Disney’s Fascination with ‘The Little Mermaid’

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The Little Mermaid (known by many as Ariel) has been a crucial figure in the world of Disney since the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989. This denizen of the depths has also captured audiences around the world since her premiere in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 taleAriel, as Disney fans know her, is a curious, spunky mermaid whose sordid entanglements with the human world lead to a variety of quirky misadventures. However, as viewers of the 1989 film, we ultimately witness a largely happy ending. Not so, for the Little Mermaid of Mr. Andersen’s imagination.

Hans Christian Andersen, born in 1805 in Odense, Denmark, fought his way from poverty to the gilded aristocratic halls of Europe. Mr. Andersen’s writings are prolific and span travel writings, poems, novels, and of course, fairy tales. The fairy tales we know today, such as The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, and The Princess and the Pea have enchanted generations. While these are original works, Mr. Andersen certainly drew upon folklore he was told as a child and learned later on in life. Born at an opportune time, Mr. Anderson was taught local folklore as a child, and learned more before it was consumed by modernity. The Brothers Grimm were beginning their collection of folklore around the time of Mr. Andersen’s childhood, in part out of concern of European folklore fading from memory. However, he was also able to take advantage of the increasing social mobility the time period permitted and avail himself of the ability to travel throughout the continent as sociopolitical and personal economic factors allowed. For those looking to visit the place in which Hans Christian Andersen was born, Disney Cruise Line is now including stops in Denmark starting in 2019.

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While I shall avoid spoilers here, the enchanted works of Hans Christian Andersen are relatively easy to read, and truly are the product of an erudite imagination. The Little Mermaid is certainly no exception. For a reader who may first be familiar with the Disney film, the story may seem at times gruesome, and even flirting with the sadistic; however, this is true of folklore as a genre. The Little Mermaid is a wonderful story, which leaves much to the imagination. While characters are described,  such as the Sea Witch (known to many now as Ursula), a reader must rely on their imagination to essentially fill in the blanks and transport themselves to another time in a different world. Again, this is often true of the folklore and other literature of the time.

This makes the 1989 The Little Mermaid all the more remarkable a creation. Prior to the 1989 film, there were of course ample stage creations, some film and television adaptions, as well as stunning illustrations. The Little Mermaid was released on November 17th, 1989, was subject to rave reviews, and helped usher in a new era of greatness from Walt Disney Animation. The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and produced by John Musker and Howard Ashman. The creation, production, and casting of this film is a long, complicated, and fascinating story on its own. Walt Disney himself hoped to create a package of films in the 1930s based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, but that never came to fruition due to a wide variety of circumstances.

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The 1989 film has now stunned a couple of generations, and characters such as Ariel, Ursula, Sebastian, and King Triton had to largely be created from scratch. Anyone who doubts the ingenuity of Imagineering in the late 1980s and early 1990s should read the story and watch the film immediately afterward.

The Little Mermaid, to be referred to forthwith as Ariel (we are talking Disney after all), has become easily one of the most beloved characters created by Disney. Ariel was based on a creation of Hans Christian Andersen; however, the character of Ariel we know today is absolutely a creation of those such as Glenn Keane and Mark Henn (Animators), as well as Ms. Jodi Benson who voiced Ariel. The inquisitive but somewhat cold and calculating Little Mermaid of the story was transformed into a perky soul, with a view of humanity as unblemished.

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Ariel’s presence in Disney Parks, resorts, media, and merchandise is far too extensive to recount here. A mermaid-inspired wedding is available on the Disney Cruise Line, and the Little Mermaid rooms at Walt Disney World’s Art of Animation Resort are consistently popular.

Disney California Adventure includes the attraction The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, with similar attractions located around the world. Mermaids have occupied a special place in Japanese folklore, and therefore it is no surprise that Tokyo DisneySea includes an area dedicated to this character: Ariel’s Playground.

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But why has Ariel continued to enchant several generations as she approaches her third decade? This inhabitant of a vibrant and energetic ocean thrusts herself into a human world in which she only sees opportunity, astonishment, and an endless horizon. How many of us today would love to be able to view humanity through the same lens? This is of course not to take away from other creations such as Ursula, King Triton, and Sebastian.

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Also, The Little Mermaid and Ariel have the status of being princesses by birth, and the latter also by marriage. She has become seemingly one of the most popular throughout the world. Who would turn down the opportunity for everlasting happiness in a gorgeous seaside palace if given the chance? The sacrifices made in the story delve into the realm of the spiritual, but carry no less weight in the film, as Ariel must make a choice between worlds, with the distinct possibility of never being able to look back.

Ariel is only continuing to accelerate her presence in parks and media throughout the world, and the people see no sign of tiring of her. The Little Mermaid of the story is of no less value; however, she inhabits a bleak realm, and must face ghastly choices. The Little Mermaid we know today, Ariel, hopefully will continue as a premiere Disney Princess, and the film which reinvigorated a sinking Disney will not be forgotten.

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Spencer Wright is passionate about Walt Disney World, Disney Film, History, and Old Hollywood. He works in Center City Philadelphia and lives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. He looks forward to writing articles for The Dis Unplugged; currently focusing on Animal Kingdom and the creatures that live there.


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