It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: I have twin 3-year old girls, which means that I've seen The Little Mermaid more times than is probably healthy for an adult male. At least once a week - every week - as we make the evening drive from the girls' daycare center to TheHurricane's after-school program, one girl or another will suddenly chime out, "Daddy, can we see the Ariel movie when we get home? Do you know that movie? I loooooove that movie. Can we see it? Please? Pleeeeeeeease?"
At which point, I drive into a tree pray for the sweet release of death swear vengeance on all mermaids, whether in this life... or the next tell my sweet darlings, "Of course. Anything for you."
Then we get home, I spend a few minutes firing up my reason for living and loading up the DVD player, and finally the girls (and, on occasion, TheHurricane) are free to lose themselves in the underwater hell wonderworld beneath the seas that is the nightmare majesty of The Little Mermaid. Hooray. (At least, until dinner is ready/Mommy comes home. Then the screaming begins.)
The point of all this is that I've had FAR too much time to contemplate this film, and upon watching it for the 500th(?) time last week... something occurred to me. Something devious and brilliant that the Disney corporate overmind buried in the film as subtext — and that I was too stupid to pick up on until that moment.
The title character of The Little Mermaid is, like so many Disney protagonists, an impossibly pure young girl launched into a world of magic, romance and adventure. Despite the etymology of her name, Ariel is the picture of idyllic youth in mermaid form — beautiful, bright-eyed, given to mischief and mild rebellion but at heart as good and immaculate as any heart might be. And despite her little purple bikini top (apparently standard apparel among merwomen) and entreaties that "I'm 16 years old — I'm not a child any more!" (enough to send a shudder down the spine of any father) she is clearly intended to serve as a symbol of virginal innocence. Even her romance and eventual marriage to the prince of her dreams (the soap opera-handsome Eric) is cloaked in virginal innocence... as far as we can see on-screen, the two of them never actually kiss until they are married and forever bound before the eyes of God, real & symbolic parents, talking crabs and various servants and underlings.
Now, all of this - in and of itself - is nothing remotely unusual for a Disney film. Their animated heroines tend to fall very neatly into the same archetype (think: Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty, whatshername from Aladdin, Wendy from Peter Pan, Pocahontas, etc.)... in short, stand-ins for the prepubescent girls who form such a powerhouse demographic core for these films. And really, thinking through the Disney canon, they're more or less emblematic of the animated Disney universe as a whole. Virginal heroines, brave-but-equally virginal heroes, kindly sidekicks and anthropomorphicized animals, candlesticks and magical whatevers... even the Disney villains, vile as they may be (and let me take a moment here to give a shout-out to Cruella DeVille, by far the greatest of all Disney villains in by far the greatest of all Disney films), are basically asexual. Not to belabor the obvious, but they're cartoons.
But. There is an exception. One villain who, for all intents and purposes, oozes sex. Ursula, the Sea Witch (read: bitch) and antithesis to the purity of the Disney/mermaid world. Granted, she's half-octopus, but her supple and rounded tentacles mirror her overall state of over-ripeness: she's big, she's bawdy, she's ballsy as hell, and she's constantly on the verge of falling out of the top of her... whatever the hell it is.Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that I've got the hots for Ursula. (As sad and desperate as my life might be right now... I'm not that desperate.) But there's no denying that Disney's animators built her as something saturated with sex. Her showcase song features her wiggling, undulating, shimmying and shaking her moneymaker for all she's worth — and making a dead clear recommendation to Ariel to use sex appeal ("body language") to land Prince Eric and make him hers once and for all. Factor in two blatantly phallic moray eels as evil henchmen... and you've got a pretty clear picture of what Ursula is meant to represent.
All of which makes the movie's big finale that much more disturbing. Not the fact that good wins, evil loses, and Ariel and Eric end up sailing into the sunset, headed off to their happily ever after. No, what I'm talking about is the end of the final fight between good and evil. At that point, Ariel and Eric have established their platonic love for one another, but Ursula has literally come between them — growing to skyscraper proportions as she takes control of the sea (she is a sea witch, after all) and tries to kill them both; Ariel dodging magic bullets at the bottom of the ocean while Eric is trapped on board a once-sunken ship, now brought to the surface by Ursula's magic.
Blah blah blah. The important thing here is this: while Ursula is distracted by her murderous rage, Eric takes control of the ship, and steers it toward Ursula. Who does not see the ship coming at her, until the very last minute. When its large, broken prow thrusts powerfully up into the air... and penetrates Ursula. And ultimately killing her.
Taking into account that The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, I think it's fair to say that the Disney overmind was not immune to the cultural mores of the time — nor how antiquated their virginal undersea universe might appear to their audience(s). So what did they do? How did they create a validation-via-subtext for the conception of this immaculate waterworld? Simple: they borrowed the central moral message of one of the era's other cinematic touchstones... and created a world wherein, much like at Camp Crystal Lake in the series of Friday the 13th movies, sex = death. Where virtue is rewarded with survival... and the wages of sin, of flesh and desire, is an early and violently-met grave.
Bravo, Disney. Bravo.