGI-tastic as it probably would be fifteen years later, was still pretty impressive. And the song is actually pretty challenging for a Disney song. We talked about the Broadway-ification of the big numbers, and certainly “Part of That World” is totally a Broadway song — but you can’t really make out all of the lyrics to “Under the Sea” unless you’re really listening.

BROOM There were a few words I only heard now for the first time.

ADAM And the Jamaican style of the music could be hard for a little kid.

BROOM But it is definitely the Broadway version of that kind of song. I thought the whole movie was done very much like Broadway. At the very beginning, they sing one verse of “I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue…” and then right at the end of the phrase, the prince comes in talking: “What a beautiful day!…” That kind of structure, where a song starts and then goes into a vamp while someone does expository lines, is Broadway. We haven’t seen it in a Disney movie before. I’m not sure anyone had seen it in a kid’s movie before. I think Howard Ashman, the lyricist, showed up and said “this is how these things are done.” He had a big part in that, so I’ve heard. There’s a very particular way that songs and lines play on Broadway, and it’s something that this movie did consistently and with confidence. And not just the songs; I felt like all of the storytelling beats were from that same school, and done exactly right so that you could just lap it all up easily. Triton destroys her little grotto and then as that’s ending, of course we pull back to see Flotsam and Jetsam waiting for the next scene. And from there they take her straight to the witch, and from that scene she gets deposited right on the shore… and so on and so on. Each thing feeds into the next one exactly as it should. It takes all kinds of story work to pare things down until they work that way.

ADAM And — to use one of your terms — there’s no business. No stupid stuff like “Flounder’s really shy around girls!”

BROOM That’s right, there was no business for its own sake — again, except for the French chef scene. But that scene is so blatantly that sort of scene, and it actually sort of telegraphs it and says, “here we go! let’s have fun with this.” When he sings “Now I stuff you with bread / it don’t hurt, ’cause you’re dead!” — that felt hilariously subversive when I first saw it. I remember that my family laughed hard at that. That lyric makes no sense except for as a wink to the audience, and that the scene was willing to be on the level of winking to the audience felt like a huge leap forward in sophistication for kid’s movies. “They know that we know what this scene is about, and we can all enjoy that together!” That was very exciting.

ADAM Beth, as a little girl watching what is probably the pre-eminent little girl’s movie of our lives… what did you think? As I ask this, your red hair is shining in the light and you’ve wrapped your legs up in a blanket, so it seems apropos.

BETH I think I was a little older than the target age for being obsessed with this movie. I mean, I liked it, but I was already moving out of the Disney phase. This was the last one I saw. Seriously, you guys, the last one — everything after this is going to be new to me. But I did like it.

ADAM I feel like I’ve often heard people say, “The Little Mermaid was so anti-feminist, and they really were trying to get out of that as they moved forward into the later movies,” but in fact, she’s exactly as spunky as Belle or any of the other heroines. She evades a shark and tricks him into getting stuck in an iron hoop; she has the balls to sign away her life on a contract. She’s just as spunky.

BROOM Well, I think the essence of the feminist objection would be that “spunk” — in some vague sense of “does she have the wherewithal to evade a shark in a cartoon chase” — is not what a girl should aspire to. It’s not an actual personhood. As we watched I was thinking a lot about the princess fetish that the Disney corporation has developed. Moreso than Cinderella, this movie is the exact performance of the little girl’s fantasy, which is that you can go and get the prince and be a glamorous grownup and live happily ever after and that you don’t have to do or know anything. Ariel doesn’t have to do or know anything in this movie. “She’s better than I thought,” Ursula says angrily when she sees her through the crystal ball… even though she hasn’t done anything. There’s a prince pacing around saying “I’m going to find that girl and I’m going to marry her!” and then she shows up and he says reverently “you look wonderful tonight!” That’s it. She has no agency at all during the entire getting-the-man part of the movie. She has no agency basically at any point after she makes the terrible, terrible decision to sign away everything in her life.

ADAM The terrible and extremely brave decision to sign away everything! And her lack of agency is explained by a plot point, which is that she doesn’t have a voice!

BROOM But she doesn’t respond to that as a challenge. She doesn’t come up with a scheme.

BETH She’s so enthralled with the human world. She doesn’t have time to come up with a scheme — she’s enjoying everything.

BROOM I know. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with it. But the movie could have a different thing to say about this fantasy if she showed up and thought, “even though I can’t talk, I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to do X or Y or Z.”

ADAM Tap-dance.

BROOM Something. But that’s not what happens.

BETH But she’s not able to do any of that stuff.

BROOM She has no ability to do anything. Sebastian does things, and Buddy Hackett does things, on her behalf — they set up the whole “Kiss the Girl” scene — whereas she just sits there waiting for him to kiss her. And he’s gonna, because she’s pretty. And that is the extent of the dream that it offers girls.

ADAM Yes it is! He is very handsome.

BROOM He is one of the most handsome of the princes.

BETH He is.

ADAM Ursula, too, I feel more sympathetic to than I might on one of my strident days. Yes, she sort of deals fast, but she really does spell it all out for Ariel, up front. She’s power-mad, but she’s totally legit.

BETH Except that she sabotages Ariel by showing up in disguise.

ADAM That’s not mentioned in the contract! I think Ursula is very on the level about the deal.

BROOM As a lawyer, you gotta respect Ursula the sea witch. But let’s step back and talk about the figure of Ursula, because I think this is the culmination of the conversation we’ve sort of been having about Cruella de Vil, and Madame Medusa, and Maleficent… all the way back to “Mirror, mirror on the wall.” Why do we have to see Ursula putting on lipstick and shaking her boobs? What does this have to do with her evil?

BETH and ADAM (sputtering defensively)

BETH But I enjoyed seeing her put on lipstick!

ADAM Yeah, she put it on with that cool… thing!

BROOM She happens to have a vanity right there in her living room. Also — and I hate this kind of analysis, but — she comes crawling out of a big vaginal conch shell. Am I right?

ADAM I mean, I was trying to be counter-intuitive. I would normally be totally with you on the Ariel analysis and the Ursula analysis. I think I just liked Ursula’s personality a lot.

BROOM In neither of these cases am I saying that a movie should not be made this way. My defense of such a movie would be: there are many facets to human-hood and womanhood and manhood, and you can’t learn them all from The Little Mermaid! These are some of them. Sometimes vain people can be manipulative. In the scenes with Ursula, in fact, it seems like what’s going on is that she resents the beautiful people. If Ursula got on a psychiatrist’s couch and cried, it would be about how she’s ugly, right?

ADAM Yeah. Or that she’s fat.

BETH She’s just unloved.

BROOM Well, for whatever reason she’s actually unloved, she thinks that she needs to be sexy, right?

ADAM I don’t know. When she was putting on the lipstick it felt very much like Lauren Bacall “getting down to business.”

BETH She didn’t feel like she was trying to be sexy, to me.

ADAM It’s like watching Miranda Priestly get dressed.

BETH She made a joke about “wasting away.”

ADAM She used to live in the palace, but something happened.

BROOM Wait! When does she say that?

ADAM Right at the beginning. “When I lived in the palace, we had feasts,” or something like that.

BROOM Fascinating! I’ve never processed that!

ADAM She’s more like a Lucifer character.

BROOM I see, she’s fallen! What do you think happened? When Triton shows up at the end, she fingers the tip of his trident — partially, of course, because she wants it, but it’s also a little bit like a “hello, big boy!” touch. And he’s single, right? In Little Mermaid II we don’t find out that Ursula is her mother, do we? Because we could!


ADAM She’s got that slinky confident quality. And she’s got those lips. To me she was much more like a drag queen than like a woman.

BROOM Yes. She looks like Harvey Fierstein. [ed.: on the commentary, the directors say she was inspired by Divine]

ADAM She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. Through legal trickery.

BROOM And shaking her ass. You cannot deny that a major element of Ursula is that she is — or was — a sexual woman.

BETH Really? I just don’t see her as sexual.


ADAM It’s not so much that she’s sexual. She’s seen it all, and she knows how you make it in this world, but that’s just how business is done, with a little vavoom, you know?

BROOM Yes. And she’s the figure of evil in this movie. The world in which we want to live is a happy world where you go on a ride through the kingdom and see a puppet show. Prince Eric is surely going to have sex with our heroine but it’s not that kind of sex.

ADAM It’s the sex of true love.

BROOM This issue that the kiss has to be the Kiss of True Love is just a throwaway. If he had kissed her in the lagoon, would that have counted? They’re singing that he should kiss her because there’s only one way to find out if she likes him — that can’t be the Kiss of True Love, if he doesn’t even know yet whether she’ll like it.

ADAM What is the other movie where there’s True Love’s Kiss? Oh, I’m thinking of Enchanted. We should watch that at the end of the series.

BROOM What would you say is essence of the princess fantasy? Do you guys agree that this movie codified it?

BETH I think it’s exactly what you said: that being pretty is enough.

ADAM I think of the essence of the princess fantasy as being that beautiful crystals are swirling around you and you become something else that is effortless and delightful, and afterward everything is easy.

BETH I think it involves waking up and looking in the mirror and finding that you are beautiful and have pretty clothes and that the guy that you like likes you. And that everything is easy, yes.

BROOM So the royalty aspect of it is just a convenient way of summing all that up. It’s not like people actually want to be the queen.

ADAM It’s not about the exercise of state power!

BROOM But is it about that he’s powerful — that your boyfriend is like the king of something, and that’s hunky?

BETH It’s just “how nice it would be to live in a palace and not have to do anything except wear pretty dresses and eat dinner.”

BROOM When that washerwoman in the movie says “if Prince Eric is looking for a wife, I’ve got some very available women right here,” we all go “Ho ho ho ha ha ha! Of course not you hag!”

BETH I think it’s really about being the fairest of them all.

ADAM I kept thinking about Mr. Weasley as I was watching this movie. You know, he’s fascinated by Muggles, and he doesn’t understand how Muggle technology works, and everyone else is like “Humans are dangerous and unpredictable!” and he says “You just don’t understand them!” And he also has vibrant red hair.

BROOM You’re right! J.K. stole that. “Want a thingamabob? I got twenty!”

ADAM Ariel’s totally a nerd.

BROOM Well, a hot nerd.

ADAM She’s into, like, Warhammer figurines. She’s like Belle, actually. They’re both nerds.

BETH Belle is from Beauty and the Beast?

BROOM Yes. You’ll find out.

ADAM Belle’s opening number is about her love of reading.

BROOM And about how provincial her community is. It’s basically about how everyone she goes to high school with is an asshole, and she’s going to go to a fancy school. But her dad can’t afford it.

BETH I don’t know how I felt about Ariel wearing a bikini.

BROOM That’s why I mentioned her hotness. It is not a non-factor in this movie that the protagonist is mostly naked most of the time.

ADAM But she doesn’t know any better. That’s just what she wears.

BETH Some of those shots where she’s swimming up and her boobs are sort of emphasized…

ADAM And how about when the water is breaking on the rock behind her?

BROOM When she gets legs and is naked below the waist and they still show her all the way down below the curve of her hips, that feels like a bit much. I accept the shells when they go unmentioned, but I always felt uncomfortable when the seagull asks her if she got “new seashells” — it turns our attention directly on them and acknowledges that they are a removable item of clothing that is covering her near-nakedness, and not just a part of the character-design — and that always felt inappropriate. And let me explain what I mean by “always” — I have seen this movie more times than any other in this series because it was used as a substitute teacher for middle school chorus by a neglectful chorus teacher, many, many times in sixth or seventh grade. There is not a shot in this movie that isn’t very, very familiar to me.

ADAM But you said there were words you picked out now for the first time.

BROOM Words aren’t a crucial part of movies when you’re a kid. As Beth said the other day when Star Wars was on.

BETH There were also some shots of the side-boob. More than necessary.

BROOM Yes, that’s what I’m saying. She had been drawn with that certain kind of loving care that you need to be careful about managing, whenever animators are involved.

ADAM What do you think about the primacy of music in this movie? I don’t think I had ever thought abut the fact that Sebastian is the royal composer, and music is the way they try to get him to kiss her, and her singing is what draws him to her…

BROOM Sebastian’s efforts to convince her to stay under the sea and to convince the prince to kiss her are both far more compelling music than the terrible score he writes for the royal concert. I always identified Sebastian with Salieri. Sebastian’s eyes and mouth are on a part of the crab that doesn’t exist, anatomically. Every time I see it I wonder why that is. You’d think they’d just have put eyes and mouth on a crab shape. Instead they attached a glutinous mass to him that contains his personality. At first you think that it makes sense, because a clam has a goopy body like that — but a crab is not a clam. It has features already.

ADAM I don’t think I had noticed that.

BROOM As for the role of music… I like that she has a little leitmotif that her disembodied voice sings: “look at this stuff / isn’t it neat.” And I really like the effect when the ghost hands come and take it out.

ADAM And you can hear it coming out, too! How do they do that?

BROOM Regarding the animation: certainly the special effects were better than Oliver & Company, and the character designs were a little better overall…

ADAM But there was some sloppiness.

BETH There were some weird things.

BROOM I would say about one-half of the animation was better than it had been, and about half of it was about the same. We were all struck by the shots where she’s singing her reprise of “Part of Your World,” on the beach and then on the rock, some kind of rotoscoping was going on, and her shape was changing uncomfortably. Her eyes sort of drifted apart and together.

BETH Her body, too. Also, the mouth-matching for her first song wasn’t very good.

BROOM Maybe so, but I think that first song is really effective. I thought, “of course everyone wants to sing this as their audition piece in high school.” The sequence works so well.

BETH It’s a great song.

BROOM It’s a great song for that moment in that movie. When you get to that song, you know it for sure: This movie is going to be better than Oliver & Company. This movie is better than all the other animated movies I’ve seen in this decade. You know it because she’s singing about something.

ADAM Her look changes. Sometimes she looks like a young girl, and sometimes she looks like a drag queen — her lips are too red, and her hair looks like Wilma Flintstone — and sometimes she looks another way… it was uneven.

BETH It seemed like many different people were drawing her and it didn’t all work out.

BROOM What do you know about the original story by Andersen? I know that I found it very unpleasant when I had a little book of it as a kid. She loses her voice by having her tongue cut out of her mouth, and her feet hurt the whole time, and she fails… it’s all bad. Anyway, if not for the source material, would “The Little Mermaid” seem like an appropriate title for this movie? It seems a little quaint.

ADAM When I saw the title screen, I thought that if I had never heard of the movie before, I’d be excited, because a “mermaid” is this exotic thing, but “the little mermaid” sounds friendly and approachable.

BROOM To me the word “little” is like a hundred-year-old European way of signifying that something is for children.

BETH The Teenage Mermaid, it should have been. Teenage Mutant Ninja Mermaid.

BROOM Did you hear, by the way, that the film Rapunzel, due in November 2010, has been retitled Tangled? They could have had the title RAPUNZEL… but they didn’t think it would appeal to boys enough, so they rechristened it… TANGLED.

[conversation ensues about how dumb this is]

BROOM I feel like it’s in this movie’s long-term interest that it is called The Little Mermaid, even though that’s not quite what it feels like, and not, say … Getting Feet. Anyway, I thought it was great. I really enjoyed watching it, and I haven’t felt that in a long time.

ADAM Yes. I liked it for all the right reasons.

BETH It felt very fresh. Very 90s, but fresh.

BROOM And that said, it definitely wasn’t the wholesome, full-bodied thing that the original Disney movies were.

BETH Ursula did eat creatures with eyes. You had talked about the cruelty in the previous movies being a turning point.

BROOM Adam had to ask, “are they dead?” when she suddenly blew up Flotsam and Jetsam. And then little pieces of their meat fall on her. Yes, she blew them up. They are dead.

ADAM And she died pretty graphically.

BROOM The one part of this movie that’s not handled perfectly is that she gets huge and then is impaled on a boat.

ADAM You want them to be hoist on their own petard. It should have something to do with their character. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s inflated herself to this vainglorious size, and somehow she’s undone that way.

BROOM She’s undone only because she’s so distractedly set on blowing up the hot teenager. If she had the presence of mind to look to her side, she could have batted that ship away. And it still seems unlikely that the ship, going so slow, would have impaled her all the way through. It’s not a satisfying ending.

ADAM I feel like there’s another Disney movie where the king gives up his power to save some lesser person, and in so doing imperils everyone, and you realize it’s not a good decision. I don’t know what I’m thinking of. There are a lot of bits in this that are Disney pastiche but don’t feel that way in the moment. As Beth said, the “rescue by animals” scene is old hat.

BROOM That was fine because it was just a comedy bit and not the actual saving moment. Of course, the actual climactic moment was even more secondhand. Her getting big is not justified by anything in the movie. You have to have seen other movies to understand why she’s getting really big at the end.

ADAM It happens again in Aladdin too.

BROOM Not to give anything away. It basically comes from Sleeping Beauty, where she turns into a giant dragon at the end, and is, similarly, vanquished unconvincingly. It would have been better if she had been undone by her vanity somehow; or if her contract had a loophole clause in it.

ADAM Something Shylockian.

BROOM She is Jewish, isn’t she. And from New York.

[we read the review and I begin reminiscing about reading that very review back in 1989, and things devolve]