Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out in 1990, a few years before most of my students were born. They all watched the DVD as tots, and so Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1836 story (on their required reading list) is a shock and, for many, a disappointment. Spunky Ariel, with her sassy seashell bra and her adorable sidekick Flounder, is leagues away from Andersen’s melancholy mermaid.
Hans C. A.’s tales tend toward the emotionally ambiguous. Think bittersweet. (Remember the Little Match Girl? She freezes to death while hallucinating herself in her deceased grandmother’s arms.) His heroines model servility and sacrifice, trading in their earthly woes for the promise of heavenly reward.
The unnamed little mermaid in Andersen’s story suffers horrific physical pain at her transformation, “as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” Every step on land is torture for her, “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” In the end the prince marries another girl, and the mermaid dies. Luckily (?) her sisters cut off their hair for the sea witch (more sacrifice!) so that she’ll be permitted to join the “daughters of the air” and be granted an immortal soul after 300 years.
What Disney does with this twisted, soggy handkerchief of a story is restore a lot of the fairy tale tropes Andersen abandoned. The songs are Disney’s own contribution to the fairy-tale genre, but they fit right in with the oral tradition of the folk tale and its hearthside/market/festival tellings. From Disney we get the traditional talking animal helpers, who bring the skills of the trickster to Ariel’s aid. We get the dramatic power struggle in which the little guys, the nobodies, win out over the rich and powerful. We see a clear boundary between good and evil, and the meting out of justice in the end. And of course we get the happy ending! The wedding! The tearful “I love you, Daddy!” from Ariel.
Disney’s Little Mermaid is every bit as sentimental as Andersen’s version. But in an earthier, more human way–much closer to the way of the old stories.