Sep 16, 2012

Disneyfication of Little Mermaid

Many people equate fairytales with folktales, but contrary to popular perception, all folktales are not fairytales. Folktales are orally passed down stories (the emphasis being on “folk”), and can be of any theme. Any story, original or folk, that contained folktale characteristics like magic and talking animals used to be called a fairytale. Today, the term “fairytale” has taken a different meaning altogether. The new “fairytale” is a genre more or less created by Disney, recognized by pretty dresses, beautiful faces, and happy endings. Because Disney picks famous folktales like Snow White and Cinderella, and bends them out of shape to create “fairytales”, it creates the impression that all folktales are fairytales.

A case in point is Hans Christian Andersen’s original story “The Little Mermaid.” Though it fits the old definition of fairytale because of its supernatural elements, it certainly does not fit the definition of the modern “fairytale”.  Let us see how Disney made a modern fairytale of it. When Andersen’s heroine, the Mermaid, fell in love with a human prince, she traded with a witch, giving away her voice for legs. The witch warned her that each step with her new legs would give her “pain from a thousand needles”. In the corresponding scene, instead of feeling pain, the movie’s heroine Ariel simpers in a skimpy feather outfit. The Little Mermaid exercised her free will by choosing pain to gain something, a realistic reflection of the difficult choices we make in real life. In contrast, the movie portrays a glamorized choice where Ariel has nothing to lose.
Skimpily clad Ariel

The movie continues its glamorization by bringing in the witch as the villainous bride, who uses Ariel’s voice to seduce the prince Eric. They are about to get married when Ariel intervenes and breaks the witch’s necklace containing her voice. Eric finally recognizes her and kills the witch. Ariel’s father makes her human so that she can marry Eric. The loss of Little Mermaid’s voice is often interpreted symbolically as women’s loss of rights in love, but the movie loses this symbolism by giving Ariel’s voice back to her.
Ariel getting married to Eric

In contrast, the original story continues its somber theme: the prince loves the Mermaid like a sister, but marries someone else. (The witch is nowhere in sight.) According to the contract with the witch, the Mermaid knew that she would turn into foam after the prince got married. At great personal cost, her sisters go the witch and exchange their hair for a knife with which to murder the bride. However, the Mermaid hears the prince uttering his bride’s name in sleep, and she cannot bring herself to do it. She throws away the knife instead, and turns into foam.
By refusing to kill the bride, the Mermaid decided to give up on the prince, for whom she gave up her voice in the first place. Such situations where one learns from the past, and backtracks on earlier decisions, are common in life, and this we cannot find in the syrupy and improbable movie. While the print version impresses the fact that choices have consequences, and that all our choices might not turn out in our favor, the movie would have us believe all our choices will turn out right. It promotes the romantic but impractical notion that all love is true and will be reciprocated.
Apart from these major variations, the movie contains many minor variations: a watered down portrayal of mer-people, devoid of their history and mythology that lends a richness to Andersen’s story, sexualization of the Little Mermaid who flaunts a sea shell bikini nowhere to be found in Andersen’s version. The Mermaid had won the prince over with her devotion, but in the movie, Eric’s love for Ariel is based on sensual attractions. At first, he is in love with her voice, then with her beauty, and finally with the witch’s voice. This takes the story from an essentially emotional level to a physical level.
Uber sexualized little mermaid in sea shell bikini

There is no doubt that Disney’s movie is far more influential than Andersen’s story. When I type Little Mermaid in Google, it suggests songs, scenes, quotes, characters, and coloring books from the movie before it suggests Andersen, the writer. The Little Mermaid was one of Disney’s landmark successes, and Disney continues to milk it by casting Ariel in its “Disney Princesses” series aggressively marketed to young girls.
Ariel placed prominently among Disney Princesses

Ironically, Andersen had an aversion to children. When Andersen was still living, his statue was commissioned. The artist submitted a sketch of the statue with Andersen surrounded by children, which agitated Andersen very much because he never interacted with children in real life. Formally, he stated politely that the statue was inappropriate because his stories were not meant for children; only mature readers could understand the full import of his themes. My sister and I remember being read Andersen’s “The Little Match-girl” by our mother, after which we cried ourselves to sleep. (Mother never read to us again). No, that story of a little girl abused at home, selling matches that nobody buys, and freezing to death, is certainly not for children.
In contrast, Disney’s movie is acutely tailored to fit their target audience of pre-teens who idolize teenagers. Ariel is portrayed as a stereotypical rebellious teenager. Her father disapproves of humans in a typical filmy manner, her family “doesn’t understand” her, but she flouts them, and in the end, love conquers all. This clichéd version misses out on the more realistic and poignant family relationships portrayed in print. The Mermaid bonds closely with her grandmother, father, and sisters, all of whom are very concerned for her. Her father and grandmother make the effort to swim to land just to see her, and her sisters, of course, make a heartrending sacrifice for her.
Coming back to Andersen’s statue, the first draft was rejected, and a new statue was commissioned instead. That particular statue is still standing, and it shows Andersen reading alone. If Andersen found out about the flimsy version of his story that is immensely popular with children, I am sure he would turn in his grave!
This too would make him turn on his grave, i m sure



Govinda Raj Bhattarai said...

Ah I wish the writer remembered her poor father's sincere desires too. He went as far as the city of Hyderbaad

curly locks said...

buwa, wat does hyderabad have to do with little mermaid?

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