Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Watching Disney Movies As An 'Adult' Is Fun! (Triton Stinks as a King)

I don't know about you, but when I think 'English major' or 'literary criticism' or 'Michel Foucault' or 'post-structuralism', I think about The Little Mermaid.

Look at that! Isn't that just brimming over with symbolism and literary allusions? Isn't it just chock full of reader response- and power relations theory?

...yeah. Sure, there is a decent amount of symbolism in this movie. Does that mean that we should be watching it for a class to demonstrate complex literary theories therein? Eh...

Anyway, I amused myself during the movie (and afterwards) wondering about certain aspects of the merpeople's life that are only vaguely hinted at in the movie. Here are my notes.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I understand that this is a Disney film that was not intended for a critical audience, and that it looks kind of funny when viewed in this light, in the same sort of way that this laptop would be utterly out of place (and a twisted lump of junk) at the bottom of the ocean. I get that. I analyze stuff that isn't supposed to be analyzed because, hell, it's funny. Complaining about this will now label the complainer as a stodgy old turd.)

Things the Sea Witch was Nice and Considerate About

Now. The Sea Witch might've been kinder to Ariel then we see in the film. She changed Ariel into a perfect human, including a lot of little details that mermaids do not have (and that the Witch might've benefited from leaving out). For example:

-The Sea Witch gave her legs with decent muscles, instead of legs atrophied from unuse. Maybe she used the muscles of Ariel’s tail?

-Same goes for gravity. The witch was at least kind enough to make sure she didn’t collapse once out of the water, under the pressure of gravity two to three times stronger then she’d ever felt before.

-Ariel doesn’t have any visible gills, and seems to breathe with equal ease in the water and on land. The Witch didn’t modify her respiratory tract, but presumably gave her an excretory system (she has no visible ass as a mermaid). 

-Melanin. Apparently sunlight and UV light penetrate to around 200 meters’ depth in the ocean. We can be fairly sure that the mermaids live at a shallower depth then that because of the wildlife we see in the film, as well as the fact that we can see the mermaids at all (color of the water). There’s also the fact that Ariel is turned into a human a few feet above the seabed, but manages to reach the surface (aided by Flounder) without drowning, so the distance from one too the other can’t be too deep. She doesn't develop any kind of decompression sickness during this race to the surface, either, thanks to the Witch.

Based on this evidence, it seems logical that the mermaids in this area might have had the opportunity to develop melanin, and thereby become more resistant to sunlight. Besides this advantage, Ariel had previously made multiple visits to the surface, but the Witch would probably still have had to bump up her melanin to normal human levels so she didn't suffer a massive, disfiguring sunburn. (Although if she gets cancer in Little Mermaid III, that would disprove that theory.)

-Ariel's eyes appear to work equally well when immersed in (salt?) water or on the surface, and she's never seen blinking at the time of transition. Thus, the Sea Witch probably didn't modify anything there.

Some modern revisionists have challenged that last claim.

Random Stuff that Stands Out

-After one day with legs, Ariel is already wearing high heels. Now that's impressive.

-There's a point in the movie where Sebastian enters a human kitchen, sees crabs on a plate that are stuffed with food and ready to be served, and promptly faints. It's played comically, but hell: imagine walking into a huge kitchen and seeing human bodies stuffed with lettuce, with giant pins through them, cooked and prepared for someone to eat. I’d probably faint, too.

-The first time we meet the Prince, he loses a rather nice ship. We've seen Ariel going through a graveyard of sunken ships, which are later raised at the end of the movie. These are all pretty close to the shore of the Prince's kingdom, so one wonders exactly how resistant the kingdom is to losing all these expensive ships. What about trade? If I was a merchant, would I come to some place that had all these nautical hazards off the coast, and where hurricanes can blow up out of nowhere? (Of course, by the end the kingdom has made first contact with the mermaids, opening up a huge tourist market as well as potential guides for merchant shipping.)

-One wonders what the merpeople eat. They scorn the humans because they eat 'fish', which presumably extends to everything that’s tasty and talks under the sea. Do they eat kelp and plant life? Phytoplankton? If so, why do they have mouths evolved for other uses instead of blue whale faces?

The romance wouldn't be nearly as compelling, but it'd be a helluva lot funnier if Ariel tried to kiss Erik with huge plates of baleen for a face.
-In this version, the King can zap Ariel’s tail into legs with the power of his trident. With that in mind, what's with the big emotional goodbye at the end of the film? There's nothing to say it's an irreversible process; indeed, the witch's original spell argues against this. Who’s to say that Ariel couldn’t come home on weekends to visit? Who’s to say that the King couldn’t turn Erik as well and they could go on holiday together?

And Speaking of Triton...

He is one lousy king.

Consider the incredibly disturbing 'garden' of polyps that Ursula has assembled, each one a captive mermaid or merman.

Yeah, that was goddamn horrifying.

Now consider this: Triton's relationship with Ursula is never really defined, but we know that at one point, she lived in his palace and wanted the throne. Presumably, Triton kicked her out. (Ariel’s mother is never shown, nor is an explanation given for her absence. Is Ursula her?)  She’s taken her revenge by offering Faustian deals to who knows how many merfolk. We see dozens, perhaps hundreds of scrawny polyp-people that Ursula has transfigured. So why are there so many?

Ursula intimates that the merpeople come to her in singles or couples, meaning that her ‘collection’ has accumulated over a long period of time. So after the first merfolk came to her and got transmogrified, why wouldn’t Triton lay down the law? He’s forbidden his subjects from contacting humans, so it's logical that he forbade them from contacting Ursula or making deals with her. That’s fine. But we’ve seen how well he does with empathy; he’s not good at getting through to his own daughter, so why would he do any better with his people? Clearly, whatever he said or did, it didn’t work at all.

The ideal thing would have been to run awareness campaigns among the merpeople. Roll out drawings or pictures of the ones who got polypified. Outline the exact circumstances of the deals they made, what Ursula did and said to the merpeople, and exactly what the merfolk can expect should they make a deal with her. You’d probably still lose a few desperate merdudes and merdudettes, but at the very least it’d be damage control.*

"I am blissfully oblivious towards the plight of my kidnapped subjects!"

Questions of Kingly Responsibility

 We don’t know how many merpeople are under Triton’s sway. He controls the whole ocean but doesn’t seem to have much of a court or a system for delegating authority, suggesting that the population is small enough for him to handle without a staff or a legislature).

The only thing we have to go on is the several dozen merfolk that appear at the concert in the first scene, before Ariel arrives. In some of the overhead shots, the hall is only partially full. Even if this is just the mermaid intelligentsia that attends royal events (some of the fish have monocles, I think) this implies there’s a significant amount of people missing. There is a chunk of Triton's population being held under duress that he has failed to free. The most basic duty of a king is to protect his people; if he can’t do that, then why are the people tolerating a king at all? (Mermaid-Iran Hostage Crisis, anyone?)

But this isn’t the worst thing Triton does in this movie. When presented with a choice between Ariel and the kingdom, he hands over power to Ursula. He allows his personal feelings as a father to override his duties as a king, and that’s the thing you can’t do. If Ariel gets shriveled up and turned into a polyp, she’s gone. If Ursula gets the crownship of the seas, the entire kingdom is gone.

Yes, it’s a totally unreasonable choice that no one should ever have to make, and a totally unreasonable expectation that he should not choose Ariel, but he’s the KING. He is the leader of these people and it is his responsibility, should shit fall out of the sky and go boom, to tell Ursula that he decides who does what in his realm. That is the most important reason that people form a government and elect/allow a leader. To protect them. That's the point.  It is Triton's responsibility to tell Ursula that he does not negotiate with kidnappers or terrorists (which is essentially what Ursula has become by enslaving Ariel), no matter who they have kidnapped. As a parent, he absolutely makes the choice you'd expect him to make. As a king, he totally fails at making the right choice for his kingdom; if not for the interference of a foreign national (Erik), Ursula could've ruled land and sea both and done whatever she wanted, with Triton a helpless captive. That's what he was handing over with his trident and crown, and that's why he's a really bad king in this movie.


*This of course assumes that there’s no other way of forcing Ursula to change the merfolk back. Examples would be legal action (charging unfair contracts), an order from the government to relinquish the citizens she’s mistreated (if I tie up my friend and keep him locked in my basement and subject him to serious physical harm against his will, I’m breaking the law no matter what contract he signed) or simply blasting her with a trident and changing the merfolk back that way (removing a clear and present danger to the realm).

This last is a dubious option because he couldn’t have been sure that the merfolk would change back upon Ursula’s death (they did), and if not, they might’ve been flat screwed. We do see with Ariel that the trident can change mermaids' physical form, so there's an argument that it's possible. It is possible that he couldn’t, since he didn’t change Ariel back when Ursula was turning her into a polyp, but that may have been simply a function of him panicking as a dad whose daughter was in danger. Blasting Ursula with the trident did no good (she shielded herself with the contract Ariel signed), but whether or not he could actively change Ariel depends on the fine print of the contract, which we do not see.


Yvonne said...

you also might be interested in the following:


Sebastion even made the second place!

btw: we should have a skype movie date sometime and analyze another disney movie, I think it is just absolutely awesome! :D

(oh and, it's me, Yvonne!)

Yvonne said...

ah no, he made the 8th place. that nice crab.

Phil said...

Legality was an important aspect of this movie. A contract was so powerful, not even the trident could faze it. But how was Triton able to regain the crown and the trident? Ursula had legally obtained them, so presumably upon her death it would go to her next of kin, not the first person to pick it up. Did she have a will?

Elena said...

Without a will, her possessions would be granted either to her next of kin or to the government. The closest we get to her kin is Flotsam and Jetsam, who are essentially pets. Even if they were granted her possessions (people can arrange for their pets' care in their wills), without a clear guardian appointed, the government would take control of the assets. Triton is the head of government.

Also, did we ever see the full language of the contract that Triton signs (I recall him signing something that glows gold? Maybe not, it's been a few years....)? Maybe Ursula was so convinced of her own invincibility that the crown and trident were hers for the duration of her life, rather than hers in perpetuity.

(Also, I really like the phrase "desperate merdudes and merdudettes")

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