The 90’s gave us Bosnian genocide, Columbine, the Oklahoma city bombing, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tragic death of Princess Diana, and the Gulf War. But to those of us who were kids at the time, all those terrifying world events were hidden behind a sparkly cloud that has since led to an almost fervent religious nostalgia for the 90’s. You’d think it was some sort of utopian paradise based on the way people talk about it, but anyways, one thing that all 90’s kids can agree on is that the animated films of the Walt Disney company hit a high point in the 90’s, creating movies that are now called the Disney Renaissance.
What I wanted to do was explore the roots of these stories, looking at the fairy tales, myths, and histories in their original forms. In many cases the original stories are pretty bleak, but there’s so much cool stuff to find amidst it all. Plus, I think it says something about how Disney had a hand in creating the overwhelming sense of nostalgia many folks around my age have for the decade of the 90’s. It’s interesting to see which elements they excised in favor of keeping things family friendly. And so, we’ll start this whole crazy ride off with:
The Story We Know: Rebellious Ariel, the youngest daughter of the Sea King Triton, falls in love with a hunky human prince named Eric after she saves him from a shipwreck. Desperate to be with Eric, she makes a Faustian deal with the saucy Sea Witch Ursula who takes her voice in exchange for giving her human legs. Ariel must then fall in love with Eric as fast as possible before time runs out and Ariel turns back into a mermaid. Things don’t go as planned…but it all works out in the end. There are also singing dancing fish and crabs and stuff. It’s fun.
The Actual Story: Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” in 1837 as a modern fairy tale in the style of older folk tales. The crux of the whole story lies in Andersen’s mythology: mer-people live for 300 years under the sea, but they have no souls and turn into sea foam when they die (which is cool, but crappy), but humans have an immortal soul, so that when they die after a much shorter life, they are granted eternal life in heaven (which I suppose is also cool, but crappy). Barring that, the set up for the plot is similar.
The youngest daughter of the Sea King awaits her 15th birthday in which she will be permitted to swim to the surface and see the human world for herself (because Instagram pictures just don’t cut it). She does so and rescues a prince from drowning. The prince is found on the beach by girls from the temple and he does not remember the mermaid who saved him. Desperately in love with the prince and captivated by the idea that she could get a human soul if she marries him, the mermaid goes to the sea witch who gives her a vicious potion that splits her fins into legs so that she can walk, but it will feel like she is walking on sharp knives while on the surface. To seal the deal, the witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue and sends her on her way, warning her that if the prince marries another woman, the mermaid will die the day after. The mermaid agrees, because she’s pretty metal, and goes to the surface.
She meets the prince and, though she is mute, he finds her charming (because of course he does, he’s a guy) and dances with her, not knowing that it’s causing her immense pain to do so (because of course he does). Sadly, though, the mermaid learns that the prince is betrothed to another princess, even though he only wants to marry the temple girl he thinks rescued him from the shipwreck. Plot twist! It turns out the temple girl IS the princess he was betrothed to. He proposes on the spot and the wedding is announced and carried out shortly after.
Crushed, the mermaid sits on the wedding ship waiting for death, when she sees her sisters come up out of the sea all sporting super cute bob hair cuts. It turns out they traded their long luxurious hair to the sea witch for a magic dagger. All the mermaid has to do is kill the prince with it and smear his blood on her feet and she will be turned back into a mermaid to be with her family again.
Agonized over her choice, the mermaid approaches the sleeping prince like a killer in a slasher movie, but at the last minute runs out and throws the dagger into the sea, unable to go through with it. Resigning herself to oblivion, she hurls herself into the ocean just as dawn breaks and dissolves into sea foam…
…but she doesn’t die. Instead, she ascends to a sort of earthbound ghostly realm surrounded by other souls who call themselves the daughters of the air. They tell her that because of her selflessness and her desire for a soul, she will be granted one and allowed to go to heaven if she performs 300 years of good deeds.
It’s not the most uplifting ending… Personally, I would have probably taken my newfound ghost-self and haunted ships for all eternity, but I guess that’s just me… I’m glad Disney gave their mermaid a break.
Now, Andersen’s story is “original,” but it also draws from earlier sources. There’s the Mermaid-esque story Undine (1811) which has been adapted into about eight million operas. In that one, a water spirit falls in love with a human knight in order to get a soul…but things don’t go well…
Also, the spectacular Dvorak opera Rusalka (1901) sort of blends the Undine story with “The Little Mermaid.” In that one, the water spirit, Rusalka (daughter of a powerful water goblin), falls in love with a prince, but then kills him with a kiss in the end after he marries someone else. She then returns to the lake she came from, happily accepting her new role as a demon of death (I mean, how awesome is that??) I can understand why, when Hayao Miyazaki decided to put his own spin on the story with Ponyo (2008), he made both characters children to avoid that whole messy love/death/resentment thing.
The Story We Know: A young boy named Cody is captured by the poacher McLeach who wants to use him to capture the great golden eagle Marahute who has befriended the boy. Bernard and Bianca of the Rescue Aid Society are sent to rescue him, teaming up with Jake, the RAS’s Australian operative. Cody meanwhile is trying to escape from McLeach before the poacher is able to learn of the location of Marahute’s eggs.
The Actual Story: Well, this one’s an oddball because it’s actually an original story. Now, it is a sequel to The Rescuers (1977), a grim, depressing Disney film about a girl who is captured by a sleazy pawn shop owner who’s seeking out a massive diamond in the Louisiana bayou. And that movie is in turn inspired by a series of children’s books written by Margery Sharp from 1959-1978, but in terms of the plot itself, Down Under is a pretty original adventure story, one that is often ignored because of its sequel status.
In terms of Sharp’s original books, they begin with an organization (The Prisoner’s Aid Society) that pairs mice with prisoners so as to give them company. But when they learn of a Norwegian poet who is being kept in the Black Castle, the Chairwoman of the society suggests altering their mandate so as to help rescue him. To do so, they need to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a super fancy socialite mouse who lives with an ambassador’s son. Bernard, a rotund, kind-hearted pantry mouse is sent to recruit her, and they travel to Norway, meeting up with the brave Nils, a Norwegian mouse, who helps them in their rescue operation.
The series continued with eight more books, each sending Bernard and Bianca off on various adventures around the world. They were fairly well-received, though they tended to fall into obscurity with later generations because of the Disney films. But they’re worth checking out. I’ve only ever come across the first book, but I know the others are out there. I know of some cunning librarians who could set me up. Librarians are magical. They’re great books for reading out loud to young kids because Sharp’s prose is so well written, but I refuse to grow up, so I may just read these to myself sometime…
And so, that’s all for now! Farewell until next week when we will be looking at Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin!