Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Today marks the release of THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) on blu ray. It is renowned for being the first film (in the wake of ROGER RABBIT's success) of the 1990s "Disney Renaissance" under the reign of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider. Much has been written about it in the last 24 years concerning Disney's return to fairy tales, the film's imprudent reinforcement of antiquated femininity conceptions, and its role as a precursor of the 1990s teenage love story formula that led to the demise of hand-drawn animated blockbusters.

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.

THE LITTLE MERMAID introduces us to two worlds that are separated by the surface of the sea. The one above - our world - is mainly ignorant or uninterested in the world underneath except when it comes to seafood. Those below are ordered to stay away from humans altogether by well-meaning but narrow-minded patriarch King Triton.

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.
The circle that represents the sun is used as a symbol of Ariel's longing in the first half of the movie. In addition to that, circular (and oval) shapes are omnipresent in the design of the underwater world from the serpentine skeleton of Triton's palace to Sebastian's performing stages.

The circular shape is also emphasized when it comes to holes for characters to peek or swim through, especially portholes in the form of a bull's-eye. Ariel enters a ship wreck through one which Flounder gets stuck in. The pay-off to this plant is happening within the same scene as is common in children's films: Flounder is luring the shark to swim through an iron hole so narrow that they can trap him. Later, the seagull Scuttle (what an apt name) witnesses a crucial revelation by peering through a bull's-eye of a ship not yet wrecked.
Ariel's secret treasury is combining the hole with the sun reflection and communicates her single-mindedness perfectly in the form of a tapered tube directed towards the sun of the human world. It may be a coincidence that this setting is evocative of Scuttle's telescope earlier in the movie, the effect is definitely the same.

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.
So after this moment, Sebastian is unable to convince Ariel to stay within the boundaries of her father's realm, no matter how many circular bubbles and sun-like blow fish he produces.

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.
It is certainly no coincidence that the extremely reclusive Ursula (allegedly since having been overthrown by Triton) is dwelling inside a snail shell at the end of a long tubular corridor (actually a fish carcass). Here, in her innermost sanctuary, concepts of female behavior are contrasted and discussed.

left: Ursula likes to move her tentacles in circular ways.
And in this fortune teller's tent full of circular shapes we are about to find out that Ariel's voice itself is a ball of light not unlike a small sun. Or in other words: to be able to live in the sunlight above, she has to trade in the sun of her own personality. As teenagers often do, she is letting herself be talked into trading the one thing that both defined her as a person and let her express her views and feelings. From here, the story could have taken a different turn towards many interesting confrontations and conclusions.

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.
With Ursula's collapse all her spells are broken and Triton is finally supporting Ariel's choice to marry a human prince. On top of transforming her into a human girl again, he also produces a semicircular rainbow as if to stress the importance of colored light in this film.
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.

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