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Diving Into the 'Little Mermaid' Sexism Issue

CRITIC AT LARGE

December 05, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR

At a USC screening of "The Little Mermaid" the other night, a young woman asked the co-authors and co-directors, in a tone that could be characterized as civilly indignant, whether a woman had been consulted in the creation of the script.

Was what she called the "Some-Day-My-Prince-Will-Come" Syndrome (in which the answer to any mermaid's prayer is simply to find a good man) their work solely or a coeducational enterprise?

It was clear the questioner could not believe there had been any feminine input. She read Disney's new animated feature as reflecting a traditional if perhaps unconscious sexist view of the woman's role and goal.

Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney animators and writers since 1974 and 1977 respectively, said that women had indeed been part of the creative process. They admitted, wryly, that the question had come up before.

They argued that the mermaid was a far cry from such enchanting but essentially passive heroines as Cinderella and the prince-awaiting Snow White.

It is true on the one hand that the mermaid flips out when she catches sight of her handsome, lovelorn, land-dwelling prince. But what is also true, they pointed out, is that the mermaid has been established as a resourceful, independent-minded and even headstrong, insatiably adventurous and active young woman.

More than that, she is at last prepared to say goodby, painfully, to father and closest friends and begin a new life in the name of both love and adventure, not any more regarded as incompatible aims.

The implication seems clear enough from the film that if the prince is expecting a do-nothing princess he has got another think coming. They met when she saved him from drowning, after all.

Another questioner observed that in the originating Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the little mermaid dies, and how come the story line was changed?

The idea of generations of moppets and their parents and grandparents rushing off to see an animated film in which the heroine dies for trying to rise above her aquatic station, so to speak, fairly well answered itself. It was an undue and probably inappropriate risk for a multimillion dollar enterprise.

What does come as an occasional jolt to audiences conditioned to fairy tales as popularized historically not only by Disney itself, but by children's books, radio and television as well, is that fairy tales were sometimes grim whether by the Brothers Grimm or not. They were cautionary moral tales (poor gluttonous Hansel and Gretel!) and no one escaped the iron laws of seemly behavior.

The questions from a university audience were instructive. They reaffirmed that all films, even animated features, can be interpreted as carrying messages, whether intentional or not. "The Little Mermaid" is not about feminine consciousness or about the possibility of living in two different worlds. But obviously it is, or it can be made to be.

In fact "The Little Mermaid" is a first return in 30 years to the fairy tale form with which Walt Disney had such remarkable success commencing with "Snow White." It restores the clarity of story that had been missing from many of the ambitious animated features from Disney and elsewhere in recent times.

You don't need a score card to know who is good and who is evil in "The Little Mermaid." The suspense as to who will win is established early and sustained to the end, decorated with some bright songs (from the composers, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, of "Little Shop of Horrors") and some grand slapstick.

Challenged, as Musker and Clements admit, by the immaculate and elaborate animation of ex-Disneyite Don Bluth in "The Secret of NIMH" and "An American Tail," a new generation of Disney animators went all out--leaving no shimmer unshimmering--on "The Little Mermaid." It was four years' work by a crew that reached 400 strong, and it looks it.

But in animation as in live-action, there is no substitute for a strong script. Musker and Clements noted that "The Little Mermaid" was written line for line before the first squiggles hit paper. It is the best animated Disney feature since "The Rescuers" (which still had no ending, well into production.)

When, finally, it is right, animation celebrates and stimulates the limitless human imagination like no other form of film. Audiences seem to agree, as the attendance at both "The Little Mermaid" and Don Bluth's new "All Dogs Go to Heaven" indicates.

Also like live-action, animation has evolved along with the sophistication of even its youngest viewers. "The Little Mermaid" is calypso-hip and has a villainess right out of a Klondike saloon. The hip and the innocent can coexist.

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