Mermaid Mystery (Life Lessons for Little People Book 1)
With the new wave of live-action Disney remakes comes the expected scrutiny, namely that which examines how closely these films compare with the animated source material. Similarly, these new live-action films are being held to the same standards and scrutiny: how do they depict the cultural shifts that have happened between when their animated counterparts were released, and now?
This, for many reasons:. This comparison is harder, however, much more interesting, when done between the Disney animations and their literary sources: the time frame is much larger, the mediums and the cultures they originate from are different. This essay, the first of a series, aims to do just that, beginning with the Little Mermaid.
When the movie the Little Mermaid came out in , it enchanted thousands of little boys and girls, myself included, and at the same time gave us a glimpse into a world that was not often shown in popular culture: the sea, and its inhabitants. Beyond the enchanting songs and the memorable and winsome characters of the movie, the story also held a mirror to our society through the viewpoint of a third party, a young idealistic girl named Ariel.
As is common for movies produced by Disney, this one deals with themes and lessons that are interesting to compare with the ones promoted by the source fairy tale. A very quick glance reveals that they are somewhat dissimilar, starting with the manner with which they approach the subject of actions and their consequences.
While this chasm is, in and of itself, interesting to note, it is more so because of what it reveals about the ideology of Disney movies: what makes them so interesting is how they constantly change the message and lessons of the fairy tales that inspired them. The aim is to understand the reasons behind those changes. More specifically: what can we make of the ideology of Disney and the reasons for its impact on society through the salient morals of The Little Mermaid fairy tale, as well as its narrative structure?
Before delving into said ideology, as well as the place of fairy tales and morality in modern and past societies, it would be interesting to, first and foremost, focus on comparing both stories including the characters, settings, and their significances ; after which the act of transformation, as well as the thematic core of both stories being human and being other than human will be explored. Bear with me, friends. The Disney version of The Little Mermaid paints an almost idyllic portrait of the under-the-sea world: in the very first shots, viewers are accosted by lush colors, jaunty music, graceful and inviting sea inhabitants.
No indeed! On the surface, both stories are very similar: they deal with a young girl who yearns to discover the world above water. In the fairy tale, while the connotation is just as pejorative humans are fearsome and to be avoided at all costs , there is a nuance: the mermaids are allowed to go to the surface once they come of age, that is to say fifteen years old. But we could also look at it this way: fifteen year-old mermaids are certainly more attractive than eight or nine year-old ones: keeping in mind that these mermaids, first and foremost, have been considered dangerous enchantresses in many cultures, perhaps this age limitation is both a hypocritical and unspoken stratagem.
Whether knowingly or not, once they come of age, they have finally matured into the creatures that have been luring humans under the sea of eons. Back to Andersen: the mermaid falls in love with a prince for whom she sacrifices everything, including her family. To do so, she makes a deal with the Sea Witch who gives her the ability to walk on earth and with it, the opportunity to try attaining her goals — but of course, at a price.
In both stories, the mermaid sees herself relegated to a sort of sister figure for the prince, who does not recognize her as the one who saved his life during a shipwreck as implausible as this has always sounded, to be honest. Moreover, the relationship between the prince and the mermaid is threatened by his potential interest in another woman; this is where both stories diverge. In the fairy tale, the mermaid doesn't end up with the man of her dreams while in the movie, their love prevails and the other woman Ursula, in her foxy disguise is uncereminiously shoved out of the picture.
These differences become even more eloquent when we inspect the characters. In the movie, however, names are given out far and wide, imparting the same characters with personality, but more importantly, individuality. The consequences of this difference will be explored in just a few. In both stories, the mermaid is the youngest of many siblings: she stands out from them, mainly through her distinct personality; this is shown differently in the fairy tale and in the movie. In the latter, the sisters are vain, slightly judgmental and unable to relate to their youngest sister while Ariel is curious, mischievous and strong-willed.
In the source material, the mermaid is described as a quiet, introverted and slightly eccentric young girl who asks philosophical questions where her older siblings and the rest of her family accept things as they are, preferring not to challenge or even pay attention to the status quo.
These are not inconsequential changes: the figure of authority in the story is the grandmother who represents wisdom although she gives the mermaid rather questionable advice on how she should act and think, in my personal opinion , while her father is practically nonexistent. The women of the story are in charge, from the mermaid, her sisters, their grandmother, the Sea Witch all the way to the woman who takes away the prince she is so desperately in love with.
The Sea Witch is another character who undergoes a slight, but ultimately powerful transformation. In the movie, she is the villainous and positively fabulous Ursula who takes advantage of Ariel through the one thing that makes her so unique: her beautiful voice. Ursula once again takes advantage of her when she transforms herself into a beautiful woman and hypnotizes Prince Eric into nearly marrying her this would allow her, in a roundabout manner, to gain the underwater Kingdom, knowing that King Triton would trade himself in place of his daughter in the event of the unsuccessful pact the latter has signed with the witch.
It's complicated but you know what I mean, we've all seen the film. In the story, the nameless Sea Witch is a neutral character who makes a very fair trade with the mermaid: something for something, which in this case is the chance to win over the love of her life and become human, in return for physical pain and muteness. Prince Eric is quite possibly the one who has been most transformed, and therein lies one of the greatest sources of digression between the literary and cinematic versions: in the tale, he is an oblivious, shallow and rather insensitive young man with whom the mermaid falls in love, before she has truly gotten to know him.
Of the countless fairy tales I have read, the Prince remains one of my least favorites, even if he is not, objectively, the worst.
Everything in the story has happened because of him, but he remains blissfully unaware, and unaccountable it is not like he asked to be the object of affection of a puerile and sheltered girl. But something about his cavalier attitude, throughout, rubs me the wrong way. Eric is made to be so desirable, so handsome, so charming, that even though the moral of the story is still skewed, he almost makes us believe that he is worth it, and almost distracts from the notion that this type of love is toxic, and dangerous.
But it also makes another statement: the addition of these playful characters and the omission of one of the more placid one shows a strong desire to add whimsy and distraction in a story that was quite sober to begin with, which makes me ask the obvious: why? The changes needed in order to make a story more lighthearted in tone are usually for two reasons: either to conceal uncomfortable and valid truths that one does not want to endorse, or else to make something more palatable to an audience that is not believed to be mature or strong enough to handle the truth.
Her sacrifice is in vain because she cannot become a mermaid again, has lost her family, has not managed to win the affections of her prince, and, heartbroken, throws herself into the sea before being transformed into an ethereal being destined for a greater afterlife.
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The film softens up this gut-wrenching story by not only making the ending happier Ariel marries Eric, gets the support and forgiveness of her family and stays human , but by also taking the edge off the difficult details: Ariel only loses her voice, and the rest of her transformation is seamless. This does not only alter the facts and ending of the story: it alters the story itself — completely. The tone is different, the themes are different, and we are left with seemingly widely diverging narratives. The core of these are the figures of the Mermaid, and that of Man.
As is often the case with mythological creature, mermaids have been frequently shrouded in mystery and systematically kindle fascination. It is not surprising, then, that Andersen chose to focus one of his most singular stories around merfolk.
Plus, Jonathan Groff sings a power ballad!
It is not, however, the first time that mermaids have been depicted in literature; throughout history, they've been at the center of tales describing their perilous and formidable charm. There is a world of semantic rifts which has contributed in the confusion people sometimes have regarding mermaids and similar creatures. This is exactly what Disney has done to countless fairy tales: namely, using slightly modified traditions in order to make them fit in the panorama of morals it endorses, throughout its films; and it is upon realizing this, the more apparent these modifications and alterations appeared to me, that I became obsessed with studying not the how, but the why.
It can also be done to modernize a story that is considered outdated. But it would be downright naive to things that this was not an intentional and studied process from Disney. Humans, and subsequently, humanity are the second theme around which the story revolves, and surprisingly, it undergoes a process that is just as riveting. The Maze Runner. The Mortal Instruments. The Spotlight.
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Before she was the fiercest woman in the sea, Evie was a girl with a dark secret who loved her two best friends. When one of them dies and the other has to fulfill his royal duties, Evie is left to find her own way in a world that hates her. That is, until a mysterious girl with her own fair share of secrets and the face of a dead girl shows up and changes everything.
In this novel, there were no tongue-in-cheek references or easily recognizable characters lurking in the background or randomly passing through a scene.
Part of Your World
However, we never actually see them. By setting Sea Witch outside of the familiar in terms of tropes and characters, Sarah Henning instead opens up the story to allow us to see the world that the classic fairy tale comes from. But by stripping all of those familiar elements away, the setting becomes its own character and pushes us to see that it too has a hand in the classic story. In fact, I could taste the salt from the sea and feel a sea breeze through my hair while I devoured this novel. My only complaint here is that there was sometimes a bit too much magic.
Instead of being complete fantasy, Sea Witch feels really historical in nature. It draws heavily on Danish culture and history, shining a light on traditional customs, foods, and even perceptions of the larger world. Because the Danish are so reliant on their fishing and whaling, they view the sea as a living entity capable of making its own decisions.
But enough about the setting and atmosphere. Evie is just sorely misunderstood.
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She cares deeply for the ones she loves and will stop at nothing to protect them. Does that mean that she makes some misguided decisions sometimes? Does it also mean that she can be easily tricked or led astray?
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Sadly, yes. Sound familiar? But the young men in Sea Witch?