Since it was written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has baffled and frustrated analysts. On first glance, it seems considerably more violent and pessimistic than the popular 1989 film that rebirthed Disney animation. For example, the little mermaid loses her voice by having her tongue cut out. The sea witch in the story is just a disgusting old crone, not the emblem of voluptuous female sexuality that is Ursula (ironically based on drag performer Divine).
Though having sanitized the original story, as they are wont to do, Disney's film still has unique qualities of its own. Unlike most of Disney's Princesses, Ariel is a flawed character. She is a teenager, rebelling against her upbringing and existential nature to forge her own identity, generally making bad decisions all along the way. It is only the love she has been able to inspire in others that redeems her choices and grants a happy outcome. As with Cinderella, there is a tendency for adult critics to look down on Disney Princesses who are not already full-formed, virtuous adult characters. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she is also somewhat controversial.
This is not the theme of the original story, however. The little mermaid does become obsessed with the surface world - she had five sisters visit it and come back with marvelous stories about it for half a decade before she was finally able to see it for herself - and there is a prince that becomes the object of her obsessions. What really troubles her, though, is the fact that mermaids lack an immortal soul. It is this puzzle that mermaids should live for 300 years and then dissolve into sea foam while humans should only live for 70 years on Earth but inherit Heaven that draws her to make the choices she does. The Little Mermaid is a deeply religious story that makes little sense without Andersen's own devoutly religious outlook.
|The Little Mermaid meets the prince. Illustration by Bertall.|