The Little Mermaid - Character & Audience ~ Character & Story

Thoughts On: The Little Mermaid


A teen mermaid dreams of living among people.


First things first, The Little Mermaid is a terrible title. It doesn't have the finesse and punch of titles such as Dumbo or The Aristocats nor the acceptable directness of Cinderella or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. It's just as on-the-nose and inexpressive as The Jungle Book. However, because these films were based off of books and are so famous, they kind of just roll off the tongue. For that, critiquing the title seems pointless and nit-picky, but... yeah, that's just what it is. To restart, The Little Mermaid is a fairly harmless film on the surface and a slightly interesting one when pushed deeper into. In terms of form, however, this is a staggering film. The animation of the many tiny details throughout this film to imply an underwater effect, details such as hair, eyes and fins...




... are a testament to the diligence and focus that went into producing such a smooth and believable cinematic world. The greatest scene to look at as an example of the sheer detail of movement animated in this film has to be the Poor Unfortunate Souls sequence...







Second to this has to be the ship sinking sequence, which took a year to animate.


On a side note, something of a theme, no?



But, whilst all of these films (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Frozen) have been theorised to be linked through these very events and their setting, this isn't something we're going to get into. (Just Google "Little Mermaid Tarzan Frozen theory" if you don't know what I'm talking about). Beyond boats and form, The Little Mermaid has some great songs and characters. It's Ariel herself that is definitely the strongest and most compelling part of the film. However, it's with Ariel that you find the rabbit hole of critique in this film - one that'll quickly spiral into gender politics. In short, the plotting of this film isn't considered very strong as Ariel's character arc is quite flat - arguably, non-existent.

Taking a slight side note, it often seems that when you hear terms such as 'character arc' being used to analyse or review a film, it's often used in a very flippant way. This is also true when you critique actors' performances - but this is a side note in a side note we won't explore. In short, 'character arc' in a sentence produces a statement that is often very banal. You have to delve deeper into the term, 'character arc' to justify its use. To say a character doesn't have a strong arc is amateur screenwriting nonsense. That is not to say that to be a professional screenwriter your characters mustn't have arcs though. I simply mean to imply that character arcs are incredibly subjective concepts; subjective to story. This means that, whilst Ferris Bueller doesn't have a great character arc...


... he still exists in a great film. The same may be said for Scarlett O'Hara...


... Jordan Belfort...


... even Rocky...


Rocky is a very interesting example of a character that doesn't change much. Whilst he goes from rags to riches, a bum to a true contender, that is all an external change. The true heart of Rocky lies in the story of an underdog - and to sustain levels of empathy and to maintain a real character, a screenwriter won't change who they are. They won't alter Rocky as a hard-headed crook who can't sing or dance, only dig his heels in and take a beating--dish one out when he has to. Just check out Rocky III to see what I mean; The Italian Stallion's character arcs are always incredibly subdued or back to a more familiar place. What screenwriters then do instead of putting characters such as Rocky through an arc of character is put them through some shit - what is often a very cinematic (translation: slightly contrived) plot. This creates the illusion of change, but it's not an arc in character, just in plot. This is simply because some characters need no arc or growth to become great - they just are. This is true of Rocky, just as it is O'Hara, Belfort and Bueller. The aforementioned archetypal anti-heroes are so fun, are so absurd, are so ridiculous from the very get go. It then seems that the plot is often there to facilitate mere time we get to spend with them - Ferris Bueller being a significant example of this. What this says about films with character arcs is... nothing. The two types or approaches can co-exist. This is mainly because figures like Luke Skywalker...


... and Thomas Anderson...


... don't start off as great characters. They're either boring or annoying. They have to become great - and that's the point of their narrative. All of this indicates the stark subjectivity of character plotting; it's all very much intertwined with the plotting of your story and so dependent on a specific narrative. Keeping this idea at hand, we can come back to Ariel...


This is an incredibly interesting character considering her arc. She doesn't change by the end of the movie, but she doesn't start out as a particularly likeable character--yet, she is the strongest part of the film. In such, we have what seems like a paradox, at the least, an outlier. To understand how Ariel works, why we like her by the end of the film, we only have to consider two points. The first is of emotion, and the second of story.

Starting with emotion, we only need to turn to the audience. There are a plethora of biases that few but casting directors probably focus on when it comes to movies. We often like characters because of what lies beneath them, the piano playing the concerto...


... the actor. Whether it's an unpopular opinion or not, we usually like characters because of something we often sugarcoat with a term like screen presence. What lies beneath this sugary term is the truth that Will Smith...


... Scarlett Johansson...


... Brad Pitt...


... and Margot Robbie...


... are near-perfect human specimens - attractive ones at that. No, not to all, but to most. Sure, they can be great actors on top of this, and sure skill, talent and craft can mask looks, can allow you to transcend facade, skin deep judgment...


... but...


... the whole package is so much easier to sell... so much easier... because, as they say, if you like it, you put a ring on it - our proverbial ring being attention, money and an unwavering gaze. What this says about characters, about Ariel...


.... about the teen drawn with perfect facial and bodily structure, with all the primally ingrained targets embellished, who is almost always in nothing but two shells, who is innocent, naive, in search of--let's not make things pornographic. The point is, if you have a dick, yeah, you've probably whacked off to this child's cartoon character. If you haven't... I don't know how the other half of the species works. Nonetheless, the point stands that a huge part of characterisation is aesthetic. Whilst looks and sexuality are the most obvious example of this, there are a plethora of other details to this concept. If you, again, look to the likes of Will Smith and Margot Robbie...


... you don't just see two attractive human beings, but two attractive personalities. The latter can also be said of...


Not really a good actor. But, an iconic one nonetheless. This is very clearly down to the fact that John Wayne plays John Wayne in almost every single one of his films. This is a notoriously recognised phenomena by both critics and audiences. Whilst critics may sometimes moan, sometimes embrace, this paradigm, audiences almost always welcome some amount of predictability in their films. We see John Wayne movies because... duh, they're John Wayne movies. With this recognised we can begin to put on the hat of a casting director. Who do you want in your western? A John Wayne, a Clint Eastwood, or, a Jim Carey, an Eddy Murphy? With the answers being obvious, take off the casting director's hat and put on the screenwriter's one. How do you write your protagonist in this western script? If you're paying attention, yes, this is a very subjective question. However, you will approach this character with an understanding that what fits into a classic or spaghetti western won't fit into a comedy. You only need to look to Blazing Saddles to see comedy born from antithesis...


With all of this said, it should become clear that Ariel's role is one that draws upon an archetype:


No, Snow White and Ariel aren't the same character, but they're both teens; naive and fair maidens under duress who seek true love and have a nice voice. There are many other similarities to draw upon, just as there are across all Disney princesses. And in such, you see the archetype hidden behind the character which holds an emotional grip over your viewing experience. Ultimately, because we're draw to patterns, we are drawn to Ariel as a Disney Princess. This covers the broad emotional angle of why Ariel as a character is one we like.

Moving to a more acute angle, an essential part of characterisation is perspective, is putting an audience in the shoes of your protagonist. To quote Howard Ashman who co-composed the music for The Little Mermaid:
"In almost every musical ever written, there's a place that's usually about the third song of the evening...[where] the leading lady usually sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and then routes for her to get it for the rest of the night"
A major reason why we like Ariel is that we understand her - all because we understand what she wants in life. She resonates with us through theme and implied relation. You find this to be true in many aspects of life. The people you often don't like are the people you don't get, are those who don't resonate with you. Moreover, one of the most annoying things in life is dealing with problems, worse, dealing with people with problems, that don't want to be solved. When people make you go around and around in circles because they don't know how to fix things, they don't know how things can be changed, they don't know where the solutions are, and they manage to drag you into that horrid cycle... it's soul crushing. Screenwriters would never in their right minds leave you with these kinds of people without a concise point to be made. Characters often need goals and something to do because we don't want to be stuck with inert conflict that cannot be resolved or faced with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I would have opened with this reasoning for why we like Ariel, but it's not the whole truth - especially the former part of the explanation. The people we don't like aren't always those that we don't understand. This is a point made in the film...


Without knowing each other, Ariel and Eric fall in love. Is this unrealistic? Somewhat. But, it's a clear truth that the people we like, those we are drawn to, aren't the people we know best...




... right? In such, we see the crux of Ariel's characteristic paradox made comprehensible by aesthetic and perspective. In other words, because she's attractive, archetypal and we understand her, we like her. However, because characterisation is subjective to narrative, we have to look at Ariel in the context of her story.

This is where we can really sink our teeth into this movie, and is also where themes and a deeper analysis of narrative meaning come into the picture. So, what this movie is clearly about is, being a teenager. As many Disney films do, The Little Mermaid focuses on the transition we all make from adolescence to some weird place beyond that comfort. In such, naivety is a crucial element to this story. Which is why Ariel is a bit...


... ditsy. This isn't just a moment of levity in the film, however. The fork is symbolic of a larger paradigm present throughout the narrative. There is a clear divide between an 'up there' and a 'down here'; an under the sea and beyond the ocean. Ariel is interested in the other side, in... what's it called?... land. (Sorry). Due to the divide, Ariel is both curious and unknowing. This is what the fork simply represents. But, just as she enthusiastically brushes her hair with the dinglehopper, she wanders into Ursula's cave and gives her voice away. To delve into the subtext of this, it has to be noted that the 'up there' and 'down here' discussed are, in Ariel's view, characterised by others:



Eric is land, is humanity, is up there; King Triton is the ocean, is... mermanity? is down here. Eric is the ruler of his kingdom just as Triton is his. With this, the almost irrefutable cliche of parent/child, daddy/daughter issues has arisen. Through Eric we thus see the convoluted relationship Ariel has with her father. Whilst she loves him, there's that teenage rebellion which has her seek out the near-equivalent in a different context. This is the crux of why she never really changes throughout the film; people's parent issues don't just fade. Bergman surely made a career out of the fact...



Staying with The Little Mermaid though, another core reason why Ariel doesn't change is that she has little to learn given the current themes. The only person who really needs to have a character arc with romantic themes of adventure and change at hand are the likes of Sebastian and Triton.


P.S. Who the fuck is Sebastian? He's the royal conductor/composer and babysitter-to-death of a princess? I really don't understand the hierarchical system of Triton's ocean. Nonetheless, with romantic themes of change at hand, the ultimate goal of this narrative is to say that Ariel's spirit and yearning for adventure isn't only a good thing, but something all parents should embrace. Thus, I see the true crux of this film to be in the lesson Triton learns: even if your kid's an asshole, you've still got to love them.

There is greater depth and details to be found in this film's message, however. We'll start with one of the most popular sequences in the film, the Part Of Your World song...


This is where the greatest bits of teenage commentary come into the film, but also where we see the crux of The Little Mermaid as a representative of the Disney resurgence. As we've been covering in the last few posts in the Disney Series, after Sleeping Beauty, Disney films changed...

        

What these films represent is a move away from the classical Disney formula, away from their traditional fairy-tales. This, in my opinion, was a much needed breath of fresh air. 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats in particular are great Disney new-wave classics that hold their own in face of any other. However, there was a commercial decline that ran over this period, one almost completely reversed by The Little Mermaid. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is the first in a string of monumental box office smashes:

    

These films, whist holding onto some elements of the previous period of change around the 60s and 70s, came back to the softer aesthetic of the classics as well as embraced the traditional romantic themes. This of course welcomed The Little Mermaid - which is probably the most extreme and, in certain respects, vapid example of a Disney cliche or paradigm: a young princess finding prince charming. However, the film isn't as flat-out bad as this description. Because of character, music and aesthetic, this simplistic narrative has been elevated. Nonetheless, it's the Part Of Your World song that truly makes a call back to older themes. We see this in the blind yearning perfectly symbolised with this juxtaposition:



These two halves of the narrative display the yearning and the receiving; Ariel's blind desire clumsily realised. This is the epitome of almost every Disney classic, but with all looming conflict discarded as fat. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is Cinderella without the stepmother, keys and locks; Snow White without the witch, huntsman and apple; Dumbo without the circus, ring master and cage. All of these characters have a blind and burning desire that drives them; for Cinderella, a dream of freedom, for Snow White, true love to take her away, for Dumbo, a mother to comfort him again. Their conflict justifies their struggle, their pining, their songs. This isn't so true in The Little Mermaid though. All conflict in this film is a projection of Ariel's character flaws. This is where we see the deviation from the classical Disney pictures in a certain sense - in a lack of tragedy and malice. Whilst the characters, themes and goals are similar across the mentioned films, the conflict filling the gaps is not. However, what lies at the emotional core of this song is incredibly reminiscent of such moments:



A young girl sings to us her hopes and dreams, ones that come true by the end of the movie. In such lies the idiosyncratic magic of the Disney feature, in such is best representation of a romanticised optimism that's irrefutably indicative of a more classical Disney.

Beyond conveying a change in the form of story telling, Ariel's key song puts across the essence of the film and its commentary on teenage-hood. To pick up on this we'll just need a few lines from the song:

Wouldn't you think I'm the girl,
The girl who has everything?

***

But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

***

Flipping your fins you don't get too far

***

Up where they walk
Up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wandering free
Wish I could be
Part of that world

***

Betcha on land
They understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand

***

Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world

With the first two sections, we see Ariel's blind desire put to words. She has it all, but wants more. This is something that combines with the next two sections to further comment on something Sebastian picks up on frequently; the grass being greener. It seems so strange that Ariel would choose the physical attributes of land-life as symbolic of freedom. With the ocean being a voluminous and three dimensional liquid realm in face of the flat two-dimensional experience of land-life, wouldn't the ocean be the physically freeing place? You can swim in any direction you want, whereas feet can only fight gravity to drag you forwards, backwards, side-to-side - which leaves those fins getting you pretty far--and with ease, However, Ariel doesn't speak in terms of physics (even though that'd be a huge deciding factor - for a mermaid especially). Again, the sea is Triton's domain. Ariel simply doesn't feel free under these conditions--which is what leads on to the line, 'they don't reprimand their daughters', meaning everything is perfect on land for teenagers. This is of course nonsense, everyone is reprimanded in some sense growing up - just look at Eric...


... he's constantly moaned at for not being married, gossiped over, such and so on. This line then speaks directly to Ariel's naivety and her irrational optimism. The last line of the song sums everything up; she just wants to be out of the sea and apart of another world. This cites that Ariel's internal conflict and goals are sourced from this reflexive and semi-conscious need for change. She wants to grow into her own person, but doesn't really know that that's what she wants. This may imply that her 'falling in love' with Eric is a white lie, and that the ending isn't really a happy one, but, within the confines if the movie this blind chase is justified. This is all because Triton is the one who learns his lessons. Ariel is a character that facilitates this - which is ultimately tantamount to a slightly obnoxious teen getting their way. However, this only equates Ariel to...


We picked up on this in the previously, but Ferris Bueller here doesn't have a huge character arc, he just gets his way by the end of the movie.


It's Jeanie that has to change, that needs a character arc. The only difference between The Little Mermaid and Ferris Bueller in this respect is thematic. Ferris is a bit of an anarchistic while Ariel is a romantic. However, both of their narratives are enjoyable because of the stories flourishing out of these rebellious teens, each under their respective thematic connotations.

In a certain sense, it's this senselessness that lies at the core of Ariel's character. She doesn't really know what she wants. She probably likes the security of being a princess linked to a king, of being able to explore freely, which is why she gravitated towards Eric. But, because upbringing stigmatise the teenage perception of parents, Ariel feels the need to relocate - not change as a person, just relocate. I think this is what we all understand as she sings her song in spite of concepts of character arcs or more complex and mature messages. There is a maturity in this acceptance of Ariel as a stupid teenager which gives this film a natural flow, and so room to breathe, to be a flippant musical where being eaten by a shark...


... is just no big deal. It's this embrace of teenage-hood and Ariel as a character that has us find our way here:


It's in Ursula's cave that Ariel, of course, gives her voice away. This is the most interesting part of the story. Not only does it mark a transformation of character...


... not just that one, but, it is the ironic epitome of the movie. Why, if there are such strong pro-freedom and pro-woman undertones to this movie; again...

Betcha on land
They understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand

... would you symbolise one of the most damaging non-physical forms of suppression: taking away a person's voice? The answer lies in another ironic aspect of Ariel's transformation:


When Ariel can't speak, she's a much better character. This isn't too surprising to anyone familiar with silent films. This is the all-important factor of figures such as Chaplin and Keaton. It's because they can't talk that they have a disability in the way they may present themselves. Just as a novelist may only really describe images, and so is constricted, a silent film actor may only use action. This doesn't mean silent film characters or novelists are inexpressive though. They work around their confines and manage to turn them into positives. Ariel as a silent figure is a great example of this. Without her voice, she charms Eric inadvertently; again:


This action reveals Ariel's true character. Words could not have done the same for her. So, in a certain sense, it's Ursula taking Ariel's voice that allows her to reinvent herself - not only to us, but to the characters in her world. What happens when we get to the big reveal, Ariel having got her voice back...


... is that Eric sees Ariel in her best lights. Ariel's song is representative of her saving his life - which is why Eric initially fell in love with her and, in realising that it was her that saved him all along, marries her. Combine this with the essence of her character being inverbally voiced perfectly and their bond seems to make sense. Ariel not only demonstrates the best parts of her character, but the heart of it to Eric, the truth resulting in this...


This is why we can be swept along by this narrative. it's not just about getting to know Ariel and what she wants, but that desire combining with a myriad of other intricacies to produce something almost magic - in the perfect Disney fashion.

We then see the crux of this entire film in its flawless tagline:

An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

The adventure is what Ariel pursues throughout this narrative; it's fun, it's change, it's the new. All of this is born out of a teen fantasy, catalysed by daddy issues. But, this fantasy is beyond imagination; Ariel doesn't know what she wants, she can't imagine it. This is why she blindly pursues her emotive compass as it pricks in any direction away from her father. All of this reduces the narrative to romantic goop, but intentionally so. It is very clear that this narrative was designed around Ariel getting what she wants without any true conflict. The reasoning for this is so that, we, the audience, are sucked into story and setting through characterisation. We take Ariel's side throughout the narrative, feel as she fells, and enjoy her narrative as it unfolds.

So, that's it. The Little Mermaid is a very enjoyable film. It's a great lesson in how character may work with both the audience and story to create a great narrative and timeless film. Though there are risks in the characterisation of a narrative through such an excruciatingly teenage character, Disney has pulled this off well.






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Cinderella - Romantic Inspiration

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The Throes Of Abuse, Destruction And Dysfunction

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