The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 92 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, way back in Episode 73 we did a special episode where we talked about nothing except for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Craig: Perhaps our finest episode.
John: That was a great episode. It was a very fun time. And so we’ve been looking for another film that could get that same kind of treatment. And today we have found that movie I believe.
Craig: Well, we have. And today we’re going to be talking about a film that not only was a big hit but also changed the business; brought a slumbering business back to life. And that movie is The Little Mermaid.
John: Yes. Disney’s 1989 film, written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, with songs — important songs — by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
John: So, a couple reasons why I thought this was a good movie for us to be talking about. What you said in terms of it changing the industry I think is really crucial and important. This was the first of the modern Disney films. The first of the musical films that really succeeded. And if we didn’t have The Little Mermaid we wouldn’t Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan. We wouldn’t have Brave.
This sort of set the template for this idea of the follow your protagonist in a musical adventure.
Craig: That’s right. And, also, you wouldn’t have Pixar either, frankly, because a lot of those guys came — Joe Ranft, for instance — worked on this movie.
John: And I would argue that Pixar with Toy Story changed the game again.
John: I mean, if you look at 1995’s Toy Story, that was one of the first huge successes that wasn’t a musical, that wasn’t sort of following this template. But this was a template that was very important and I think it still is a very clear template.
And what’s useful about The Little Mermaid is the template is really clear. I think a lot of time when we talk about certain ideas in screenwriting — like the hero’s quest, want vs. need, two worlds, irrevocable choices — we’re trying to look at those in complicated live action movies where things are sort of buried underneath and you have to argue about, okay, it’s at that point, or that point.
Because The Little Mermaid is really simple, it’s actually very easy to see what those points are. And I think it’s going to be good to be able to talk through and really see very clearly what those notes are.
Craig: Yes. And as we talk through this movie today, let’s also note how it is old fashioned. And Toy Story has, the Toy Story, the Pixar model that was established in Toy Story has essentially subsumed this one. It’s a very different kind of story than the modern, what we call modern animated movies, that is to say post-Pixar.
John: Yeah. And the other reason why I thought this was a good movie for us to pick is that it’s an adaptation.
John: The Little Mermaid is an adaption of the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid, from 1837. And I wasn’t familiar with what the original story was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia.
Craig: [laughs] It’s horrifying.
John: Did you do that, too?
Craig: I actually was familiar with it. Well, Hans Christian Andersen in and of himself, he was beloved. And yet for whatever reason… — Why he was beloved? He’s a great writer. His stories are horrifying. They are terrible, terrible stories. They’re scary.
For instance, The Little Red Shoes is a girl who puts on red shoes because she wants to dance well and she keeps dancing because the shoes won’t let her stop. And she dances herself to death. The Matchstick Girl who sells matchsticks and is freezing outside looking into a window at a happy family. And she begins lighting matches to keep herself warm and she just ends up freezing to death in the cold surrounded by burnt out matches.
And, of course, then you have The Little Mermaid, a story that is perhaps his most frightening, horrifying, unrelenting bleak tale. And, I don’t know, do you want to tell the story?
John: Yeah, I do. So, actually I looked it up on Wikipedia and I’m going to do a shortened summary of the Wikipedia story because I was actually surprised how closely a lot of it does mirror our film in terms of actual plot.
Craig: Some of it.
John: If you actually look at the plot.
Craig: Some of it, yes. Some of it.
John: Yeah. If you look at the plot synopsis versus plot synopsis, it’s like, oh, those are really similar.
John: And then it’s all the ways that they’re different which I think is important for us to be discussing here today. So, bear with me while I sort of read the Wikipedia summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s version of The Little Mermaid:
So, The Little Mermaid dwells in an underwater kingdom with her father (the sea king or mer-king), her grandmother, and her five sisters. Her five sisters are each born one year apart. When a mermaid turns 15, she is permitted to swim to the surface to watch the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world every year. As each of them returns, the Little Mermaid listens longingly to their various descriptions of the surface and of human beings.
When the Little Mermaid’s turn comes, she rises up to the surface, sees a ship with a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a distance. A great storm hits, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from nearly drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here she waits until a young girl from the temple finds him. The prince never sees the Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid asks her grandmother if humans can live forever if they breathe under water. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than merfolks’ 300 years, but that when mermaids die they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in Heaven.
Craig: Sea foam.
John: Sea foam.
Craig: They turn into sea foam and they cease to exist.
John: The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, eventually visits the Sea Witch, who sells her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue (as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting voice in the world). The Sea Witch warns, however, that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. She will only obtain a soul if she finds true love’s kiss and the prince loves her and marries her, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries another woman, the Little Mermaid will die brokenhearted and disintegrate into sea foam.
The Little Mermaid drinks the potion and meets the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty and grace even though she is mute. The prince’s father orders his son to marry the neighboring king’s daughter, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess that he’s supposed to marry is actually the temple girl, who had been sent to the temple to be educated. So, the prince loves her, and the wedding is announced.
Craig: Now, hold on a second. Before you finish this story, I think everybody at home surely is thinking, “Well, that wedding is going to be interrupted because the Little Mermaid is going to end up marrying the prince, right?”
John: Absolutely. Because it’s a fairy tale. It’s going to have a happy ending.
Craig: It’s a fairy tale. It’s going to have a happy ending.
John: The prince and princess marry, and the Little Mermaid’s heart breaks.
Craig: Wait, what?! [laughs]
John: She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn, her sisters bring her a knife that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long hair. So, the sisters sold their long hair for this knife.
John: If the Little Mermaid slays the prince with the knife and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid again, all her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life.
Craig: Okay, now hold on. Before you go any further, surely what’s going to happen is she’s going to think about killing him and then decide not to. And because she does that super nice thing the prince realizes that and ends up marrying her, right?
John: Let’s keep reading.
John: However the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his bride, and she throws herself into the sea as dawn breaks.
Craig: Wait, what?! [laugh]
John: Her body dissolves into foam…
Craig: Wait, what?!
John: …but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the sun; she has turned into a spirit, a daughter of the air. The other daughters tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. She will earn her own soul by doing good deeds and she will eventually rise up into the kingdom of God.
Now, note that this is actually a rewrite by Hans Christian Andersen. That was not the original ending he first penned. It was actually bleaker than that.
Craig: [laughs] I believe the original ending was such that she turns into sea foam. Period. The end.
Craig: But, wait, I think you left out something.
John: Wikipedia might have left out something. I read what I had.
Craig: I had a memory that when she becomes human her legs are…
John: Oh, I did summarize that out. So, summarize for us. It was so gruesome I couldn’t even read it.
Craig: As I recall, the sea witch says, “You can have legs and you’ll be a really good dancer, so that’s how you’re going to attract him. Not because you can’t speak. But you can dance. But, your legs will essentially be excruciatingly painful for you and even more so when you dance. So, she has to dance with this guy, and he loves it, but it’s literally killing her.
Craig: That’s Hans Christian Andersen.
John: And she will bleed when she does it, which is, of course, a menstrual kind of thing, too.
Craig: Oh, grody. I didn’t know about that part. All right. I mean, it’s the worst story ever.
John: Well, it’s the worst story but it’s also the best story.
Craig: It is.
John: It’s about forbidden love. It’s very much a Romeo and Juliet kind of story at its heart. And there’s terrific elements in it. And, honestly, reading back on the history of the film The Little Mermaid, all the way back to Walt Disney, they had drafts of The Little Mermaid. They had talked about making The Little Mermaid as a movie way back in Disney’s time.
John: So, fast-forward to sometime in the ’80s and they decide, “Well, let’s make this movie.” And this is the Jeffrey Katzenberg era. And they said, “Well, let’s make this a big animated movie.” And god bless them, they did. But they made some significant changes and choices.
And so what I thought we’d do today is talk through the movie as it actually happens, it exists in real time. Because if you look at the synopsis of the story, it’s going to read a lot like what we just read because things get moved around in a synopsis because it’s easy to sort of understand that way.
But, I’m going to talk through sort of the movie as it actually happens on screen so we can see how they did what they did and what the choices were they made.
Craig: And remind me how we did it the last time. Are we stopping and starting, or are you just going to summarize?
John: We will start and stop a lot.
John: So, the movie The Little Mermaid begins with, actually on top of the ocean, begins with the ship. And so we see Eric and his crew, the sailors, and a bit of the kingdom. And the first song we hear, not very much of, it’s called Mysterious Fathoms Below. It’s very classically kind of like setting up the world. It’s surprising that we’re setting up the surface world before the undersea world, but I actually did it because it’s establishing that there is a normal world up above.
John: And that it’s important. And then we’re going to go to see the world below. And how we’re actually getting there is there’s one of the fish that they catch and they haul up in the nets slips off and goes into the water. And once were in the water then we establish our real title sequence and then we know like, okay, we’re in this ocean world and this is where we’re going to spend most of our movie.
Craig: Yeah. And they do such a good job. I happen to know Ron and John. They’re amazing guys. Great directors. They did a spectacular job writing and directing this film.
And, if you want to talk about tight writing, you begin with this ship. You see the front of the ship is that classic carved woman who is essentially a mermaid. And here’s what we learn in about three or four lines of dialogue: We learn that Eric is kind of romantic about the sea and even mentions mermaids in this song; we learn…
John: Specially they mention King Triton, the ruler of the mer people, which is like, wow, that’s a lot to wedge in there at the start.
Craig: So, boom, right. So, right away we know that there is a King Triton and that there are mermaids. He is romantic about the sea. We meet this kind of fuss-budgety guy, Grimsby I believe his name is. Is that right, Grimsby?
John: Yeah. Grimsby who is sort of an advisor, like it sort of takes the role of his father. He’s like the counselor, I guess.
Craig: Correct. The prince’s counselor. And we learn that he is, unlike our hero, he’s puking because he’s seasick. And he doesn’t believe in any of this nonsense about the ocean. But the crew member says, “No, no, it’s true. King Triton is real and mermaids are real.” And he’s slapping Grimsby in the face with this fish that gets away. And then the fish takes us down into the depth.
So, going back to our discussion about transitions. You will find no genre that is more transition-dependent than animation because you can make any transition you want.
Craig: They do such a good job here. But in that short amount of time you get so much information. Pretty great.
John: Yeah. So, the fish carries us down underneath the sea where we see the sea kingdom, and specifically we meet Triton who is the ruler of the sea and who’s like the big sort of grumbly king guy who is Triton.
His conductor is this little crab named Sebastian who is sort of his advisor/consigliore, but also leads his orchestra, his choir. And we’re at this concert where the five daughters are supposed to perform and it’s supposed to be the debut performance of Ariel, the youngest daughter. But Ariel is missing.
So, we’ve established all these characters. We still have not yet met Ariel.
John: We get to a little kind of throwaway song called the Daughters of Triton. And when we get to the last verse that she’s supposed to sing, she’s not there. It’s like, “Where’s Ariel?” Classically cut to: there’s Ariel.
We’re five minutes into the movie but we have not met our named character, the Little Mermaid character.
Craig: Which I like, actually. I kind of like the notion that we’re going to meet our surrounding cast of characters very, very quickly, get them completely out of the way, on their own separate from the hero, and then we meet the hero. Because the whole point of this movie is that the hero feels apart from everybody around her. So, it makes sense that she’s not there with them. She’s there in spirit. I mean, there’s this little line where Sebastian says, “She’s got the most beautiful voice, if only she would show up to rehearsals.” We get it. She’s rebellious, you know. She doesn’t fit in.
So, I like that. She shouldn’t have been there in that opening scene.
John: Yes. And the song itself, like “She’s got a voice just like a bell.” It’s all about her even though she’s not there.
John: So, therefore when we cut to her, the next thing we should see is Ariel. If we were to cut to anything other than Ariel we would throw something at the screen. We need to see her at this point.
John: We see Ariel and Flounder, her best friend the fish, exploring a shipwreck. And so this is establishing who she is and who he is. She is very curious. She will go and explore things and she’ll go places where she’s not supposed to go. Flounder is more classically the wet blanket. He says, “No, we shouldn’t go in there. This isn’t safe.”
He’s the comic relief but also sort of the voice of reason to some degree.
Craig: Yeah. I have to say that one of my… — There are things that I look at in this movie and I think, okay, there is a mistake here. And you could see that Ron and John got better at this. Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast are better movies than this movie…
John: I agree.
Craig: But, so, not to pick on them because they’re amazing and this was kind of a ground-breaking film, so you have to give them a few mulligans here. Flounder is a bad character. Flounder has no personality really. He is vaguely cowardice. Sort of vaguely amusing. He’s her friend. Maybe he talks a little bit too much. But, the truth is everything about him is duplicated by Sebastian. So, he tends to blab and get her in trouble. He’s over-cautious. He kind of doesn’t need to — he’s not distinct.
John: Yeah. He’s basically there so Ariel has someone to talk to.
John: And here’s the secret about Flounder and Sebastian. Flounder is a fish, so Flounder can’t get out of the water. Sebastian is a crab, so crabs can go up on land. And so when we get to the second half of the movie where we’re up on land, Sebastian can do things and Flounder is stuck in the water and has to swim along in a canal. It’s not useful to us.
Craig: Yeah, I know, and they kind of got jammed there by the water thing. You can see that, because Sebastian is just a much funnier, more interesting character. Granted, I think today you would struggle to get away with that Jamaican accent. You know, we live in a different time now. It’s not racist, it’s just I think that there’s a sensitivity to that now that didn’t exist back then. People had no problem laughing along with something like that and nowadays it seems like they do.
John: I don’t think actually Sebastian is all that minstrelsy, if that’s the concern. I mean, it’s nothing compared to sort of what you see in the Transformers movies.
Craig: No, but for instance that thing that happened in the Transformers movies with the weird ghetto robots, that was kind of racist and people did not like that. This isn’t, it’s just that — I guess the way I would put it is this: I feel like anything that puts something between you and the audience, whether it’s justified or not, is to be avoided.
And when I’m watching it now, it’s funny. I remember seeing this movie in theaters and not blinking twice at this. And now when I watch it I blink a little bit like, huh.
John: See, Sebastian is the C-3PO of our story.
John: He’s like the cautious, “Oh, we can’t go there, we can’t go there.” But Flounder isn’t really even R2D2. He’s just like this little immature fish who swims around with her. And I have no idea what Flounder actually wants. And you should want him to want something.
Craig: Yeah, Sebastian — awesome and interesting, albeit a little minstrelsy. Flounder — kind of a zero. But, that leads us to…
John: Well, let’s talk about sort of what happens in the shipwreck. So, in the shipwreck they find some things and you see that she’s always trying to pick up stuff and explore and gather stuff. And she finds a fork and a pipe and she doesn’t know what they are. And she sort of misassumes what they are. And that becomes a recurring gag.
And so it’s not just that she found any human things, she’s found those specific things, and those things are going to — in a very classic comedy way — pay off three times.
John: So, inside that ship there’s also a shark attack. We see that there is danger in the world. She out-swims it. It’s not an amazing sequence…
John: …but it establishes there is some action and danger in the world.
Craig: It’s actually a bad sequence because it is establishing danger that is irrelevant. It felt like they just jammed in some action to jam it in, because the truth is the danger that the movie establishes in a much better way later on when Sebastian sings Under the Sea is the danger of humans to mer people. We shouldn’t perceive danger from sharks in this movie because the shark will never appear again, nor will sharks appear again in general. Nor will predation really appear in any specific way.
So, it felt, frankly, unnecessary.
John: Tacked in a bit. The next character we meet is Scuttle who is this idiot seagull who lives up on the rocks. He’s our first character we sort of talk to who’s above ground. And we establish at this point that Ariel can talk to every animal in this world. And that’s sort of — actually, that’s not true. She can talk to all the sea animals in the world, I guess, is the rule.
John: Scuttle takes a look at the things she brings up and says like, “Oh, that fork is a dingle hopper. It’s for combing your hair and the pipe is an instrument they use to blow.” And he has no idea what’s going on.
It’s as she’s talking with Scuttle that she realizes, “Oh no, I forgot the concert!” and so she races back to get to the kingdom. It’s also here that we first establish the idea of Flotsam and Jetsam, who are these two eels, these who evil eels who swim around and will cause havoc for our heroine.
Craig: Well, and I think we immediately then go to — we establish that as they watch her, each one of them has one orange or yellow eye, and those become the sort of psychic vision of Ursula, our villain, and I think we go right to her at that point.
John: We do.
Craig: She does a little quick thing. And so it’s great because in any kind of story like this you’re getting an enormous amount of information very quickly. We’ve established the two separate worlds, the separation of the worlds, the existence of a king, and Sebastian, and a daughter who is the fifth of five daughters who is young, who is rebellious, who hasn’t shown up, who in fact is obsessed with the human world and her friend Flounder. And there’s a seagull up top who’s trying to explain the human world to her but he doesn’t know how it works. And oh my god, I’m late for this, I’ve got to get back. And what are we, like probably minute six, and now, oh my gosh, here’s a villain. And she’s great.
And when movies pile this much in and somehow avoid overstressing your brain, you start to feel like you’re listening to a really good song with lots of themes and lots of changes and not something that’s just going to be a repetitive beat.
And Ursula is, in my estimation, the best thing about this movie. She may be the best Disney villain ever.
John: She’s a fantastic villain.
Craig: Spectacular. And when we get to her song, we should also talk about the existence — there’s a song that they did for the Broadway version which is — I wish were in this movie, because it’s an incredible song.
John: Let’s talk about what we learn about Ursula at this point. So, we learn from Ursula that she used to live in the palace and she’s somehow banished from there. She uses the word banished. And that she has some vague kind of plan. She wants to get back in. And after seeing Ariel and Ariel going up to the surface, she says, “She may be the key to Triton’s undoing.” So, she has a vengeance against Triton and she wants to use our Little Mermaid heroine to do that.
Craig: And actually I should say this is — in the musical, in the stage musical she sings a song, I believe the title is let’s bring the good times back, where she sings about the good times that are gone and past when she did live in the palace. And she describes what life was like when she was in charge. And now she’s saying, “Let’s bring those good times back.”
And it’s such a great explanation of her motivation. You can take jealousy or power hunger. That’s a very flat sort of thing, you know, hunger for power. But this lady doesn’t just hunger for power. She’s wickedly passionate. She believes that those were the good times and she wants them back. So, I love that.
John: Yeah. So, she doesn’t get to sing her “I want” song here, but she does communicate what her ambitions are.
John: Ariel goes back to the palace. Triton, her dad, finds out that she was up at the surface where the humans can see her. He’s pissed off at her. “Not another word,” he says to her.
At this point we’ve musically introduced the idea, the musical theme of Part of Your World many, many times. We have not actually sung it. It’s not until we get to — so, Triton assigns Sebastian, like, “Keep an eye on Ariel. I want to make sure she stays away from those humans.
We follow Ariel to the secret cave which is where she keeps all of the human stuff that she finds. It’s in that cave where we sing maybe one of the great “I want” songs, which is Part of Your World.
Craig: Yes, including the lyric “I wanna.”
John: “I wanna.” Yes. So, this is a thing to talk about sort of in musicals overall, and this is being one of the sort of seminal animated musicals, is that idea of first song establishes the world. So, Fathoms Below, even though we don’t use a lot of it.
Second song, or quite early on song needs to be the lead character singing “I want.” And let us know clearly what it is the character is trying to achieve in the course of the story. So, she sings, “I want to be part of that world.” And interesting she says, the song is called Part of Your World, but it’s actually “part of that world” is what she sings most of the time.
Craig: Right. “That world.”
John: So, she’s around all this human stuff and she wants to be up there where people can dance and she doesn’t even understand what that world is but she knows she wants to be a part of it.
Craig: Mm-hmmm. Yeah. She does. And it is, first of all, let’s hang our heads for the late, great Howard Ashman who was simply the best at this. I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone come close to his ability to not only lyrically be clever, but also lyrically to express things like these simple desires in a way that was so fresh and captivating and honest. Her passion here is the passion of an innocent person, which is the best kind of passion, so we find her ignorance adorable.
There are little animated touches that Ron and John do. While she’s singing she gracefully plants the fork in a candelabra because she thinks that maybe that’s where it goes. And they just do that sort of back-grounded as she’s singing the song. But there’s a yearning to it that is gorgeous because it’s not, “I want something that I suppose I can have with effort.”
It’s, “I want something I can’t have at all. I’m a fish. That’s there, I’m here.” And it’s sort of heartbreaking but it also sets up why she would be willing to go through terrible lengths to achieve what she wants.
John: Yes. And as the song is mostly concluded, a boat sails overhead, a shadow of a boat sails overhead, and that is Prince Eric’s boat. She swims up to see Prince Eric’s boat. So, we reestablish Eric, the guy who we started at the head of the movie. We see more about his dog, Max, who is like a big sheepdog who is very classically a Disney dog.
John: Just like a great dog who doesn’t talk, has no magical powers, just is a great dog. He starts to sniff out that, like, oh, there’s a mermaid there. But, of course, he can’t say anything.
Craig: No. It’s like a classic Disney dog that barks happily and licks the faces of people with good intentions and growls at people with bad intentions. [laughs] It’s just perfect.
John: And so Max’s function is largely to let us know that Eric is a great guy, because what’s going to happen is really the inciting incident of our film which is the storm. This giant storm suddenly rears up, destroys the ship. The ship catches fire. Eric goes back to the ship to rescue his dog Max. Talk about a hero.
John: He goes back to rescue his dog.
John: Goes back to rescue his dog. The ship blows up because of the cannons. Eric is knocked overboard. Ariel saves him.
John: Ariel pulls him to shore. Rescues him/saves him. She sings the reprise of Part of Your World, which actually she says Part of YOUR world now, and she wants to be with HIM. So, it’s gone from a general sense of like I want to be up on the surface to like I want to be wherever he is is where I want to be.
John: And then swims off as Max and Grimsby find Eric there on the beach.
Craig: Right. So, a couple of things. First off, we’ve got, of all the stuff that we sort of laid out there, including songs and action set pieces and meeting all these characters, that lightning storm happens at 22 minutes. So, it’s incredible how much they’ve jammed in to 22 minutes without feeling like it’s overstuffed or too rushed.
When she’s looking at him on the boat, the movie changes permanently to a romance. So, for the first 22 minutes it really is a story about a young woman who is struggling with her father’s inability to let her kind of wander off and experience life the way she wants to experience it. In that regard it’s very similar to Finding Nemo.
We can see parallels between this movie and Finding Nemo. Obviously they both take place under the water. And they are both about parents struggling with children who want to be free. Those parallels end pretty quickly right here on the 22nd minute when she just gets all googly-eyed for Eric.
And this is one of the lines in the sand where we can look at the Pixar era and this early Disney era… – Early Disney era? You and I were already grown men! — [laughs] But these Disney movies of the revitalization of the Disney era that started with The Little Mermaid was a fairytale princess and prince-oriented romantic era.
And so the stories are both buoyed and dragged down by the emphasis on straight ahead googly-eyed romance. It’s love at first sight which is a very simple, frankly not true, thing. And, also, the story then takes on a very adolescent nature. It is very much about a young woman who just wants to get a guy and has to figure out how to do it. And this is not a particularly feminist movie. We’ll see that as we go along.
But, anyway, this is the big change. I’ll say one other thing. When he washes up on shore and she’s cradling him and he’s kind of passed out, it is a very iconic representation of an adolescent fantasy. It is the fantasy of being found and being taken care of by a woman. It is the fantasy of finding and taking care of a helpless man. There is something about that, that kind of patient/nurse thing that is very ingrained in us in a sort of Jungian way.
And, also, I have to say one of the great comic takes in film history is when she’s holding him like this and you cut to Sebastian and his jaw drops and hits the rock with a clang.
Craig: It is just a great example of how funny animation can be. And now it seems just a little corny, I suppose, but in its time it was spectacular. I mean, I remember the audience losing their minds.
John: Now, it’s important to note that this inciting incident, it changed the course of the story. It’s like that Passover Principle of like why today is like no other day, that everything is different. But unlike Finding Nemo, where Nemo gets pulled off and gets pulled away from his situation, she doesn’t get pulled away. It’s just that her ambition changes. Her ambition and her focus changes.
And she’s not going to be willing to live under the sea anymore. But it’s not like the storm pulled her away from her family or anything like that. It’s that her goals have changed. And because of that she is going to change the story, which is notable.
John: So, if we had introduced the story, if we’d established the romance from the very start, like if she had seen Prince Eric on page 5, this would be a different thing because it would have been about just her wanting to be with this cute boy. Because we’ve established that she overall wants to get up to the surface and wants to live that life, it has a — I don’t know — I feel better we’re out in the movie, that it’s not just this teenage romance.
Craig: I agree. And all that stuff has kind of led to her conundrum. What we’ve established with the pre-romantic moment movie is that she can’t be part of their world regardless of love, because she’s a mermaid, she’s a fish, she doesn’t have legs.
I mean, she makes a big deal about legs and feet and walking in the sun. Really, it’s interesting how Ron and John really smartly specified her problem down to legs. Because she can breathe above water just fine. We see that. It’s just she doesn’t have legs. So, when she runs away from him, she’s aware that she can’t be with him if she has a fish bottom. She needs legs.
And in her mind, at this point in the movie all she knows is I can’t be with him because I don’t have legs. I really wish I could be with him. But they haven’t gone any further than that.
John: Specifically she sings, “What would I pay to stay here beside you?”
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: Which is what she will do. She’ll pay with her soul.
Craig: Right. She hasn’t imagined that it’s even a possibility. It’s funny; she’s not depressed at all. When she goes back down under the ocean, she’s the opposite of depressed. The next thing we see is she’s like super duper in love girl, like la-da-da-da, swimming around, singing. Her sisters tell the dad, “Oh boy, she’s in love.”
John: Before we get under water, though, Ursula sees her up on the shore. And that, I think, is an important point to make. So, Flotsam and Jetsam have watched this, too. And we cut to Ursula who is forming a plan. And this is also a moment where we introduce what Ursula actually does. And she has this garden of souls, which is really disturbing.
John: And it was even disturbing watching it again as a grownup, because essentially these mer folk who have come to her — we’ll learn the specifics in the song in a little bit — but these mer-folk who have come to her asking for favors have invariably gotten their souls caught by her. And they are these little wretched newt things that are sort of stuck in the sand and are pathetic. And that’s the danger that we’ve established at this moment.
John: And that’s the danger that we’ve established at this moment.
Craig: Yes. And it was great to bring her back, again. You almost forget that she’s there and then there she is again. So, we just think, “Boy, there’s a lot going on dramatically in this story.”
It’s one of the reasons why Star Wars, I think, captivates kids even now today. Ariel and Luke Skywalker are essentially the same person. They’re both saying, I want to be part of that world up there, with the two suns, or up there by the beach. And then you get into that character drama and then you go, “Oh, wait, but also there’s Darth Vader.”
Same thing with Titanic. Watching these two people fall in love, I want to be part of his world. Oh, wait, there’s also an iceberg. Exciting.
John: Exciting. So, under the sea we see that the sisters have recognized that, oh, that girl is in love. Triton is like, “Oh, she’s in love? Well, Sebastian should know about this.” So he asks Sebastian. Sebastian is like, “Ah, la, la, la.” He’s sort of yada-yada-ing, like trying not to spill the beans.
And Sebastian is trying to convince Ariel like, “I know you like that boy up here, but everything is much better under the sea, which becomes Under the Sea, which is a very classic, iconic number from the show, which is again trying to establish why our world underneath here is better than the world above.
John: And this is the one I think actually got the Grammy nominations and sort of the acclaim at the time.
Craig: And they did an amazing job. It is an amazing song. Remarkably clever lyrics. There is, when you first start to listen to it you think this doesn’t need to be in the movie because we know that we’re under the sea and obviously they’ve been saying over and over that you shouldn’t go up there. So, why are we singing another song about how it’s better down here?
And then if you listen to the lyrics, they take a shift, and Sebastian starts singing about what it’s like up there. Up there they eat you. They fry you. They put you in fricassee. They chop you to bits. It’s a violent world up there to people like them.
So, even though the song is called Under the Sea, “come down here where it’s hotter and it’s more fun,” it’s not a song about home is great. What it really is a song about is stay away from the dangerous world up there. It’s a song of warning disguised as a calypso romp.
John: Yeah. Ariel and Flounder take off in the middle of this giant production number and Sebastian finishes the production number and realizes that, oh crap, they’re gone.
Triton summons him to say, like, “So tell me the specifics of who it is that she’s in love with.” Sebastian says, “Ah, la, la, la,” and finally gets the word out of it.
We’re in Ariel’s cave and Flounder has rescued this — somehow rescued sort of magically — this giant statue of Eric…
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, I’m not quite sure how he did that.
John: Flounder had the help of a bunch of octopuses I guess? They sort of rescued the statue and brought it down.
Craig: He used a system of pulleys.
John: And this is a moment that I honestly felt went on too long and could have been trimmed down a bit. But, anyway, Triton comes and finds the cave and says, “You cannot go up with those humans anymore. I’m furious.” And he uses his trident to zap and fry all of the stuff that she’s gathered from places.
Now, I think it’s important that the father freak out, because when your father abandons you, the one man who you’re supposed to be safe with, when he gets scary and violent, it’s understandable that she’s going to run away.
John: It just went on a little long for me here.
Craig: I personally thought, it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, only because there is something legitimate about his anger. And I always think about these movies, particularly these coming of age stories… — Well, if you look at Nemo, Nemo is the story about a parent. Nemo is a movie for parents about parenting. Kids enjoy it. They don’t realize that they’re watching a story about parenting, but they are.
This movie is a story about growing up. It is from the kid’s perspective. And when your father yells at you and you are smaller, that’s what it seems like to me. You know, that suddenly your dad gets big and orangey reddish and starts shooting fire. And she’s afraid of him. She is legitimately afraid of him.
And, of course, he’s blowing up the stuff that she’s gathered and she’s very upset because they mean something to her and they mean nothing to him. But, it all leads up to the final, you know, the crescendo that builds to the climax of him destroying the statue of Eric, which will then payback in this fascinating way.
This little moment where after he leaves, and he leaves, and Ron and John do a great job of showing that he’s remorseful. Every time he yells at her he walks away like, “Oh, maybe I overdid it.”
So, she’s upset and then along come Flotsam and Jetsam. And they’re there to say to her…
John: “There may be a way that you can get up there.”
John: “Have you heard of Ursula, like the sea witch?”
“Well, I couldn’t possibly.”
And it’s like, “Well, you possibly could. What’s the harm? You could at least talk with her.”
Craig: Right. And she’s sort of, you know, because everybody knows you don’t talk to Ursula the Sea Witch. She’s scary and she’s bad. And so Ariel properly is resisting this. So, okay, she’s not a dummy. But, as they’re kind of saying, “Oh, you know, she’s not that bad. And she could really help you out,” The face, Eric’s face from the statue, floats down and lands in the sand right next to her.
And she goes, “Okay, yeah, I think I’m going to go.” Because then it really is like, I love him, and I’m angry at daddy. And screw it. Let’s go talk to the sea witch and see how that goes.
And what’s interesting is we have a movie where the hero and the villain don’t meet eye to eye until minute 37, which is probably about halfway through this thing.
John: Yeah, it is. And so I would say overall as I was keeping track of time in this, it was like, “Ooh, things are happening a little bit later than I would have expected them to happen.” I don’t necessarily know that I wanted to rush through anything faster than this.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But it’s strange though that in a movie that is actually pretty short because it’s an animated movie, it’s a very, very long first act. This movie is essentially a first act and a second act.
Craig: It is musical structure, no question. No question. It’s a musical structure movie. It’s a two-act movie. You can see where the curtain comes down for intermission. We’re about to get there.
John: So, Ariel goes to see the sea witch, Ursula. This is where we have Poor Unfortunate Souls which is a song that Ursula sings that explains sort of what she does, which is that people come to her with problems, this one wants to be thin, and this one wants to get the girl. Do I help them, yes indeed.
And, of course, sometimes they can’t pay the price and therefore they become these wretched — this wretched soul garden that she has. But this won’t happen to Ariel because, you know, because it won’t. And so this is where Ursula sets up the rules that in exchange for her voice she will have legs and she can go up to the surface. And she has three days in which to get true love’s kiss from the prince. And if she can do that then she’s fine; if not, then, well, she’s risking her soul.
Craig: That’s exactly right. So, first, let’s talk about the song. Amazing. I mean, it’s so campy and wonderful. And this is, it’s just, I don’t know how you do better than this.
The first time we meet her actually, going way back to the beginning, Ursula is complaining about how she’s starving, and she’s just obese, like super big boozy old lady. It’s just great.
John: Modeled on Divine, the drag queen.
Craig: Big time. And the whole thing is just a very gay, campy presentation of this bigger than life woman. And the song title itself is spectacular. Poor Unfortunate Souls. You come to me and I help you because of your poor unfortunate souls. But what ends up happening to all of you. You all end up basically getting hoisted by your own petard. I get you. And now you are my own Poor Unfortunate Souls. And I literally have your souls now and they are poor and unfortunate. It’s a great little double entendre.
The song itself is kind of a masterpiece of seduction. This old woman, you know, here’s this young girl who is uncertain about her sexuality. She’s met a boy for the first time but he’s not a fish boy. He’s a human boy. And I don’t know what to do and my daddy is angry at me. It’s just classic sort of stuff.
And what does Ursula do? She slithers out of her big shell. She immediately puts on some makeup. She’s a woman. You know what I mean? As she sings this song she’s very enticing, like baby this is who it is to be a woman. These are the things we do. I understand that this is love and the things we do for love, but you’ll get your man. You know, she’s this big thing.
And then she tells Ariel she has to take her voice, she’s like, well then, “How am I going to get a man without a voice?” And she says, “Oh, you use that pretty face.”
John: “Body language.”
Craig: “Body language.” I mean, this big… — It’s just all about sort of the bad, bad mommy. And it’s about kind of taking advantage of this youthful girl. And so it’s this perfect little presentation of how to be a villain and how to be a seductive villain. And it’s so important that you be a seductive villain here so that we believe that Ariel is doing this because she’s been convinced, you know.
John: Well, the other important lesson here for screenwriting, though, is Ariel is making an irrevocable choice. I mean, what Ursula says is, “Life’s full of touch choices, innit?”
Craig: She goes, “Innit?”
John: Either you do this or you don’t get it at all. And if you do this there’s no going back. And so you’re going to lose your fins and you’re going to swim to the surface and that’s it. And that’s an important lesson to learn, because so often you’ll see stories in which characters are allowed to take these little sort of half steps. And you always feel like could go back home at any point. But, no, Ariel is essentially burning down her house.
She is changing her body permanently so she can go on to this next part of the story. And that’s an important lesson to learn.
Craig: Yes. And we’ll come back to this, sort of the ending. It always reminds me of the end of Grease where it turns out if you just put on the stretch pants and get a perm you can get a guy. That appears the lesson of that movie. The lesson of this movie is legs definitely help you get a dude.
But, for those of you who are looking for lessons here on how to apply any of this stuff to your own writing, there’s a little moment in this song that is a great example of how to both compress what you’re doing and layer it and enhance it by doing that.
We know that Ursula is a sea witch and she’s saying I can whip up a potion to do this. She starts making the potion while she’s convincing Ariel to still do it. She’s making the potion while Ariel is saying, “I’m not sure.” So, she is both convincing her and making the potion, which is very visual. And by making the potion almost like this is happening, kiddo. [laughs] You know? Get on board. It becomes a very smart confluence of lyric, seduction, character intention, and visuals.
John: Agreed. It’s a question of thinking about not then the character doe this. It’s like while the character is doing this. So, if you have characters, I mean, most movies you’re not going to have characters singing, but characters are going to be talking and doing other stuff. Well, don’t have them stand there and talk to the person straight on. They can be doing the thing that they’re talking about doing and present them with a finished choice rather than having to stop and make the potion.
John: So, we’re 43 minutes into the movie.
Craig: Let’s drop the curtain. It’s time for Act Two. [laughs]
John: Yeah. Ariel becomes a human. And that really is very much a classic act break.
John: And what I had forgotten about the movie is that Ariel becomes human and suddenly she cannot be underwater. And so it’s only with the help of Flounder and Sebastian that she’s able to get up to the surface in time so she doesn’t drown. That was just a lovely, nice choice.
Craig: Correct. And for those of us who are into mermaids, and I am, I mean, she’s hot. Ariel is hot. I mean, okay, fine, whatever, she’s 16. But she’s not real, so I don’t feel like I’m really being gross about it. She was a hot mermaid. And she wears this little shell bra, but then her body, she doesn’t have to wear pants because she’s got a fish bottom. But when she gets out of the water…
John: But now she’s naked.
Craig: …she’s naked. And they do a really good job of cutting around her pelvis. It’s very frustrating. And then they eventually put clothes on her.
John: So, she gets up to the surface. Up at the surface we see Eric. He’s playing the melody of Part of Your World, I think.
Craig: I believe he’s actually… [hums]
John: [hums] Oh, he’s playing the same version. [hums]
Craig: Which is derived from Part of Your World.
John: Sebastian, while up at the surface, Sebastian is trying to, again, convince Ariel to go back. Maybe your father can save this, stop this somehow. But finally he agrees to help her.
This is, again, sort of Sebastian being C-3PO. Like, “No, no, no, we shouldn’t do this, we shouldn’t do this. Okay, fine, well then I’m going to help you because you’re helpless.”
Max finds her. Max the dog finds her. We have established that she can’t speak. That she’s really pretty but she can’t speak.
Craig: And therefore she can’t be the girl that he remembered, because the girl who rescued him had this wonderful voice.
John: Exactly. Yes. So, she’s lovely and all, but she can’t be that girl.
We dress her in some sail cloth and we send her off to the palace. She takes a bubble bath. We have dinner and the advisor, Grimsby. We re-payoff the fork and the pipe.
John: She tries to use the fork at dinner and she tries to use the pipe and doesn’t know what it is. So, she seems really kooky and wacky because she doesn’t know what these things are.
I would honestly say that my least favorite part of this movie is Ariel on the surface.
Craig: No question.
John: The fish out of water. Because she comes off as very much the manic pixie dream girl. And this is a girl who worked really hard underneath the sea and on the land she just doesn’t sort of put the pieces together. We don’t see her being smart on the land.
Craig: Yeah. A bunch of things happen to really make this the saggiest part of the movie. It’s hard to trump “I’ve just turned you into a human.” You know, that’s a big deal.
We’ve taken away her voice. It is necessary for the story, but it also then naturally turns her character into kind of a silent movie goofball. And the fact that Eric takes her in and she has the wishful foam and bubble bath and the fancy dress gets put on. And, you know, she’s at dinner with this guy she’s in love with. It’s getting very super rom-com-y. It’s played for goofs. And then, unfortunately, we get the song Les Poissons.
Now, I love Les Poissons…
John: But it’s just a song.
Craig: It’s just a song.
John: It’s just a musical number.
John: So, this is just a song in which the cook is talking about all the fish that he’s going to put into the stew and he tries to kill Sebastian. And it’s a payoff I guess to the idea of how dangerous the world is up above. It’s what Sebastian said before. But it’s not all that useful.
Craig: It’s not, because the truth is that danger for her is gone. She has legs now. So, no one is going to cook her. Sebastian is there because he’s watching her. The song, Les Poissons, is incredibly clever. I mean, really smart wordplay. And the sequence is entirely for laughs, although it gets a little gory and creepy in it. But the biggest issue with it is it could just be lifted from the movie entirely and the story wouldn’t change.
John: Nothing would change one bit.
Craig: But, you know, I guarantee you that it was one of the top rated songs and a crowd favorite and that’s why they’re keeping it.
John: Yeah. But, again, it’s pointing out the fact that she doesn’t have anything to do and she’s not actually trying to do anything.
John: We’ve established this rule that she has three days to do it, but — I’m not spoiling anything to the movie we’re about to talk through — she doesn’t do anything. She’s not trying to do anything. And it’s a weird case where like you don’t want her to try too hard because then it’s not really true love. At the same time, you want to see her sort of making more of an effort. Instead, everyone around her is trying to make an effort to make this happen, including this next song, Kiss the Girl, which is a better number. At least it’s on story point, which is a number led by Sebastian where he’s trying to get all the other animals to sing the song and make the most romantic moment possible so that Eric will actually kiss her.
John: And so it’s this boat ride and it’s lovely. To me, this also went on a little bit long.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a romantic thing and they almost kiss and all the rest of it. What you’re starting to feel the burden of is her lack of choices. And, yes, she doesn’t have a voice, but she also isn’t making a choice either. She makes one huge choice, “Turn me into a human.” Once she does that, she makes no choice again for the rest of the movie.
And this where you can see Ron and John getting much, much better with Aladdin and with Beauty and the Beast. And Disney movies to follow as well, Pocahontas and so forth. And certainly the Pixar movies take it to another level. But we are now firmly in fairy tale-ville, where we started with this really kind of self-directed aspirational female character who is now curiously sort of as she physically evolved, emotionally devolved into passive and moony faced.
She will not choose anything again. She will not learn anything for the rest of the movie. And this is my, you know, when we get to the end we’ll sort of talk like who is the hero of this movie? It’s actually kind of hard to figure out because thematically it’s quite thin. And in terms of choices it becomes very, very thin. It becomes a very plot-oriented movie in the second act.
John: So, spit-balling, but I would say if you were to rebuild this in a way so that this second act could actually have something for her to do, if on the surface there was something that they were planning on doing that was going to hurt the kingdom or it would have some greater impact on the world that she discovers while she’s up there and needs to involve herself to stop it. That she needs to be selfless to stop it. That would be showing her making some choices. And complicated by the fact that she can’t speak and therefore can’t do these things.
John: But instead it’s just, you know, be pretty so that he’ll kiss you. And that’s not a playable action.
Craig: It’s not. And it gets papered over by this beautiful song — it’s actually a beautiful song — and again, Menken and Ashman, just an incredible job. You know, now that I think about it, it becomes evident and I’m just sort of racing ahead here to the end, but it becomes evident that really King Triton is the protagonist of the movie. And he’s the person who sort of articulates an anti-theme and a theme and makes the biggest choices. He makes a choice of sacrifice. And he makes a choice of ultimate sacrifice at the end.
Which is interesting, because I’m sure when I watched the movie I thought it was her, but I don’t think it is.
John: Yeah, not every father is going to have to give up his soul, but every father is going to have to give up his daughter.
Craig: Right. And he chooses to do both, right.
John: Yeah, that’s thematic choice.
So, specifically what’s happening here, so we have this Kiss the Girl sequence. They almost kiss. They don’t quite kiss. Flotsam and Jetsam sort of rock the boat at the last moment. Ursula realizes, oh no, this is getting too close, she’s actually going to get the kiss, so she’s going to have to get more involved. And we see Ursula casting this great spell. And she’s going to use the voice that she has from Ariel to win over this guy.
Craig: Right. She transforms herself into this beautiful girl and because she has the voice, and this is also one of the things I wasn’t quite thrilled with — Eric sees this beautiful girl who has this voice that he remembered, but that’s not what convinces him to marry her. What convinces him is she basically puts a spell on him to marry her.
John: Yeah. It’s like a hat on a hat. So, is it because she has the voice and is beautiful, or is it because he’s charmed. And they sort of do both. Like you see his eyes change colors and such.
Craig: Right. And he talks robot language.
John: Robotically. Not the strongest moment here. So, I think you’ve got to pick one or pick the other.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s also, frankly, it’s a little annoying that she’s cheating, Ursula is cheating. And by cheating, you start to feel like, well, okay, I bought into all these roles. It’s not fair that you’re cheating. And our hero, or our presumable hero, still isn’t making any choices. In fact, she just sort of gets cast aside.
John: So, an option here, which I’m not sure is a better option, but would have been an option. If we established that there was another princess, like the girl who he’s supposed to love, he’s supposed to marry, and then Ursula went to that girl and gave her this thing, or appeared as that girl, and it’s someone who’s established in this world. And it’s like, “Oh, I thought you actually were this girl the whole time,” then that would be more reasonable. So, there’s already a rival romantic interest.
But instead it’s just like a girl who shows up from nowhere who suddenly he’s going to get married to. And the news that he’s going to get married to, it’s kind of interesting, but it’s kind of — again, points out sort of how disconnected Ariel is from her own story at this point.
John: Scuttle, the seagull, shows up in her bedroom one morning and says, “Great news, kid. There’s going to be a royal wedding.” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s great, that’s fantastic. He’s going to marry me.” No, no, he’s going to marry this other girl. It’s like, really? You are that disconnected from the whole story that you didn’t realize that he’d met this other girl and this other thing was going to happen? Frustrating.
Craig: I know. It is. And you’re just starting to feel the burden of the fact that she’s so passive here. And there’s this attempt at a wedding. The sea creatures rally together to disrupt it. She fights her way back on board. In the melee the little shell with Ariel’s voice gets knocked off of Hot Ursula’s neck, lands by Ariel’s feet.
Ariel gets her voice back. Eric runs over. “Oh my god, it was you the whole time.” They’re about to kiss and the sun goes down. And she turns back into a mermaid. Which, you know, I have to say, okay, great, because I’m sure at some point somebody said, “They kiss and she lives happily ever after.” And that would have been boring.
And then Ursula goes nuts.
John: Let’s talk about that, because we do split into three action threads here as we get into the royal wedding sequence, which are worth discussing. And none of them worked brilliantly, but they were definitely the right ideas.
First off, Flounder and Ariel are going to go towards the boat. So, the wedding is going to happen on this boat. And Ariel and Flounder are going to be on the boat. Well, she can’t swim, which I think is such an interesting idea. So, she’s this mermaid who can’t swim, so she’s on this barrel and Flounder has to pull her.
John: It doesn’t really quite work, but it’s the right idea.
Sebastian goes to tell Triton and to get Triton involved. That’s the right idea. And Scuttle goes to lead the other birds and other animals to try to disrupt the wedding, which is a good comedy idea. So, those are all the kind of general right ideas. And Scuttle is the one who actually figured out that Vanessa was in fact the sea witch and what all was happening.
Again, the fact that this minor character has such a more important role than Ariel at this point is frustrating and is an indication that something is not working quite right.
John: That’s what’s going to try to happen. Triton, this is where we get to the point of Triton makes the ultimate sacrifice. He says like, “Instead of taking my daughter’s soul you can take my soul,” which is, of course, what Ursula wants more than anything else.
John: So, he’s willing to take his daughter’s place in this. Ursula will get his trident and his crown. And in a surprising amount of new power becomes this giant monstrous creature who rises from the ocean.
Craig: Correct. She does. She rises from the ocean. She’s at first sort of just delighted that she’s back in power. But, Eric, who has decided he’s not going to let Ariel go again, so everybody’s more active than Ariel at this point, swims down and kind of jabs her in the leg.
And that makes Ursula super angry. She tries to kill him by shooting her trident and in doing so misses. I think Ariel knocks into her, she misses. And she kills Flotsam and Jetsam instead. And this gets her super angry and she turns into this big, huge, crazy octopus monster thing.
John: Yeah. Eric pulls the ship around and rams her with the front of the ship, the sort of mermaid front of the ship. And kills Ursula with the front of the ship. And Ursula dies.
In Ursula’s death her magic is undone. Triton returns. The poor unfortunate souls return. And order is once again restored to things. Ariel is still a mermaid until…
Craig: Well, wait, hold on. Let’s point out that there is an entire climax and Ariel did noting.
Craig: Nothing. She did nothing. She sat there and watched it like we did, which I have to say is the part of this that’s sort of for girls was frustrating for me. That this very promising young woman turned into sort of a helpless passerby. And, you know, I didn’t like that that much. I should point out that there’s, just aside from all this, one of the strangest moments in animation history is when Ursula is dying and gets kind of like hit by lightning, and we see her skeleton inside of her body.
And she has a fat skeleton. [laughs] It’s fascinating.
John: [laughs] Nothing better than a fat skeleton.
Yes, these are my concerns as well. And so this may be apocryphal, I don’t know if it’s actually true. The story is that, I mean, the ending of the movie was originally quite a bit different. And Katzenberg saw Die Hard and came back and said, “The ending must be much, much, much bigger.” And so they threw out the last reel and wrote a much bigger ending.
And I can tend to believe that in a sense of like the movie’s scale suddenly increases hugely beyond where it had been anywhere before. And it doesn’t kind of track logically how some of this all fits together. First off, like why is she so powerful?
John: Why does the trident give her so much more power than Triton seems to have? Also, why did no one kill the witch before now? I mean, if she was out there and she was killable, why did no one try to kill her before now? It raised sort of strange questions for me.
John: And it felt out of scale. And also there’s got to be a solution in which Ariel can actually do something.
Craig: To me that’s the biggest one. I mean, look, you’re right. There are some logic issues there. You could sort of presuppose that because she’s a very magical person, if you combine her already powerful magic with the trident then maybe she could do all of this stuff.
She’s killed by, she creates a whirlpool and Eric rides a kind of dredged up wreck of a ship upwards through the whirlpool and then basically steers the prow into her. So, that’s a pretty big thing to kill her. But, yeah, she’s killable. But my biggest issue is just that Ariel is not doing anything.
By the way, neither is Triton. That’s the other thing. I mean, either she’s the protagonist, or Triton is the protagonist. I kind of think Triton is. Either way, one of the two of them has to do something here. Instead we have Eric doing it.
John: Triton at this point, he’s a soul in the garden though.
John: He’s already given up. So, he’s a little worm guy.
Craig: He can’t do anything. She can do something.
John: But, by the way, who’s in our movie that’s not doing anything important. Ariel, first and foremost. Sebastian. Flounder, who’s kind of useless, but Flounder should do something. And there’s all these characters who we established could and should do something, or the sisters even had been better established.
These people should be doing something and they’re not getting a chance to do anything. And that is a frustration that comes out. And it just feels really rushed because it honestly is rushed, partly because it’s an animated movie and there’s an expectation about how long an animated movie can last.
Craig: Well, sure…
John: Kids can only go so long without having to run to the bathroom.
Craig: But I think that what we’re dealing with here is the climax ultimately feels a little meaningless because we’ve run out of thematic juice. When you look at the climax of Finding Nemo, Marlin sends Nemo into that big fishing net to get Dory out. And that is thematically valuable because he’s tracked his son down after all this time. He wants nothing more than to have his son back and safe. And he’s gotten him.
And he now has to let him go again on purpose, into danger on purpose. And so it’s such a pregnant act, you know; there’s so much value to that act. And the aftermath of it is so heartbreaking because we think he’s lost his son again by making that choice that he felt he finally needed to make.
Nothing like that happens here. This is really just action. It’s just sort of action and noise, because there is no thematic value to her. I mean, look, if you were to write a modern version of The Little Mermaid, I suspect it would be about a little mermaid who believes she needs to be human for some reason only to realize, no, I must be a mermaid. I want to be a mermaid. I don’t want to be a human at all.
That’s not this movie. [laughs]
John: I would argue that The Little Mermaid myth, that the story is really much more like the Persephone myth which is like she lives some of the time above the ground and some of the time in the underworld. And she’s meant to live in those two worlds simultaneously.
I think she should be in both places. But that’s not what we’ve got here. Instead what we end up with at the very end is Triton is like, “I was wrong.” He zaps her and gives her legs back so she can live as a human. And the last line is, “I love you, Daddy.” Oh, okay.
John: And so the ending feels incredibly abrupt and rushed after that big production number, which is so weird because we spent such a good long time with people in the first act establishing things, to sort of race through the ending was disappointing to me.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, they have a wedding. It’s very fairytale. I mean, that’s what it is. But the truth is the most disappointing thing about the ending was that I found it unsatisfying that… — What I like, especially in animated movies, and this is where they went very quickly; you could see it happening in Aladdin for instance. I like when a character in the beginning of the movie says, “I want this.” And at the end of the movie they say, “I want the opposite of that.” I finally figured it out, okay.
Shrek wants his swamp and to be left alone. At the end: I don’t want my swamp; I want to risk rejection for love.
Here, in this movie, she wants to be somebody else and to be a human. And at the end of the movie she wants to be somebody else and to be a human. There’s no real change, or progression, or growth in this character. She is not one of my favorite Disney characters. And on top of that, there is a weird kind of “I’m a girl; I will literally leave my family and be physically altered so I can be with you.”
How about giving him fish body? Why doesn’t he come down here.
John: Yeah, that’s the obvious choice. Triton says, “I can’t make you a human.”
Craig: “But I can make him a fish.”
John: “Can you make me a merman?”
Craig: Right. That would be cool. By the way, that’s how Splash ended. And Splash is a much better mermaid story. So, in any case, this movie, I think, has more value in terms of what it began, both in terms of its music and the animation itself, and a lot of the choices that were made — tone and so forth — than its own movie.
I think what this movie led to, particularly with Musker and Clements, and with Ashman and Menken, I think. That’s where the value is. It’s what it started.
John: I think it’s also a valuable movie for talking about just hitting those bells really hard in terms of like this is a character, establishing what she wants and being very clear about what she wants. Characters identifying what their goals are in the movie. Not necessarily paying off those goals especially well, but establishing what they are. And that’s important.
John: A few little bits of trivia that I noticed as I was watching the movie again. First, one of the opening credits is Silver Screen Partners IV. So, Silver Screen Partners was sort of, I want to say it was a Kickstarter of the day, just to anger you. So, Silver Screen Partners is this fascinating thing where Disney raised money by essentially selling shares of the profits of their upcoming movies.
And so they would put together this big financing package and ordinary investors could invest in them. And so I think my dad actually invested in one of these at some point, like $1,000 or whatever. And in success you would get paid back from these movies doing really well.
It’s fascinating that we don’t do those now. But, it was an interesting idea at the time.
Craig: Yeah. My guess is we don’t do them because essentially the studios would make it such that if the movie were successful they wouldn’t give much money at all, and also they wouldn’t want to give out any money, frankly. So, they just want to keep the money and success. They would much rather just own all the success, I suppose.
But, there are also some names as you look through the credits that are family. I mean, like I mentioned, Joe Ranft, who passed away unfortunately way too young in a car accident, I believe; but he was a big guy at Pixar, so you can see him here as a story artist.
Glen Keane is sort of a Disney legend. A lot of great guys.
Interesting, also, to look at the casting of the movie. And frankly, I think, this is a trend I wish we could recapture. The movie is not cast with celebrities. It’s cast with voice actors. The woman who sings the part of Ariel is also the voice of Ariel, which I think is great. That sort of started to drift away as well. And now we’ve sort of landed here, and I think this is also an area where it wasn’t so much the early Disney movies, but I’m not sure what the first animated movie was that sort of exploded that. Maybe it was Aladdin when everybody went crazy for Robin Williams?
Craig: But now we’re in an era where you have to have famous people doing your voices, or no one is going to go to it.
John: Yeah. Whether they’re the right people or not.
Craig: Right. That’s a shame. But that’s the world.
John: Craig, thank you for taking about The Little Mermaid.
Craig: Thank you. It was a great suggestion. And, you know, it was nice to talk about a movie that isn’t perfect and isn’t sort of, you know; look, I think Raiders is a very special movie and I love it. I actually think sometimes we can learn just as much from what movies don’t do right for you and me.
On the whole, even if we’re giving The Little Mermaid a little stick here, it is a really enjoyable film to watch. It was wildly successful for excellent reason. Some brilliant people involved. So, for all of the things that maybe weren’t what we look at now and say in hindsight are correct, there was so much done that was great. And the spirit of it was so pure and nice.
So, overall, I remain a fan.
John: I remain a huge fan, too. Craig, thank you, and I will talk to you next week.
Craig: Sounds good, John. All right, bye.
- Scriptnotes, Episode 73: Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Wikipedia on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Disney’s 1989 version