Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ariel's Grotto and Hiccup's Cove, Part One: How Closets Collapse in The Little Mermaid

This past semester our Romantic Literature class we talked about the closet's importance to Joanna Bailee, a nineteenth century playwright. Instead of writing closet dramas, or plays meant to be recited in private company, Bailee wrote dramatic plays that incorporated private spaces into her comedies and tragedies. She focused on men's private spaces in particular and the conflict that aroused when the narrative revealed those spaces to the world. I paraphrase her belief that men craft military identities for society's benefit and are forced to hide their passions, and for good reason; if they were to admit feelings or weakness, then politicians easily manipulate them. Such manipulation happened in her play Count Basil, where the title character couldn't hide his feelings well enough and suffered intense betrayal.

What does this have to do with animated movies, may you ask? Two of my favorite animated movies deal with the private space and its inadvertent exposure to the film's designated world. One won the Academy Award for Best Song, and the other nearly won an Oscar for its unforgettable soundtrack. Twenty-two years and competing companies separate their releases. Yet I will argue in two posts that the closet connects both movies, and that How to Train Your Dragon expands on the rebellious ideas that The Little Mermaid introduced.

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A Closet Fantasy

Hans Christian Andersen's most-remembered tale, "The Little Mermaid," offers the first closet tale with a female heroine. In this case, mermaids visiting the surface to see dry land and humans is associated with coming of age, and Andersen stresses how the youngest mermaid has to wait five years before getting her turn.

In the original fairy tale, the nameless mermaid becomes a closer figure when she becomes human. The day her beloved prince marries another woman is "the last time she would see him- the handsome prince for whom she had given up her beautiful voice, turned her back on her home and family, and day after day endured pain without end. He never noticed any of it" (Andersen "Fairy Tales" 242). Indeed, as a human the mermaid hides her pain when walking or during the marriage too well; no one identifies her as a sea princess or the one who rescued the prince from drowning. Andersen offers little hope for such a figure, saying that a person in the closet can only hope for eternal happiness.

Composer Howard Ashman reversed the closet drama in the adaptation. Our mermaid, now instead a closet fish-tail in a human body, is a human trapped in a mermaid body. On the outside Ariel has a great voice, royal status, and prominent standing as her father's favorite and most troubling daughter. Despite these facts and the sea's vast propensity for life and color, as shown in "Under the Sea," Ariel feels trapped and limited.

Triton as a man comfortable in his body cannot understand Ariel's identity crisis. His first scene establishes this confidence with a sparkling, powerful entry into a concert hall. He wants Ariel to be satisfied with her comfortable existence and not pursue danger; her desire to be human is unnatural by sea kingdom standards.  Ariel simultaneously does not want to hurt her father or cause trouble, but she cannot help but satisfy her curiosity. Triton and the undersea kingdom would label her desire as wrong and unnatural, and thus she has to hide her collection and ask, "Wouldn't you think I'm the girl, the girl who has everything?" On the surface she's talking about her collection, but she's also asking why she's not happy with her comfortable life under the sea. She and Triton thus drive the movie with a battle against "unnatural" yearning.

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Because The Little Mermaid is an animated closet drama, Ariel cannot hide her obsession with humans. Ariel's grotto becomes her physical closet and witness to her true identity. Having an underwater space gives security, a place to express her desires to mingle with the surface people; her interaction with Eric's statue shows such pretending. Even though she makes a plan to visit him at his castle, she never follows through on the impulse, thanks to Sebastian's musical number and Flounder's recovery of the statue. This peace cannot last, for the narrative's sake; Triton, unable to comprehend Ariel's seemingly impossible desire, has to smash her physical comfort zone to push her away and make that desire possible.

In contrast to Triton, the villain Ursula reveals Ariel's true physical identity while manipulating her. A drag queen inspired the sea witch's design for a reason, to establish her as a liberated adult. First, a mermaid cannot live on land, for obvious reasons, or Ariel's interactions with Eric would be limited.  Ursula has to suggest that Ariel transform into human for the idea to become ingrained and salable. The sea witch has an ulterior motive-- gain ownership of Ariel to bargain with Triton--  but Ariel's overwhelmingly warm response to the human world proves Ursula's point.

While liberating Ariel from a limited, false identity, Ursula takes advantage of her emotional vulnerability. Ashman does not have to paint subtleties here: he introduces Ursula as a banished sea witch who eats shrimp alive and uses slimy eels to spy on mermaids, lording over a garden of moaning plants. In addition, she offers a one-sided bargain to Ariel: three days to make Eric love her in exchange for her voice, and Eric has not seen Ariel properly, only heard her sing. When Ariel seems to succeed in developing a relationship with Eric, Ursula cheats by using Ariel's voice to enchant the prince. Ashman shows that "wicked" people use seduction to achieve their means and lack honor, showing a negative role model and warning for confused children.

With Ursula as a negative role model, Triton and the audience learn that if a parent cannot help their identity-confused child, then the child will seek potentially dangerous adult substitutes. Ashman establishes that Triton's trident wields awesome powers, though he mainly uses it for destructive purposes, and symbolizes his dominance. With great power comes great potential, but Triton uses his trident as a supernatural crutch and problem-solver. He learns the hard way that the weapon cannot change his daughter's obsession with a human or free her from a legal contract, and how Ursula manipulated his daughter. Instead, he has to provide the means to liberate her, and he has always had the power to do so. We see this proper liberation in the transformation sequences: while Ursula forces Ariel to struggle to the surface with only a seashell bra, risking her newly-formed lungs and breath, an enlightened Triton lets her emerge from the water in a white dress at the film's conclusion. The images contrast sexual awakening with pure virginity, and Ariel in the next scene becomes a proper bride. Triton honors her decision to spend the rest of her life with a heroic prince who has proven himself and saved everyone, trusting her instincts.

As Triton learns to release Ariel from the limited ocean, Ariel in turn learns to appreciate her father's love. One legitimate criticism is that when Ariel becomes human, she does not spend time regretting that she has hurt her father by running away, although she partly made the deal with Ursula out of anger and desperation. We have established, however, that she sincerely does not want to hurt him but doesn't know how. Then Triton exchanges his freedom and trident for her with no hesitation, out of love. Ariel realizes what her father will sacrifice and respects his wishes to stay away from Eric; for that reason after the final battle she lingers on the sea rocks instead of comforting her prince on the beach. Unfortunately, Ariel never speaks in this scene, so most viewers easily miss her actions' implications. Ashman compensates with the hug she shares with Triton, also courtesy of his trident, and the Broadway adaptation inserts an apology from her. Father and daughter become separated on the outside, but gain a stronger bond from their suffering.

Next blog will show how How to Train Your Dragon picked up on Little Mermaid's plot holes and, by filling them with character development, connected two competitors' fantastic legacies.

Works Cited:

Andersen, H. C. Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen: 40 Stories from One of the World's Best-loved Storytellers. Trans. Neil Philip. London: Reader's Digest, 2005. Print.
Andersen, Jens. Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2005. Print.

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