Honoring the Heroine: The Little Mermaid

Before I start, the usual reminder that I am current searching for the best animated movie of the 20th century in my other blog, Movies and Lyrics. The first articles are now up, with a few perhaps surprising results. And yes, I will reach 1989 too at one point. But not yet. Neither there, nor here.

So far I have started Fairy Tale Month with the Disney adaptation, mostly because the Disney take usually happens to be oldest one. This time around though, there is an adaptation of the story which is not only older than the Disney version, it is also way, way closer to the source text. So let’s start with the 1976 version of The Little Mermaid.

Miroslava Safrankova Autogram 2

I have mentioned multiple times already the Czech/German productions which pretty much influenced my childhood as much as Disney did. And last year I talked about their take on Sleeping Beauty. Well, before this one came two other movies which are nowadays considered a fairy tale classic. This is the second one of them. And if you have never seen it, well, someone actually did upload the original Czech version with English subtitles on youtube. I would recommend to watch it (you have to activate the subtitles yourself) before reading my review. Currently you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VCE2PRS-C8

There are some additions to the original story (which I will discuss during the review), but only two major changes. One is the appearance of the Merpeople. In this version they don’t have fish tails, for obvious reasons. Instead their world is tinted blue and their movements are sometimes slowed down to create the illusion of being under water. It works really well and looks to this day very impressive. There is something magical about the way their world is portrayed.

The other big change is the ending. But I’ll address this later in the review. Let’s talk about the source text first.

The basic story of the Little Mermaid is that her grandmother always told her tales about the life on land, so she can’t wait for the day she is allowed to swim up there. When the day finally comes she encounters the Prince who is celebrating his birthday on a ship. She instantly falls in love and when the ship sinks, she brings him to the land. But when he awakes another woman, who found his prone body on the beach, is leaning over him. He believes that she is his saviour and instantly falls in love with her.

The adaptation tells more or less the same story with one major addition: The Little Mermaid (none of the characters is named) is supposed to marry. Apparently all seas have some sort of royal house and all her sisters are already in arranged marriages. She dislikes the prince which is supposed to marry her, and I honestly can’t blame her. He is frankly a little bit of an idiot, quite condescending towards her and conceals poorly that he believes that by marrying her, he would eventually become the king of all seas since she is the favourite of her father. And why is she the favourite? Well, because she looks similar to her mother.

Which brings me to the second addition in the movie. In the original story, her mother simply died. But in the movie it is slowly revealed that her mother in fact didn’t die, but fell in love with a simple fisher man and decided to stay with him instead of going back to her husband and her six daughters. If she lived happily ever after is not clear, but it is implied that the Little Mermaid not only inherited her looks but also her curiosity. In this context, the Little Mermaid is already the second woman in the family who tries to break free from a patriarchal construct.

The most interesting character in this adaptation is her father. On the one hand, he is part of said construct which traps the Little Mermaid in a difficult position. And he is a mass murder. He uses his power in order to deliberately sink ships and even worse, he asks the Little Mermaid to sing for him, knowing that her beautiful voice will lure sailors into dangerous waters. On the other hand his position towards humans is understandable, and there is no doubt that he loved his wife and loves his daughters. He wants her to be happy, but can only watch while she walks towards her own downfall.

Interestingly the movie mirrors the situation of the Little Mermaid in the Prince. True to the original story he is in love with the woman from the beach, but is supposed to marry a princess from a far away kingdom. But in the movie his situation is very dire because his kingdom is in financial difficulties. Why? Well, because the King of the Sea uses his power to interrupt the trade per ship, destroy the harvest and flood the land. Therefore the Prince has to marry a rich princess in order to rescue his kingdom. And like the Little Mermaid he is fighting against this obligation. He cares about his kingdom and his people, but his mind is mostly set on creating protection from the sea. His luck changes, though when the Little Mermaid is washed up on the shore.

Yep, Ariel wasn't the first red haired version

Yep, Ariel wasn’t the first red haired version of The Little Mermaid.

Again the movie keeps it close to the source text. She pays the Sea Witch with her voice and she takes it upon herself to feel pain upon every step she takes. Interesting are again the additions. It is revealed that the Sea Witch helped her mother, too, in exchange for a stone which can calm down storms (the Little Mermaid owns a second one of this kind). And when the Little Mermaid discovers what her father has done to take revenge on the prince, she asks him to take his curse back. Which he does after she argues her case.

There is also much more meaning attached to the voice of the Little Mermaid. In the original story her lack of voice mostly prevents her from revealing that she was the one who rescued the Prince. In the movie the Prince has heard her sing before and is fascinated by her voice. His heart though is with the woman who he believes rescued him.

In the source text, the Prince eventually visit the foreign kingdom. He plans to just bring gifts and then go home because the only woman he feels he can love is the one from the beach. But he seriously considers marrying the Little Mermaid instead, because she at least reminds him of her (in the movie they actually picked sisters to play the Little Mermaid and her rival). And, as such stories go, it turns out that the foreign princess actually is the woman from the beach.

In the final act, the Little Mermaid is given a choice. She can either kill the Prince and become a mermaid again, or she will die. In the original story, she refuses and becomes an immortal soul as reward. In the movie, the religious aspect is (thankfully) removed. And the choice is made even easier for her. Her father tells her that the Prince will die no matter what she does, because his ship will get destroyed by the cliffs soon. And then, this happens:

And that is the reason I love this adaptation so much. If someone claims that the original story sends a dangerous message about self-sacrifice and becoming a martyr for love, I wouldn’t argue. But the movie is due to all the additions and small changes much more than that. Yes, the Little Mermaid makes sacrifices in this version, too. But she gains much more than just the opportunity to be with her Prince. For a brief period of time, she is free. She is free to explore the world above the sea. She is free to love the man she chooses and not the one she is supposed to marry. And when she sacrifices herself, it is much more than just her giving up her life for her prince. It is also a rejection of restrictive society in which she was trapped and a last triumph over the supposedly unavoidable. In the end her father, the symbol of said patriarchal society is standing alone, having lost not only his wife but also his beloved daughter.

Now, I have talked a lot about the plot, but what about the Little Mermaid herself? I think, she is a surprisingly strong character. Initially she is portrayed as childish and naïve, her curiosity being the character trait which is emphasised the most. It is this curiosity which leads her again and again to forbidden places. She is also a little bit of a daredevil. While her sister is afraid to swim to the surface, she can’t wait for the day she is allowed to go, too. And she isn’t stupid. While a higher education is kept from her, she is listening, constantly collecting and connecting snippets of information. When she sneaks away to the Sea Witch, she shows herself to be surprisingly crafty. And when she makes the deal with her, she knows exactly which price she will have to pay and the risk involved. She already knows that the Prince is in love with someone else, because her father told her.

Die-kleine-Seejungfrau_ICESTORM-1

The downside to her character is that she would do everything for the Prince. Even eating fish. There is a slavish element in her devotion to a man, who barely sees her. This is offset quite effectively though, by adding emphasis on her relationship to her father. I never had any doubt that the Little Mermaid would have been strong enough to leave or even kill the Prince if he had shown himself unworthy of her love. But he never does. He is concerned about his kingdom and the people living in it, more than about riches. He is from the get go straightforward about loving another woman. And unlike the prince she is supposed to marry, his interest in her is not motivated by personal gain, but by the desire to help and understand her, even though he never truly does and never realizes how much he hurts her when he marries someone else. In the end, he is a good person. And is it difficult to dislike either him or the Princess just because they are happily in love with each other. Neither of them are ever treating the Little Mermaid badly. It just seems unfair that the Prince eventually finds happiness within the system he is trapped in, while the Little Mermaid is fated to die for her freedom. But then, isn’t that how it works? As much as men might complain about the restriction a patriarchal society puts on them, they still have more options than the women within it.

Subtext aside though, this is a movie worth watching. It is, imho, one of the most well-crafted Fairy Tale Movies out there. Aside from having a very thought-out script and being full of talented actors, there is a poetic element to the way the scenes are staged and the effects are interesting to watch. So if you have never seen it (and if you are American you most likely never did), now is your opportunity.

Quote: “It was such a sad love with sorrowful ending.”

There are a lot of versions of The Little Mermaid. But very few of them are actually good. If you always wanted a version of the story which is close to the source text but still manages to transcend it to film perfectly, this is the movie for you. I recommend it for everyone, including small children. Yes, it is sad, but it is a good kind of sad.

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19 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: The Little Mermaid

  1. Meh… I believe that the Disney version will be the only “The little mermaid”, that I can ever like. I happen to dislike the ending of the original version by H.C. Andersen so much, that I unfortunaley also will dislike any adaption, which wants to stick too closely to the source material. But as you might have noticed, many people dislike Ariel and don’t think that she deserved a happy ending. And I wonder if this other version might be more to their liking.

    • I think both endings have their merits…I don’t like the part with the immortal soul either, but I like adaptations which do keep the sad note at the end. And this one is particularly well done.

  2. Interesting suggestion. Thanks! I will totally check it out and let you know what I think. I love the Disney version and find it holds up very well. A lot of the issues people bring up about Ariel don’t ring true to me at all. She is a character who is uncomfortable in her own skin, who doesn’t belong in her tribe and I guess I always related to that kind of story. I like what you say about Ariel finally being free and I always responded to that aspect of her journey more than the romance itself. Some people I’ve heard claim Belle is better because she doesn’t change who she is for a man. I say the man was kind of incidental. She was always meant to be in the body of a human but didn’t know how to get there. I’ve personally always felt like the original story was a little too morbid and sad for my taste. I like the more empowering version better (same with Cinderella and Snow Queen. Just my preference).

  3. This is an interesting adaptation that I should check out. I’ve never been a big fan of the traditional ending of the story but I like the symbolism here.

    The only other Czech version of a fairy tale I’ve ever seen is Panna a Netvor, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that’s rather dark but fascinating, taking more cues from the tale of Cupid and Psyche and adding a Gollum-esque voice haunting the Beast, tempting him to give into his darker urges. I recommend it, as it looks and feels unlike any other that I’ve watched.

      • If I had to pick some of my favorites apart from the Disney one (which I recently reviewed), I’d go with that, the Cocteau version, and an unusual made-for-tv one starring George C. Scott and his wife as the titular couple which is surprisingly well-made.

      • The Cocteau version is important as a movie and I will certainly mention it in passing, but Belle is horrible underwritten in this version. There are a lot of reasons to discuss the movie, but the female main character is not one of them. (And the more recent remake made the story even worse). I’ll check out the GC Scott one. Thanks for the tip.

      • I feel the same about Belle in the Cocteau one (and it’s cool you’ve seen the recent one, even if that film’s particular Beauty is less engaging). And you’re welcome.

      • She actually is not that bad, but the backstory they added for the Beast is just creeping me out, and he is even more abusive than usual in this one.

      • I can’t think of anything particularly abusive he did apart from chasing her at one point, but the added backstory is strange. I still think Disney did it best, and not just in how they portrayed it.

      • Controlling what someone wears is creepy. There is something really off about the way his relationship with his first wife is portrayed, but his relationship with Belle takes it on a new level.
        But yeah, Disney did it the best. To stick with the example, its the only adaptation in which the Beast doesn’t control what Belle wears. The Wardrobe is offering her some choices and Belle decides when she takes her up on the offer.

  4. I guess I’m late to the party, but I’ll comment anyway. I want to thank you fr discussing this version and providing a link. I just watched it and it was intriguing. I can say I really liked it. The pacing of the movie is a bit unusual, but I don’t mind that much. The way they portrayed underwater life is very clever, if I don’t like the choices for the merpeople’s hair or clothing. I also liked the scenes on land – particularly how the courts who are visiting the Prince’s kingdom seem to hail from many different cultures. And the montages that shows nature on earth and waves hitting the rocks are very poetic.

    The backstory about the Little Mermaid’s mother is also a nice touch, as it creates a whole new deal of complexity to the character of the Sea King. And the addition of an arranged marriage makes the protagonist’s situation all the more pressing. The thing that stuck out the most for me is how different this father-daughter relationship is from the one between Triton and Ariel. Unlike their Disney counterparts, who are prone to outbursts of anger, the characters in this movie never argue, despite their different points of view. And even after the Little Mermaid swaps the sea for the land, the two still have a strong bond and cooperate.

    This mermaid is also very different from Ariel, as in that she is not reckless at all: she always knows exactly what she is doing. And her defiance is a lot more subtle, even though this version emphasizes the patriarchy aspect more than Disney’s. But she has the same curiosity and fearlessness as Ariel.

    On a final note, I must say this movie has that ‘fairy tale feel’ that I feel is obligatory in a, well, fairy tale movie. Such a sad love with sorrowful ending, indeed…

    • I am glad to know that someone followed the link and watched it. It really deserves some attention imho. I mean, I like the Disney version and all, but for an adaptation close to the source text, I like this one the best. It has exactly the right tone, and the staging in the movie is exceptionally well done. I am also impressed with the way they created a believable underwater world – in the 1970s! Movies today with all their CGI don’t manage this half as well.

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