In this post I will examine the graphic shape of the circle as a design element and a recurring motif for Ariel's longing throughout the film.
Circles of Hope: Above the Surface
Triton's youngest daughter Ariel, however, is an energetic and free-spirited teenager of 16 years who is desperate to learn more about these humans and is glimpsing into the sun whenever possible. From underneath, the ocean surface is made visible by the round reflection of the sun. This image is introduced less than three minutes into the film during the credits sequence.
Then, with all attention guided towards the circle of light, it is obscured by the silhouette of a large ship. Ariel meets Prince Eric and a storm is wrecking the ship.
During the dramatic rescuing sequence, circular shapes and forms are emphasized in the special effects design. When Eric finally catches a glimpse of his saviour he as well is staring into the sun which looks like a halo above Ariel's head.
Ariel has already been lured into selling her soul to the devil.
Circles of Evil: Transformation
Little more than ten minutes into the film, we have already met the villain's sidekicks/spies Flotsam and Jetsam whose combined magic eyes transmit video images to Ursula's crystal ball.
|left: Ursula likes to move her tentacles in circular ways.|
Circles of Time: The Countdown
There is another catch to this tranformation - one that is much more crucial to the way Musker, Clements and Ashman are telling the story here: If Ariel does not win the love of Eric within three days' time, she will retransform and remain a mermaid forever.
So early on, the full moon and the sun are introduced prominently as timekeepers. A countdown is only generating suspense when every member of the audience is aware of how much time has passed and how much is still left. While it is viable to periodically show a digital watch in modern thriller, a historically themed children's movie must rely on devices like moonlight and sunsets to indicate the time of day. In THE LITTLE MERMAID, both moon and sun are always large and dominant.
In the final act, the importance of these circles for the countdown are emphasized by match-cuts from Ursula's circular snail shell amulet that contains Ariel's circular singing voice.
|Ursula's transformation reflects the halo around Ariel's head when Eric first saw her.|
|This match cut is emphasized by a dissolve.|
|The sun that is Ariel's voice.|
|Another match cut without a dissolve: the connection between the bargain and the third sundown is stressed.|
|The sun is in every shot.|
Since the "funny animals" part of the showdown is not going to give Ariel enough time to break the spell before sundown, the real, more serious showdown between the inflated Ursula and Prince Eric starts only after Triton's self-sacrifice for his daughter. This final confrontation plays out like a progression of the earlier storm scene. Visually, the circle of hope on the surface has turned into a circle of death: a gigantic swirl created by Ursula using Triton's trident.
|The reflection on the surface is reversed: now the light comes from under the sea.|
|Ariel's treasury is also reversed: Ursula looks down on her from up above.|
|left: in this final backlit shot, the sun is obscured by parting clouds, so we have a slight halo and still see the sparkling new dress.|
As you may have spotted from these screenshots, THE LITTLE MERMAID was a major departure from Disney's 1970s and 1980s features regarding colors and light. And sooner or later I will have to dig deeper in that area as well...
All the screenshots in this post are from this 2006 Special Edition DVD.