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YMMV / The Little Mermaid

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For YMMV about the Disney animated movie, see The Little Mermaid (1989).

The Short Story

  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • The titular mermaid wants to gain an immortal soul like a human. A mermaid can gain a soul if they fall for a human. The mermaid just happened to fall for a prince. However, does the mermaid actually love her prince or is she using him to quell her fear of the Cessation of Existence?
    • How much does the prince actually care for the mermaid and in what manner? The story states he loved her "as he would love a little child" and that he never thought about making her his queen, though he also insists the mermaid almost drives the image of the temple maiden he longs for but believes he cannot be with from his mind. On the other hand, he also says how much she resembles the temple maiden when telling the mermaid how much her cares for her and how fortunate he is that the heavens sent her to him, hinting he might see her as a Replacement Goldfish. While he did have a page's uniform made for her so that they can go riding into the mountains together, other times, he treats her more like a favored pet, calling her his "foundling" and having her sleep outside his door on a cushion.
  • Anvilicious: Andersen had the mermaid transfigured into a daughter of the air, who after three hundred years of good deeds can go to heaven. The moral adds that every child listening to the story can make her labor shorter or longer depending on their own deeds. P.L. Travers snapped at Andersen in one of her folklore essays: "'But a year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you."
  • Applicability: This story is open to quite a few allegorical interpretations.
    • The undersea world of the merfolk can be seen to represent the pagan world—the first stories of merfolk are from pagan Greek and Assyrian folklore, after all—while the human world represents Christianity with its promise of an immortal soul. Compared to the charming, carefree yet soulless "pagan" world of the sea, the humans' Christian world requires suffering and sacrifices, but with the ultimate reward of heaven.
    • This can also be viewed as a story about growing up. In this interpretation, the merfolk's world represents childhood while the human world represents adulthood. Like most 15-year-olds, the mermaid is eager to grow up and experience new freedom and adventures, especially romantic love. But when she actually enters the human/adult world, she faces a tragic loss of innocence, is subjected to pain and hardships she never expected, and is never able to go back to the safe, happy world of her childhood. In this light, the story can be seen as a warning to children and teenagers not to go chasing after adulthood too soon—and particularly to young girls not to throw away their innocence too soon for a man.
    • Yet another interpretation is about social class relations. In this view, the mermaid represents a person of (literally) lower birth who longs to join the elite world represented by the prince and other humans, but who is doomed to be snubbed by them no matter how much she deserves their esteem. The story can be seen to represent the working class-born Andersen's "fish out of water" feelings among the elite.
    • Another interpretation based on Andersen's own life is that the story is an early example of Have You Tried Not Being a Monster? The mermaid has feelings for someone she's not allowed to, literally can't speak of her feelings (e.g. "the love that dares not speak its name"), and the prince ultimately rejects her to be with someone more "conventional," his fiancée princess. Andersen himself was bisexual and is thought to have written "The Little Mermaid" after having gone through a similar experience in his life: he fell in love with a man he could never have, both because the man was already engaged and because back then, homosexual relationships were taboo.
    • Most of these interpretations can also apply to the Disney film, but with a more optimistic spin. The Disney version also has some interesting possible interpretations all its own: see below.
  • Broken Aesop: A main message of the tale is arguably "Don't place your hopes of spiritual salvation on another person; you can only earn it yourself through your own good deeds." The mermaid's attempt to gain a soul through the prince's love fails, but in the end she earns a second chance through her selfless love, and will earn her soul by invisibly doing good deeds as a Daughter of the Air. This was arguably Andersen's main motive behind the story, since he allegedly wrote it because he was dissatisfied with Undine, where a water nymph gains a soul by marrying a human. BUT... to finally be allowed into heaven, the Daughters of the Air depend on children's good behavior, with their years of trial shortened each time they see a good child and lengthened whenever they see a naughty child. So they do depend on others for their salvation after all.
  • Common Knowledge:
    • It's a commonly held belief that the story is set in Denmark due to the author being Danish and The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. The truth is that the story never actually states where it takes place, and the statue has almost nothing to do with Andersen: it was commissioned in 1909 (decades after the author's death in 1875) by Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen in honor of a ballet adaptation of Andersen's 1837 story that Jacobsen had been personally fascinated by, with Ellen Price, the lead ballerina, serving as the model for the statue's face. In fact, a careful examination of the text indicates the story isn't set in Denmark: when the mermaid pulls the prince to shore, she sees orange, lemon, and tall palm trees (implying a tropical or subtropical climate) and snow-capped blue mountains (Denmark's highest natural point of elevation is a hill only 171m tall). Moreover, other descriptions used in the story mention vine-covered hills (likely referencing vineyards), crystal-clear cornflower blue waters, and marble statues and pillars reminiscent of Greco-Roman architecture, all of which accurately describe a Mediterranean setting (and particularly the Italian coast and countryside). Hans Christian Andersen even visited Italy in 1833 and wrote extensively about his travels and what he saw in The Improvisatore, a book published in 1835, about a year before he started writing "The Little Mermaid." The prince in the 1837 story is also described as having coal-black eyes and dancing slave girls in gold and silk, which an illustration by Edmund Dulac for a 1911 publication interpreted to mean the prince is from the Middle East, some countries of which are Mediterranean.
    • The ending to is frequently cited as a Downer Ending where the mermaid dies. That only happens in the original ending. Andersen's revised ending is a Bittersweet Ending where she dies but is revived as a "daughter of the air" and given a chance to get into Heaven if she can do many good deeds.
    • Many describe the story as being a Danish folktale. While Andersen was inspired by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine and Paracelsus's writings on elemental beings, the only thing they have in common with "The Little Mermaid" is the idea that a water spirit can gain an immortal soul through marriage to a mortal. The overall plot of Andersen's 1837 is original and comes mostly from Andersen's imagination, meaning the story would not count as folklore, which is typically informally passed down until there is no single, discernable author.
    • A more minor case, but the story is frequently referred to as a book. It is actually a short story and as such, tends to be published alongside other Andersen stories.
    • The titular mermaid is popularly thought of as either blonde or redheaded. The actual text doesn't specify her hair color, but there are subtle hints that she is dark-haired: the mermaid is said to greatly resemble the prince's betrothed, who is described as having long dark eyelashes.
  • Fair for Its Day: Contemporary readers reject the story for its Bittersweet Ending in which the mermaid sacrifices everything and wins only the promise of a happy ending in the far future, thinking it would be better as a truly happy ending or a straight tragedy. But Andersen was responding to the story of Undine, in which a water spirit gains her soul through a human—in the little mermaid's story, her eternal life was entirely in her own hands, and the Daughters of the Air tell her that now she will win her own soul instead of having to rely on someone else to allow her to gain one.
  • Fanfic Fuel: Just what did the other Daughters of the Air do to earn their provisional afterlife? Were some of them mermaids too? Other creatures? Animals?
  • Fanon Discontinuity: Some readers and scholars would have preferred for the story to end tragically with the mermaid being changed into foam and dying, rather than the slightly cloying Bittersweet Ending of the mermaid being changed into a daughter of the air with a chance at Heaven.
  • It Was His Sled: Possibly ironically due to Disney pulling Not His Sled with their adaptation, everyone knows this story ends with the mermaid dying while someone else marries her prince (fewer know about the Bittersweet Ending in which she goes on to Heaven by a long way).
  • Rainbow Lens: "The Little Mermaid" is widely accepted to have been written in response to a male crush and essentially reading as a tragic gay story with the "gay" (or, in more modern readings, the "trans") element being instead a mermaid.
  • Squick: The mermaid having to get her tongue cut off. OUCH!
  • Values Dissonance: Modern readers, both Non-Christian and Christian alike, often have trouble with the story's moral of "Even heathens can reach salvation if they suffer enough."
    • Also, modern readers are not strict Christians like the author and have already trouble with that a mermaid has no soul—what is this "soul" anyway? Consequently, one adaption, from the German series Sechs Auf Einen Streich, redefined the whole shit the mermaid went through as a Secret Test of Character: by sparing the prince, she proves she had a "soul" from the start (and lives on in varying states of happily ever after).
    • Funnily enough, the story itself was inspired by Andersen's feeling of Values Dissonance when he read the novella Undine, which has a similar plot of a water spirit gaining a soul when she marries a human. Andersen was not a fan of the idea that a random human being could be totally responsible for someone's salvation.
  • Values Resonance: On the other hand, unrequited, selfless love resonates in any era. Also, the fact that it can be read as an allegory for homosexuality resonates with many for whom love is taboo.
  • The Woobie: Dear God, Hans, how much does this poor girl have to go through? For the crime of being born a fay being rather than an oh-so-lucky human, she has to suffer endless pain, has her tongue cut out, commit suicide, and then wait 300 years for her afterlife? And while happy children will take off a year, every tear shed from a bad one will add a day. The story was published in 1837. She could still be waiting for Heaven.

The Anime

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: The English dub had the Sea Witch and Jemmy the cat voiced by the same actress, Jane Woods, which gave some viewers the idea that Jemmy was an avatar for the Witch trying to spoil Marina's future.
  • Awesome Music: Marina's song as well as its Dark Reprise at the end of the film. The Japanese version is a heartfelt song of love for the prince and how Marina feels incomplete without him while the English version is similar but has a more bittersweet tone as Marina leaves her childhood and innocence behind, learning that the road to love is paved with broken hearts.
  • Cult Classic: While less known than the Disney version, this film has a devoted fanbase.
  • Fandom Rivalry: Between fans of this version and fans of the Disney version over which is a better adaptation. Some fans prefer this version for being a closer adaptation of the original story and preserving its Downer Ending and take issue with the Disney film for altering it while fans of the Disney film prefer it for giving the titular mermaid a happy ending. Some fans enjoy both versions.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight: Thor Bishopric voices Fritz the Dolphin, the best friend of the titular mermaid Marina. Years later, Thor would voice Prince Justin in Adventures of the Little Mermaid, which also features a blonde mermaid named Marina as the titular mermaid.
  • Moe: Just like her Disney counterpart, Marina is a very adorable mermaid.
  • The Woobie: Marina gives up everything to become human, endures constant pain on land, is tormented when the prince chooses the wrong princess over her, suffers suspicion and ridicule from the prince's parents and Jemmy the cat, and can't bring herself to kill him to save her own life. By the end of the film, you'll more than likely feel very sorry for her.

The Disney spin-offs

  • Badass Decay: Eric and Triton in both the sequel and musical.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse:
    • Undertow from the sequel. With Melody being a copy of her mother, Morgana, and her sting rays being copies of Ursula, Flotsam, and Jetsam, and Tip and Dash being copies of...Timon and Pumbaa, Undertow is the only new character with some originality. Doesn't hurt that he's voiced by Clancy Brown.
    • Benjamin from the prequel. While the movie doesn't sit too well with the fans most agree that he is its saving grace, being an Ambiguously Gay and yet still very cute manatee.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight: In the St. Louis Muny production of the musical in 2011, Ariel was played by Patti Murin and Eric was played by John Riddle. Seven years later, they'd respectively appear in the Broadway adaptation of Frozen, with Murin playing Princess Anna, and Riddle playing Prince Hans, who starts as an Eric-type character before turning out to be villainous.
  • Ron the Death Eater:
    • Triton has gotten this a lot more since The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning, with many fans now seeing him as an oppressive tyrant who randomly outlaws anything he doesn't like (music, the surface) because, in this film, he outlaws his entire kingdom from singing or playing any music because of his grief for his own dead wife. Of course, the fact that this is a direct-to-video prequel made years after the first film, by a completely different studio, with none of the original creative team from the first movie being involved, doesn't stop fans from forming this opinion.
    • Ariel gets some of this in regards to her parenting towards Melody in the sequel. While Ariel was indeed wrong to lie to Melody regarding her mermaid heritage, many fans are a little too eager to shame her for how overprotective she was of Melody. This ignored the fact that Ariel did try to keep Melody from making the same mistakes she did. Also, Triton was being paranoid about humans in general when he tried to keep Ariel safe, while Ariel was trying to protect Melody from a definite threat in Morgana. This also ignores the fact that Ariel and Eric openly state that they never intended to keep Melody in the dark permanently, and were only waiting until she was old enough; it was bad luck that Melody ran away the same night Ariel decided it was time to tell her everything.
    • Bordering with a major case of It Runs in the Family and parental worries: Triton may have been paranoid, but his heart was in the right place, and he proved to love her daughter so much to sacrifice everything, including himself, to keep her safe and happy. Exactly what Ariel did: she just needed to be a mother herself to understand how hard being a parent is.
  • Strawman Has a Point: Triton has even more of a point if you've seen Ariel's Beginning and consider it to be canon. Ariel's mother was killed when human fishermen came to steal mermaid relics and accidentally(?) rammed their boat into her. Even if Triton accepted her passing in the end, that doesn't necessarily mean that he thinks highly of humans. It's no wonder he doesn't like humans—they killed his wife!
  • The Woobie:
    • King Triton in Ariel's Beginning. The guy lost his wife Athena in a pirate attack, and many years later he still can't listen to music without being reminded of that tragic happening. Throughout the whole movie, he looks so sad and depressed about what he had lost, and his strained relationship with Ariel ain't helping him.
    • It gets worse: by the first movie, his relationship with Ariel is so damaged that she prefers trying her luck with Ursula than trusting him again, he's visibly distraught and blaming himself for her escape and, when finally after years of bickering manages to patch his relationship with his daughter, he's grimly reminded that Ariel forgave him at her own marriage. When he realizes that he's going to miss her, he also realizes that now Ariel has her own family to care for, and he can never, ever get back the time they spent bickering. And then, in the second movie, we find out that he didn't even get to be a grandfather to his (possibly) first granddaughter until she was 12.
    • Melody in the sequel after being humiliated at her birthday party.