The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a mermaid who falls in love with a prince and becomes human. It marked the beginning of the Disney renaissance in the late 1980s, with the studio returning to what they did best: animated re-tellings of classic stories. Since you’d have a job finding a copy of the original that has more than five words on each page and no pop-up pictures, you’d think it would be a happy and magical affair and perfectly suited to Disney’s line-up, right? Wrong. Andersen’s tale is tragic and dark indeed, and would traumatise many a little girl obsessed with fairytale weddings and happy endings.
As my last two posts have shown, Disney aren’t completely averse to having some darker elements in their stories, so their adapting a tragic story isn’t entirely out of the question. So, did they jump in the deep-end or stay close to shore for this one?
Not to spoil the surprise, but they kept as far away from the water as a cat that got rabies, drowned, and then came back as the Wicked Witch of the West. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Disney glossing at its finest, so we won’t need to plumb the depths to find many differences here.
The Main Characters
Our title character is Ariel, the youngest of King Triton’s daughters and arguably the milkman’s because she has red hair. She’s more curious about the human world than her sisters and frequently breaks the rules to fuel her obsession. She thinks life in the sea is unfulfilling, and her ultimate dream is to live on land among humans. However, she has to hide this fascination from her father.
King Triton is the ruler of the mer-folk and a very proud father, so proud of his daughters in fact that he arranges entire concerts showcasing how amazing they all are and obliges everyone to attend. He is venomously anti-human and protective of Ariel, and somehow manages to run an entire underwater kingdom with the staff of a crab and a small orange seahorse. He is much admired and loved despite these eccentric tendencies, and even some seafaring humans have heard of him and the power he has over the sea.
Unfortunately, such power has grabbed the attention of one of the shapeliest villains in Disney history. Ursula, the sea witch, has designs on the king’s trident and sees herself as the true ruler of the waves. With the help of her faithful conga eels, Flotsam and Jetsam, she hatches an (admittedly) over-complicated plan to ransom Ariel in exchange for Triton’s power.
The whole reason she gets Ariel into this position is because of Prince Eric. His birthday party on the high seas went out with a rather unfortunate bang, during which Ariel fell in love with him and saved his life. He is lovelorn and looking for the right girl to settle down with, and as well as being rich and handsome, he has an adorable dog. Form an orderly queue (cartoon) ladies!
Last but not least, we have Sebastian the crab, the long suffering court composer-cum-baby-sitter. His job is to keep tabs on Ariel and make sure she doesn’t get into trouble, or in the worst case scenario, make sure King Triton doesn’t find out.
The first thing you notice about the original is that none of the characters have names, even the titular mermaid. She is only ten years old when the story begins, and although she is just as interested in the human world as Ariel, she is shy, quiet and introspective and doesn’t break the rules of the ocean to feed her curiosity. Instead, she contents herself with gawping out of the mer-palace windows, symbolically reaching up whenever a ship passes overhead, and badgering her grandmother for tales of the human world.
In the book, the mer-king is completely shafted in favour of his mother, who tidies up the palace and regales her granddaughters with tales of the world above the ocean. The other sisters also help the title mermaid with advice and offer comfort, rather than only existing to show she is the youngest.
Another difference is that the sea witch has no particular motivation. She is creepy, amoral and lives in a sinister (and possibly undead) part of the ocean, but has no plans to take over the kingdom; she just has a knack for making powerful potions in exchange for non-vital body-parts.
Finally we have the prince, who is only about sixteen years old in this version. He is also handsome and lovelorn, but instead of having a playful dog at his side, he enjoys the company of a group of female slaves and generally comes across as a condescending and insensitive prick, especially towards the mermaid. Ah, young love.
Disney’s version is therefore focused on a forbidden teenage romance and a daughter disobeying her strict father. Andersen’s story is about a naive and innocent young girl who falls in love with a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her, which ultimately spells her doom.
Part of That World
Ariel and her best friend Flounder are first introduced exploring a ship wreck looking for human artifacts. At the astounding discovery of a fork and a pipe, they go to the surface to show Scuttle, a scruffy old seagull and supposed expert on human culture who has even less of a clue about it then they do. It then transpires that they have missed one of King Triton’s self-congratulatory concerts – in which Ariel herself was meant to star – and this, coupled with their having gone to the surface, lands them in trouble.
Triton’s main beef is that going to the surface may have attracted the attention of those barbarian humans. To be fair, if some random creatures paraded through our towns and cities scooping up cats and dogs to fry up for dinner, we’d be fairly upset about them also.
Despite Ariel’s best efforts, Triton remains unconvinced at the nature of humans and forbids her from visiting the surface ever again. Then, in a case of exemplary parenting, he dispatches Sebastian the crab to spy on her. Sebastian follows Ariel and Flounder to a secret cavern where Ariel has amassed hundreds of human trinkets, and starts singing about how she wishes she could live on land among humans. Since this is the mer-folk equivalent of stashing hard drugs and cigarettes and then singing about how they give you super powers, Sebastian reprimands Ariel further and urges her to reconsider reality. Such protests fall on deaf ears when Ariel sees a ship looming overhead, and swims up to the surface again to investigate.
Going up to the surface is like a rite of passage for a fifteen year-old mermaid, and all of the mer-king’s daughters are keenly looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, they have collected wares and spoils from shipwrecks and use them to decorate their gardens outside the mer-palace. The only exception is the little mermaid, who thinks that’s far too vulgar and just has the pimping marble statue of a boy.
Since she is only ten, she must wait five agonising years until it’s her turn to reach the surface, but her sisters promise to give a detailed account of what they saw on each visit. One of them freaks out a group of sailors by lying on an iceberg, and another swims far enough inland to terrify a group of children playing in a river, so arguably the little mermaid’s just eager to improve diplomatic relations between humans and fish.
After half a decade of champing at the bit, her turn finally arrives, and after being appropriately dressed by her grandmother, she swims up to the surface at last. She sees a ship floating nearby and swims over to investigate.
For the mer-folk in the film, humans are dangerous and mindless barbarians that must be avoided and their relics are contraband, whereas in the book they are surrounded with an aura almost as mysterious as the one we give mermaids. Also, the daughters’ curiosity is encouraged, possibly because the others know they will become bored as soon as they are given permission to do something.
Sharking the Prince
The ship above is being attacked by fireworks in honour of the prince’s birthday, and Ariel swims up to get a closer look. As soon as she sees the prince fondling his dog, she’s smitten, but her open perving doesn’t last long as a violent storm descends over the sea. The crew evacuate, but a potent mixture of fireworks, booze and gunpowder see the prince’s dog trapped on board in a fire. Fulfilling the fantasy of young girls everywhere, Eric swims back to save him, and although he succeeds, he is left trapped on the ship when it explodes. Ariel finds him unconscious and falling into the depths, and pulls him to shore to save him.
Fortunately, Scuttle is on hand to check his vital signs, and although he declares him dead, Eric starts to come around. Rather than flee from this apparent zombie, Ariel starts singing to him, until his faithful dog and a distinguished member of the crew hurry over. Ariel disappears into the ocean, leaving Eric gushing groggily about the mystery girl who saved him. Sebastian and Flounder have been watching, and swear not to tell King Triton about this, but Ariel’s subsequent dreamy behaviour catches her family’s attention – she is clearly in love with someone.
As with any teenage obsession, Ariel goes overboard (no pun intended) and starts to think of ways she can see her prince again. Despite ad-libbing one of Disney’s best and most convincing songs about staying under the ocean, Sebastian is no match for teenage hormones, and Ariel returns to her cavern to swoon over a marble statue of Eric that tiny Flounder somehow salvaged from the shipwreck. Sebastian accidentally lets slip to the king that Ariel is in love with a human she saved from drowning, and in a mixture of exasperation and fury, Triton destroys Ariel’s entire treasure trove and the statue with it. Ariel is left crying in a heap, and everyone learns a lesson about prejudice.
Despite being dive-bombed by fireworks, the little mermaid manages to spy on the beautiful young prince while he mills about at his birthday party. When the storm hits and the ship sinks, she has a brief psychotic moment where she is happy because it means he will be coming to stay with her on the bottom of the ocean. She then remembers he’s a human, and decides to save him – not as a lover, but the same way you’d want to save a Ming vase or a Van Gogh. After holding him above the waves all night, she lays him on the beach and splashes away to hide before he wakes up.
When the prince comes to, he sees the face of a young girl from a nearby temple, and mistakenly thinks she saved him. The little mermaid falls into a deep depression after this and completely neglects her garden, contenting herself with hugging her marble statue. Eventually she tells one of her sisters what happened, who then tells some of the others and a select few of their friends. One of the friends knows where the prince’s castle is – conveniently right on the shoreline – and so the little mermaid travels there, sometimes right up into the shallows in the garden, where she can sit and ogle him in peace. The prince has no idea she is there, and spends most of his time looking out to sea and sighing.
It’s at this point that the mermaid starts to fall in love with him. However, her love for the prince isn’t the only thing that makes her wish she was part of his world. During a conversation with her grandmother, we uncover what the mermaid really wants.
A human soul.
We discover that although mermaids can live up to 300 years, they don’t have an immortal soul like humans, and simply dissolve into sea foam upon death. According to the grandmother, the only way they can have one is if they are joined in holy matrimony with a human, as they would then “share” a soul and earn their own off the back of this. This strengthens the little mermaid’s resolve to somehow win the prince’s love and become part of his world.
In case you thought you’d wandered into another story entirely, both mermaids save the prince from drowning when a birthday celebration goes awry, but one of them is given a parental bitch-slap whereas the other is almost playfully encouraged to pursue their new found love interest. Ariel falls in love seemingly in seconds, whereas Andersen’s little mermaid is a slow burner, and has a more complicated motivation for wanting to be with the prince.
As per Disney regulations, every princess must be reduced to a sobbing heap at some point in the story, and it’s at this point that Ariel is approached by Flotsam and Jetsam. She agrees to follow them to see Ursula, despite the protests of Sebastian and Flounder. Ariel approaches the sea witch’s domain with some trepidation, dodging some rather lively cavern worms who are revealed to be former mer-folk who fell foul of her powers. It’s not only Sebastian who has been spying on Ariel, as Ursula seems to know everything about her and why she has come, and charitably offers to turn her into a human so she can be with her prince. Of course, such a drastic transformation isn’t without its drawbacks.
Ursula says she will transform Ariel into a human for three days, during which she not only has to make the prince fall in love with her, but also give her the kiss of true love. If she fails to do this, she will turn back into a mermaid, and then become the sea witch’s property – presumably as one of her cavern worms. If memory serves, in teen terms one day is true love, two days merit a tattoo and three is time for a baby, so this isn’t the worst part of the deal. The only real downside is the method of payment – Ursula wants Ariel’s voice in exchange for her potion.
Hormones are the order of the day again, so Ariel agrees to the deal and sees her voice yanked out of her and her tail split into two legs. Both sides neglected the rather important point of her having to breathe air, but fortunately Flounder and Sebastian come to the rescue. Ariel miraculously survives a fatal case of the bends and surfaces, taking her first breath as a human being.
The little mermaid steals away during a concert at the mer-palace and heads for the sea witch’s lair. On the way she is also accosted by polyps that try to drag her down, but these are no former mer-folk – they are cursed creatures that have grabbed and suffocated anything that passes by, including another small mermaid, whose body she has to swim past.
The sea witch here also seems to know of the mermaid’s plan, and says she will make her a potion that will transform her into a human. Sensibly, she suggests the mermaid drink the potion once she’s on land, but warns her that splitting her tail into legs won’t only be painful the first time, but will be a continuous pain whenever she tries to walk on them. She also slaps a time limit on her, but an altogether different one. The morning after the prince has married someone else, the mermaid will die and become sea foam.
The payment is the same – the sea witch wants the mermaid’s voice, as it is her best asset – but her method of accepting it is rather different. Rather than some airy fairy spell, the sea witch cuts to the chase and simply slices off the mermaid’s tongue.
If this wasn’t creepy enough, the sea witch uses sea snakes to bite her chest so she can add blood to the potion, and once she hands it to the little mermaid, even the evil polyps shrink back in horror. The mermaid swims to the surface, lies on the sand in front of the prince’s castle, and then drinks the potion. The pain is so unbearable that she almost blacks out, and when she comes to and takes her first breath as a human, she is completely naked and lying in the shadow of the prince, who is suddenly looming over her.
In Disney’s version, Ariel runs away to pursue the man of her dreams, and as a bonus she gets to escape and punish her father. She is then easily exploited by the power-hungry Ursula. Andersen’s mermaid does not take her decision on the spur of the moment, and despite the horrible price of the potion, the sea witch gives her a much more realistic deadline, and once she has given her the potion, that’s the end of the matter – she gains nothing if the mermaid fails in her endeavour.
Life Above the Sea
After a brief bout of hysteria, Sebastian offers to help Ariel find the prince and make him fall in love with her. Fortunately, the prince is strolling on the same beach as them and his dog leads them to each other. Eric seems to recognise Ariel, until he realises she can’t speak, but that’s secondary to the fact that she’s half naked and beautiful, so he invites her back to the palace anyway.
While Sebastian spends his time fighting off homicidal French cooks and avoiding the dinner table, Ariel spends her time trying on pretty dresses and being ferried about the kingdom by Eric. She gets to dance, disrupt a puppet show and drive recklessly (in a horse and cart), as well presumably feast on some of her former undersea friends, or relatives thereof. Eric is surprisingly charmed by this, and their day culminates in a romantic trip in a rowing boat across a lagoon.
Sebastian tries his hand at another convincing song, and Eric, who for some reason finds singing birds, fish and crustaceans utterly unremarkable, leans in to kiss Ariel and thus break the spell.
After leading the mermaid back to the palace, the prince gets his servants to dress her in fine silks, and he starts calling her his “little foundling”. He charitably allows her to sleep on a cushion outside his room, but constantly bemoans the fact that she looks like the girl that saved him, who he can never take as his wife because she has given herself to the holy temple.
The mermaid remains at his side as a member of his entourage, and together they go riding and mountain climbing. Unfortunately, even though she can out-dance his slave girls and is agreed to be the most beautiful girl in the court, the prince doesn’t ever consider her as wife material.
One night, the mermaid’s sisters appear in the water outside the prince’s palace. The grandmother and the mer-king follow, but they stay too far away from the shore for the mermaid to see them clearly. The sisters berate the mermaid for the worry she has caused them, but they continue to visit her at night as the weeks pass. As time goes on, the prince becomes more and more fond of the mermaid, and very kindly suggests that, since he can’t have the real woman of his dreams, she could almost be a substitute as she is so beautiful and devoted.
For Andersen’s prince, the mermaid is just another pretty addition to his posse, and an amusing oddity at best. She only grows on him because he’s thinking about making do with what he has, whereas Eric seems genuinely endeared by Ariel and sympathetic to her condition. Also, he’s not surrounded by competitive booty and doesn’t waste his days regretting not finding the girl who saved him. This, however, lands him in trouble in the next part of the story.
Hell Hath No Fury…?
Just as Ariel and Eric are about to kiss, their rowing boat is capsized by Flotsam and Jetsam, so Sebastian’s tunes have yet again failed to impress. Despite this, Eric decides that it’s pointless lusting after a dream mystery girl and realises that he really wants Ariel after all. Ursula has been watching and is outraged that Ariel almost managed to win the prince’s love, so she does what any normal person would do – she transforms herself into a beautiful woman, and using Ariel’s voice, she puts Eric under a spell so he falls in love with her instead.
Unfortunately Vegas weddings weren’t available then, so the prince arranges a wedding ship for that afternoon. Ariel collapses in a heap, knowing her time is almost up, until Scuttle arrives revealing that the new bride is actually the sea witch. While he stalls the wedding with various animal antics, Ariel and Flounder try to reach the ship and Sebastian goes to tell King Triton.
During the scuffle on board, in which both the dog and priest apparently get over-excited, the sea witch drops her magic shell, releasing Ariel’s voice and Eric from his spell. Ariel, now able to speak again, is reunited with Eric, but not before the sun sets on the third day and she turns back into a mermaid. The sea witch also transforms back into her real self, and then grabs Ariel before leaping overboard. Eric seems more concerned about Ariel’s welfare than the fact he nearly got married to an evil obese octopus-woman, so that’s kind of encouraging.
No sooner has the prince confessed (some) feelings for the mermaid, rumours abound that he is getting married to a beautiful princess from a nearby kingdom. Such rumours are confirmed when it transpires said princess was just the girl the prince had been dreaming about all this time. A wedding ship sets sail, with the little mermaid on board, and she is forced to watch the festivities and dancing, all the while knowing she will be dead as a dodo come morning.
After the prince and his new found beloved have retired to their nuptial tent, the mermaid walks sadly around the ship, waiting for the first sun beams to hit her. All of a sudden her sisters appear in the water below, as bald as coots. They say they traded their hair to the sea witch for a magic knife, which must be used to kill the prince. Once his blood touches the mermaid’s feet, they will join into fins and she will become a mermaid again, and no worse for wear. They beg her to do this before sunrise, but the mermaid can’t bring herself to do it and ungratefully throws the knife away.
The sun rises, and the mermaid jumps overboard and turns into sea foam.
The “other woman” in the Disney version is the sea witch herself, since the prospect of the prince genuinely falling in love with someone else does not a happy film make. Although Ariel is captured by the sea witch, she evidently gets an easier time than Andersen’s mermaid, who not only has to have the wedding rubbed in her face, but ends up dying due to the power of love, and unintentionally roping her sisters into her problems. At worst, Ariel would become a cavern worm, but Andersen’s mermaid is quite dead, so this was not the best wedding in either case.
Walking on Air
With Ariel in tow, Ursula gloats her way into Triton’s path, who offers to exchange himself for his daughter. The deal is done, and Triton becomes a cavern worm while Ursula becomes the new ruler of the sea. Ariel and Eric try unsuccessfully to attack her, which results in Ursula growing to a size that would make Cthulhu proud.
Since she’s too busy taking pot-shots at Ariel, Ursula fails to notice the one thing Eric was ever likely to poke her with – the mast of a shipwreck. He steers it into her and impales her on it, somehow making her explode in a mass of calamari. She drops the trident, which transforms King Triton and all the other cavern worms back into mer-folk.
Fortunately, the events of the past few days have finally convinced Triton that not all humans are fish-eating barbarians (or that they’re at least mindful of what they’re eating), and how much Ariel loves the prince. He transforms her back into a human, and Ariel and Eric are reunited on the beach. They marry on a wedding ship, in front of humans and mer-folk alike, before sailing away under a rainbow.
The little mermaid dissolves into sea foam as the first sun rays touch her, but she’s somehow still aware of her surroundings. All of a sudden, strange, totally-not-angels appear in the sky above her and tell her that they will make her one of them. They explain they are the “daughters of the air”, and like mermaids, they live for 300 years and don’t have an immortal soul. Before the mermaid can groan and give herself an ethereal face-palm, the daughters of the air explain that they are in fact able to earn a soul by doing good deeds. “Good deeds” in this case meaning sending a cool breeze to the tropics or dispersing the scent of fresh flowers.
Given that the mermaid has both given up her voice, watched her loved one marry someone else without envy and sacrificed herself for him, the daughters of the air must be falling over themselves to let her join their group. And you’d think she’d have already done enough good deeds to earn a soul. But no, sadly not – she has to do good deeds in her new form as a daughter of the air to earn it. Once she has, she won’t necessarily have to wait 300 years before ascending to heaven. Every time she sees a child that makes its parents happy, God will take one year off her probation. But if a child is bad, God will add another year.
So remember kids, be naughty, and then the mermaid is one year further from heaven. And if you want to be really naughty, add that you don’t believe in fairies either.
Once upon a time, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a beautiful but tragic story about the unrequited love between a mermaid and a handsome prince. Despite having her tongue cut out, being separated from her family and feeling like her legs were continuously stuck in a blender to get it, the mermaid was unable to have what she really wanted, but when she accepted this, and still sacrificed herself for love even though she could never have it, she was (kind of) rewarded for her good deeds in the end.
Disney cast an eye over the story, thought “bugger that” and concocted a tale about a naive teenage princess who learns nothing, gets everything she wants through sheer stubbornness and lives happily ever after, while her stern father has to learn to let her go, and be less judgemental of people that make a living out of catching and devouring the household pets. Household pets which can also sing, dance, and apparently influence human behaviour.
Basically the original story is unrecognisable, save for the characters and the fact that the mermaid rescues a prince and trades her voice to the sea witch for human legs. The Disney version opts for a tale about growing up and prejudice, whereas the original version is about self-sacrifice and its eternal rewards (in a completely non-terrorist context of course), and how you probably shouldn’t throw your life, family and friends away just for the one person you ever had a crush on.
So, not only has Disney sanitised the story beyond recognition, but they’ve used it to teach the exact opposite of what it intended.
1) The Little Mermaid, 1989. Film. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Andersen, H.C. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Wordsworth Editions Ltd, U.K., 1993. ISBN 978-1-85326-100-8