I grew up in the early 90’s and this was, by far, my favorite movie! Disney obviously took quite a few liberties with the original storyline, but I think that is common with many of the movies produced by Disney. The biggest change between the two interpretations is the plot. The original storyline is a tragedy, ending with the death of the little mermaid. The Disney version, however, concludes with a happy ending, an element common to almost all Disney movies. This was likely done to fit the Disney “brand”. Most, if not all, of the Disney princess movies have a very similar and simple plotline – there is a conflict, rising action, a climax, and then a happy ending, which is typically a wedding. The Little Mermaid is not different and was adapted to fit into this formula.
There were also some changes made to accommodate changes in social acceptance. One of those changes would be age. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, the little mermaid is fifteen years old when she meets and falls in love with the prince. The Disney version changed the age to sixteen, which makes a marriage and assumed consummation of that marriage slightly more acceptable (at least legal). The violence in the story was also removed since a children’s movie that included severed tongues and fixated heavily on death would probably not fare well with young viewers. These were minor changes, but ones that were made to appeal to modern consumers.
On a deeper level, there are social statements that can be drawn from both stories, some more obvious than others. One of the most glaring and obvious is the idea that a woman must be physically attractive in order to secure a mate, while a man must be strong and muscular to be desirable and powerful (look at King Triton for example). In the story, the sea witch tells the little mermaid, “Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.” In the movie, Ursula states similarly, “You’ll have your looks, your pretty face, and don’t underestimate the importance of body language” when explaining to Ariel how she will get the prince to fall in love with her. This idea of body image is reiterated during the Poor Unfortunate Souls song when two mer-people are shown, one a scrawny man and the other a larger woman. Ursula labels them as “depressed” and “pathetic” before transforming them into a brawny, muscular man and a thin, gorgeous woman. This implies that physical appearance is the most important aspect in determining one’s happiness.
One thing that I had not noticed until watching the movie again was that there is what could be interpreted as a statement on interracial or nontraditional relationships. This can be seen in the conversation that takes place when King Triton confronts Ariel about her being in love with a human.
Ariel: “He would have died.”
Triton’s argument against Ariel’s involvement with a human sounds eerily familiar to the arguments used by those opposed to interracial or other nontraditional relationships.
I also think that Ariel’s plight in the film could relate to the struggle of people suffering from gender identity issues. From the beginning of the film, Ariel relates more to humans than she seems to relate to mer-people, she fixates on human made objects (a departure from the original story) and longs to be “where the people are”. This is similar to how people with gender dysphoria relate to a gender other than what they were born as physically, often from a young age. While Ariel obviously does not have gender issues, she does long to be something she is not, which could be seen as a similar struggle. Like some people with gender dysphoria, Ariel made the decision to make physical changes to her body in order to be part of the social group with which she felt she belonged, making great sacrifices to do so. I am by no means an expert on the subject of gender dysphoria, but I think that whether it was intended or not, this could be a relevant connection.
Edie, this is an excellent comparison of the Anderson and Disney versions of The Little Mermaid. Really interesting connection to gender dysphoria--I'd not thought of that before. I want to think about it some more--it seems to be a really smart and interesting "read" of the film.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!