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MMYIF: The Little Mermaid

My Misspent Youth In Films...

The Little Mermaid
Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
Starring: Jodie Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Rene Auburjonois
Released: November 17, 1989

A mermaid princess makes a Faustian bargain in an attempt to become human and win a prince's love.

What I Thought Then

This movie came out of freaking nowhere. A studio best-known for depressing movies about animals released this thing that was joyful and spoke to every child's sense of how parents just don't understand us. And also Under The Sea was an absolute banger, as the kids say. This movie kicked off the Disney renaissance of the 90s and its hard to overstate just how pervasive it was in the culture.

What I Think Now

There's been a lot of discourse around this movie in the last thirty-odd years, such as the feminist backlash against Disney Princesses or the revelations about how Ursula was not only patterned on the drag queen Divine--and indeed, the number Poor Unfortunately Souls plays out like a drag show. For a thorough treatment on these topics, I would point you to Lindsey Ellis's excellent video essay on The Little Mermaid, but here in sum are some of the salient points: the read that Ariel mutilates her body for a man is a bit lazy and dishonest; the movie is very queer, thanks in no smart part to Howard Ashman's work on the music and story; it can easily be read as a parable for either transitioning or living in the closet. Indeed, it's kind of amazing how much of that queer subtext works its way into the literal text, such as when Sebastian suggests getting King Triton to turn Ariel back into a mermaid, only to realize that if he did then she would "miserable for the rest of your life." It's hard as an adult in the year of our lord 2021 to not notice that.

In fact, this entire viewing was much more about "noticing things" than "watching the movie", as this is a film I've seen many times and internalized so deeply that even after decades without seeing it, it still feels imminently familiar. So, what sort of thing did I notice? For one, nearly every song has something unexpected at the end. Ariel is missing from her clamshell when she's supposed to sing with her sisters. We learn Ursula is spying on her during Part of Your World, Ariel is missing at the climax of Under the Sea. Ariel's and Eric's boat gets tipped over at the end of Kiss the Girl. The one big exception is Poor Unfortunately Souls, which goes exactly as planned, because it's the villain's song. (Does Ariel go missing in this one? Actually, yes, she disappears for three days afterwards!) Speaking of Poor Unfortunate Souls, I didn't realize that this was effectively the mid-point of the film. This film has a long first act.

There are some other odds and ends. After meeting Ariel, whenever Eric plays his pipe, he's playing Part of Your World. Ariel uses a fork to comb her hair throughout the film. The ship in the opening shot is CG that's been rendered to look like hand-drawn animation (I'm like 90% sure--it just looks a little too crisp for hand-drawn, and Disney would experiment with this technology further on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.) I also noticed some not-so-great things. The hand-drawn animation is a bit hit-or-miss. Ariel's hair looks great underwater, but her face could be uneven during dynamic camera moves, and every now and then you find a shot where people's arms look too short. And if you're the type of person who likes to pick apart holes in plot logic, this film presents a target-rich environment. She obviously knows how to write, why couldn't she communicate with Eric that way? Why didn't anyone bother to make sure she was in the clamshell before starting the big musical number that would be a disaster if she missed? These aren't things that bothered me, per se, but I did notice them.

Recommendation?

Yeah, the music is still great and the story holds up pretty well. There are things to nitpick and context re-shapes the narrative a bit, but I still had a great time watching it.

Tune in next week for boards that don't work on water... UNLESS YOU'VE GOT POWER!!!!

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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