We have this false idea that fairy tales are about weak and passive heroines, damsels in distress. So we are always fighting against a fairy tale legacy that doesn’t exist.
The Little Mermaid may be one of my favorite Disney movies for no other reason than they took an intensely tragic fairy tale and gave it a happy ending.
They also ushered in a new era for their animated films. No more sweet princesses or childlike heroines. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine and Nala are all independent, strong-willed, out-spoken characters.
Ariel, perhaps, is more petulant than the Hans Christian Anderson version. She doesn’t endure as much pain or heartache. But she very much sets the course of her own life. She fights for what she wants and she sacrifices for it.
Disney did a great job of maintaining several elements of the fairy tale. The music echoes Anderson’s prose in several places (including all the wonders that live under the sea and why it’s such a fabulous place). They kept the element where his heart belongs to another, if in a different way.
In Anderson’s fairy tale he is found by another woman upon waking and he believes from that moment on that she saved him, though they are separated until near the end. It deepens the tragedy of the fairy tale that he always longs for another woman when the mermaid who truly saved him is right in front of him. Disney kept that element of crossed love without making it hurt quite so much or in quite the same way.
Interestingly, in the fairy tale the mermaid isn’t too concerned about this mistaken identity because she knows, despite her love, they can never be together. And she almost accepts that. Until she learns that if he were to love her in return, she would gain an immortal soul. Mermaids, you see, live for 300 years and then simply die. Humans, however, with their souls, pass from death into… something else. Since the mermaids don’t have souls, they don’t know what.
So the mermaid goes to the witch to become human. Neither version of the story presents a princess who needs saving. She and Ariel choose this doom – take this risk. Disney has her do it for love while Anderson’s mermaid did it for an immortal soul.
We tend to disdain princesses who take risks for love; who let their lives be upturned for the one they love. But love is so powerful. Wars are fought and kingdoms both rise and fall for love. It’s the very sort of thing worth turning one’s life upside down for; worth the sort of sacrifice these girls make. And whether its for love or a soul, she willingly pays the price.
She makes her own choices – whether to live or die – to love or to live 300 years alone. And while Anderson gave her a second chance to win her soul, Disney gave her a happy ending.
Want to refresh your memory of the fairy tale? SurLaLune fairy tales has an annotated version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. And Angie has a great comparison of the fairy tale and Disney movie as part of her Project Disney.