The Little Mermaid

(John Musker & Ron Clements, USA, 1989)


Here is a curious challenge: making a musical within which one of the main characters loses their voice, and must wander around mute for most of the plot until a miracle restores them to full functioning order.

I know of two films that do wonders with this premise, and both are films for children: the surreal fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) and the Disney animation The Little Mermaid.

In the Disney film, this voice problem also provides the premise for a fine romance. Dashing Eric has fallen in love with the siren-like voice of a mermaid, Ariel. In order for Ariel to gain human legs and walk upon the earth, she must first give her voice up to the evil Ursula. So Eric doesn't twig straight away to his love match, and if he and his soul-mate don't kiss pretty soon, Ursula will possess Ariel's soul entirely ...

This is one of the best Disney animations for a simple and good reason: it is unashamedly sexy. Given that many of the classic Disney features have taken the art of sexual repression to astounding heights – skilfully de-eroticising body lines and story lines alike – the casual candour of The Little Mermaid is disarming.

There is nothing especially perverse about this. Hans Christian Andersen's tale, however you slice it, is a fable of a pubescent girl's sexual awakening. Every aspect of the story – churning sea, fabulous cavern, the mermaid's experience of her own changing form – naturally expresses this theme. And a darker vision of Eros gone wrong emerges through the magnificent character of Ursula.

Another refreshing aspect of The Little Mermaid is the song score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Far too often, the music in Disney animations takes a middlebrow kitsch route, resulting in tunes that evoke a nostalgic, sickly world of popular song that never quite existed.

Here, the songs are rather more grounded in specific styles and references. Although the association of reggae music with the dark, exotic world under the sea might give anyone pause, one must be grateful that – for a change – these melodies really swing.

The joy of The Little Mermaid as an animated feature comes from its emphasis on constant movement, flux and transformation. Where so many mainstream animations these days bust a gut to mimic the appearances of reality, this one embraces the fantastic possibilities of changing anything into anything else.

In a fairy tale about sexuality, that aesthetic fits just wonderfully.

© Adrian Martin June 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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