Unraveling the Little Mermaid

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In 1989, Disney Feature Animation released its twenty-eighth animated film, The Little Mermaid. The movie grossed over $111 million in the United States alone and was the recipient of two Oscars (Office Box). The merchandise for the film varied from bed sheets and Barbie dolls, to pajamas and Halloween costumes. In 1992, an animated series based on the movie premiered on Disney television and ran for three seasons (IMDb.com). A Broadway production began in 2008, with “50 previews and 685 performances”, ending in August of 2009 (Jones). Over the past two decades, The Little Mermaid has been reissued multiple times on VHS and DVD, finally landing the prestigious Disney Platinum Editions title and securing a coveted spot within the Disney Vault. Girls from age three to nine are the target audience for The Little Mermaid. However, the animated film appeals to both children and adults alike thanks to its vibrant animation, and colorful soundtrack. Film critic Roger Ebert credits the movie as “a jolly and inventive animated fantasy – a movie that’s so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney works of the past.” While sales verify that The Little Mermaid was well received, there was and continues to be, a bit of controversy surrounding the animated film, particularly concerning feminists. Before the controversy is addressed however, the origin and conversion of the tale must first be examined.

Disney adapted The Little Mermaid from an 1837 children’s folktale written by Hans Christian Andersen. “Folktale” is a general term for a story that originates in popular culture. Some folktales pass down throughout the ages, evolving and adapting to fit the current era and culture. When Disney “remade” Andersen’s story, they culturally assimilated it. Disney replaced Andersen’s matriarchal mer-society with a patriarchy. Instead of losing her tongue to the sea witch, Ariel loses her voice via magic. Finally, Disney gives the little mermaid a happy ending, resulting in the modern wish for a happily ever after. The main thing that Disney changed was the goal of the protagonist. Andersen’s young mermaid did not transform into a human solely for love, but in order to gain an immortal soul. This reflects the importance of religion at the time of Andersen’s tale. Within the tale, the little mermaid’s grandmother explains to her that mer-people do not possess a soul, and therefore have no hope of an afterlife. At the end of their lives, mer-people simply turn into sea foam. In order to obtain a soul, a mer-person had to marry a human. In Andersen’s tale the little mermaid does not obtain the love of the prince, he marries someone else, essentially sentencing the mermaid to death. In act of familial love, the mermaid’s sisters sacrifice their hair to the sea witch in order to obtain a magical knife. If the young mermaid kills the prince with it, she returns to her original form to live out the rest of her days with her family. She fails to do this, but before turning into sea foam she is magically transformed into an air spirit, given 300 years of good deeds in order to earn a soul. In 1989, religion was not a primary focus, therefore Disney instead focused on the acquisition of true love, and a happily-ever-after. More than that, Disney changed Ariel’s goal as the story progressed. In the beginning, Ariel wishes to ‘escape’ to the human world that fascinates her. She wants to learn, explore, and discover. However, after she saves Prince Eric, Ariel’s primary goal is marriage. The conversion of the tale is important in understanding how it represents the current culture, and why groups within that culture may dislike some aspects of the story. Media culture forms a substantial part of the education that regulates the norms. Children are impressionable creatures, influenced daily by what they see, and fairy tales offer some of a child’s first impressions of a male-female...
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