The Little Mermaid

The Disney Studios, 1990

The Little Mermaid is a perfectly centered, intensely self-aware celebration of Disney-style American values. When the movie came out, it was considered a good family movie and also a good date movie--that is to say, it expressed nothing that would offend a general population, and much that would delight and amuse the general population. Let us first consider the plot, and then some special effects to watch for.

Plot Summary:

As the movie begins, we follow the mer-people into the undersea palace of the Sea King, King Triton. A concert is about to begin, with Sebastian the Crab conducting. Just as the music cues in the star performer, Ariel, who is the Sea King's youngest daughter, we see that she is missing. She has forgotten all about the concert, and is off treasure hunting on a sunken wreck with her friend Flounder the fish. After she swims to the surface to discuss her finds with Scuttle the seagull, she remembers the concert and swims home as fast as she can. But she is too late, and when she gets back she is lectured by her father on her carelessness and also for going to the surface, because she might be caught by a human. The Sea King asks Sebastian to watch her to see that she stays out of trouble. Another person is also watching Ariel: Ursula, the sea witch. She is angry at King Triton for banishing her from the kingdom, and wants to find a way to use headstrong Ariel to take revenge on the King.

Ariel swims to a secret cave to brood over her collection of treasures, and sings a song about her desire to go to the surface. She then sees a shadow pass by above her. Immediately she swims up to the surface to see what it is. It is a ship, and the sailors are celebrating the birthday of Prince Eric. As the little mermaid watches (of course, she has fallen in love at first sight), Eric's tutor, Grimsby, scolds him for not yet finding a wife. Eric answers with a laugh, and says he hasn't found the right girl yet. Suddenly, a storm comes up, and the ship is driven before the wind onto the rocks. The ship breaks up, sailors fall into the sea, and Ariel saves Eric. Eric hears her singing just before she swims out of sight. Ursula, who has been spying on her by magic, laughs: she thinks she has a plan to use Ariel's love for Eric to hurt King Triton. But no one knows she has been watching, and Sebastian promises he won't tell the King. He tries to convince her to forget Eric by singing her a song about why it's "better down where it's wetter."

In fact, Ariel's own emotions betray her secret. All her sisters know she is in love. They tell their father, and he asks Sebastian who it is Ariel loves. In a panic, Sebastian tells the whole story. Her father finds her in her secret cave and destroys the whole collection. As she is sobbing on the ocean floor, two eels, sent to spy on her, suggest that she go to see Ursula, the Sea Witch. At first she refuses, but then, thinking of Eric again, she agrees. At Ursula's she makes a bargain: she will give Ursula her beautiful voice for human legs. If she can get the prince to kiss her within three days, she will stay a human. If not, she will belong to Ursula. (Ursula sings a wonderfully funny song about how she just lives to help others.)

On the beach, Ariel is found by the Prince himself. He thinks she must have been in a ship wreck, and has lost her voice because of the trauma of the wreck. She is, of course, delighted when he takes her home to the castle. While Ariel is given some decent clothes, Sebastian, who has followed, sneaks into the kitchen where he is nearly boiled by a singing French cook. Although Eric thinks she isn't the singing girl who rescued him, he likes Ariel immediately, and agrees to take her on a tour of the kingdom the next day. Tour over, as the sun goes down after a long happy day, Ariel and Eric are floating in a little boat. Led by Sebastian, all the animals join in singing "Kiss the Girl." But Eric and Ariel's boat is upset at the last moment, and spying again, Ursula decides she must go to the surface to stop Eric from kissing Ariel.

Ursula changes herself into a beautiful girl and bewitches the Prince by using Ariel's voice. In a daze Eric asks to marry her at once. On board ship at sunset that day they will be married. Just before the sun sets Scuttle the seagull discovers that the girl Eric will marry is the Sea Witch. He flies back to tell Ariel, who has spent the day crying. All the birds and sea animals help to delay the wedding, and the Sea Witch is exposed. But it is the third day; Ariel turns back into a mermaid; and by the terms of her contract, she belongs to the Sea Witch. The Sea King comes to rescue her by offering himself in her place. Ursula seizes the crown, and gloats over her mastery of the sea, but in a final battle she is killed through the bravery of Prince Eric. The Sea King himself grants Ariel legs, and she is married to her beloved Prince.

Visual Effects: Consider how hard it would be to make drawings of the sea-floor: that is, a place that looks convincingly underwater. This is accomplished with dazzling ease: it is so well done we do not notice how well it is done. Consider too the spectacles of color and dance in Sebastian's songs--they are at once delightful and funny. The colors of the sky are well worth watching in this film--no detail is omitted from the pictures. A few other points to notice: the movements of the Ursula, the Sea Witch, are creepy, sinister, and whether realistic or not, seem to be just how an octopus-woman would move. Also Ariel's movements seem, curiously enough, to be based on the movements of a cat (watch her tail), and a bird or sky diver (her free vertical movements). Ariel is very much an American stereotype: a cute, almost helpless, teenager who falls in love at first sight. Every action and every word conforms to this image. Likewise Eric is just a good normal stereotypic boy who lies to play with his dog. And in case Eric and Ariel's sentimentality gets too much for us, we have Ursula's cynical comments to serve as a foil and a balance to these scenes. The perfect timing of these comments, as well as the relentlessness of the stereotyping, suggest that the animators and director were intensely conscious of audience reaction, and were carefully creating a sequence of emotions in the viewers. As a last note, two other American (perhaps universal) ideas are also reinforced: 1) fat dominant women are bad, and 2) girls should be given by their fathers to their husbands.

Part of Your World

Look at this stuff, Isn't it neat?
Wouldn't you think my collection's complete?
Wouldn't you think I'm a girl--girl who has everything?
Look at this trove, treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you'd think
Sure--she's got everything!
I've got gadgets and gizmos aplenty
Whozits and whatsits galore
You want thingamabobs? I've got twenty!
But who cares? No big deal--I want more--

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see em dancing
Walkin' around on those--whadayacallem?--feet!
Flippin' your fins you don't get too far
Legs are required for jumpin', dancin'
Strolling along down a--what's that word again?--street!
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin' free--wish I could be
Part of that world.

What I would give if I could live
Out of these waters!
What would I pay to spend a day
Warm on the sand
Betcha on land they understand
Bet they don't reprimand their daughters!
Bright young women, sick of swimming
Ready to stand!

I'm ready to know what the people know
Ask 'em my questions and get some answers
What's a fire and why does it--what's the word--burn?
When's it my turn? Wouldn't I love,
Love to explore that shore up above
Out of the sea. Wish I could be
Part of that world.

Under the Sea

Ohh--somebody's got to nail that girl's fins to the floor!
Listen to me. The human world--it's a mess.
Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there!
The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else's lake
You dream about going up there
But that is a big mistake.
Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor.
Such wonderful things around you
What more is you lookin' for?

Under the sea (x2)
Darling it's better down where it's wetter,
take it from me!
Up on the shore they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away
While we're devoting full time to floating
Under the sea.

Down here all the fish is happy
As through the waves they roll.
The fish on the land ain't happy
They sad 'cause they in the bowl.
But fish in the bowl is lucky
They in for a worser fate--
One day when the boss is hungry
Guess who goin' be on de plate?
Under the sea (x2)
Nobody beat us, fry us and eat us in fricasee
We what the land folks love to cook
Under the sea we off the hook
We got no troubles, life is the bubbles
Under the sea.
Under the sea (x2)
Since life is sweet here, we got the beat here naturally
Even the sturgeon and the ray,
They get the urge and start to play
We've got the spirit, you've got to hear it
Under the sea.
The newt play the flute, the carp play the harp,
The plaice play the bass, And they sounding sharp.
The chubb play the tubb, the bass play the brass
The fluke is the duke of soul
The ray he can play, the ling's on the strings
The trout rockin' out, the blackfish she sings
The smelt and the sprat they know where it's at
And oh that blowfish blow!
Under the sea (x2)
When the sardine
Begin the beguine, it's music to me!
What do they got, a lot of sand?
We got a hot crustacean band
Each little clam here know how to jam here
Under the sea
Each little slug here, cutting the rug here, under the sea!
Each little snail here know how to wail here
That's why it's hotter under the water
Yeah we in luck here down in the muck here
Under the sea!
Under the Sea