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Making Snow White Swallow Some Salt Water

As an individual who does not bear much love at all for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the oft-heralded first feature film by Uncle Walt, I am often befuddled at some of the things that the film is praised for. Only some, mind you; I recognize and even appreciate (on varying levels) the remarkable technological achievements Walt and his visionaries came up with. While I dislike the animation of the human characters, the dwarves are wonderfully realized in animation, and easily the place where guys like Milt Kahl and Ward Kimball got to have the most fun. But the film remains wholly unengaging to me, and I just cannot in good conscience, no matter how beloved by everyone else it is, bring myself to say that I like it. I have told you think because I feel you should know, coming in, what my perspective is on Snow White. Some of you may just give up on me entirely, thinking I have nothing to say. This article is not about bashing Walt's crowning achievement (although this article is not particularly kind), but it is something that you, the reader, should be aware of as we continue.
Vs.

It came to my attention some time ago that The Little Mermaid is the closest modern animated Disney film that we have to the classic "princess" stories of the golden years, like Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty. Often Beauty and the Beast is considered a "princess" film over Mermaid, but the structure fits Mermaid much more clearly; indeed, Prince Eric is a small step away from simply being called Prince Charming. But as I watched Mermaid again, it occurred to me that there is an undercurrent of mockery. Indeed, I believe that The Little Mermaid is actually making fun of Snow White, or at least, the Disney version. How does that work, and if it does, what does that mean given their respective places in animation history? Well, it starts with many parallels between the two movies. A dreamy girl who yearns for her handsome prince in his absence; the handsome prince who falls in love with the girl and yet cannot find her; the many animal friends who help her in her quest. Indeed, only the Dwarves themselves seem to be missing from The Little Mermaid, at which point it might be called Snow White in Water.


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But then, while the films draw parallels, Mermaid also drastically takes its similar points and shoots them off in highly divergent directions. The characters of Snow White and Ariel are both catalysts for the change around them, but in very different ways. Snow White is timid and passive, requiring constant protection and affection; well, with the exception of doing housework. Ariel is active and self-motivated; the changes that occur around Ariel occur because everybody else has to keep up with her. There is a very distinct delineation, it seems, about which films were made before and after the women's liberation movement. It is not merely enough that these characters act in this way, but that in both cases, the movies that surround them encourage this behavior thematically. Snow White, at no time, is ever truly required by those around her to be her own person, and while there are forces that command and plead with Ariel to settle down, we as an audience are encouraged to disagree with them. In addition to that, there is a significant shift in the acceptability of sexuality in regards to these heroines. Snow White, in both a physical and mental sense, reflects that of a child. (Makes the whole love/prince thing sorta creepy, don't it?) Ariel is far more a developed young woman, seemingly rejecting the sort of bold-faced innocence of these previous princesses. Contrast also the princes. Prince Charming is.....well, there's not much to him, is there? He is a handsome figure for which to be dreamt of by the heroine. Eric, on the other hand, is not so much a posturing, princely figure as he is just a handsome guy who's looking for the right girl. There is a significant effort on the part of Ron Clements and John Musker to treat Eric like a real human being, with humor, fury, and mortality. In fact, when he is given the statue by Grimsby that portrays him in that Charming fashion, he balks. By the way, keep that "posturing, princely figure" image in mind for a bit later.

Now, these are just surface comparisons and contrasts; in fact, they could be applied to either of the other princess stories of old. Where the distinct parody of Snow White comes into play is with two things: singing and deception. How does Prince Charming fall in love with Snow White? By hearing her sing, of course. In fact, just seeing her and hearing her sing is pretty much all he knows about this girl before he pops in at the very end to kiss her dead lips. And in The Little Mermaid, Eric also falls in love with Ariel by simply seeing her face and hearing her sing. But right after that occurs, our wonderful diva of a villainess, Ursula, immediately deflates the fairy-taleness of it all by declaring the development as the easiest opportunity for her wiles that she could possibly get. Already, the romance is sarcastically tinged. But Ursula truly throws the format of the Snow White-style romance into sheer mockery when she pilfers Ariel's voice from her and then tosses her into the arms of her beloved. By all accounts, there should be a happy ending right then and there - if Eric weren't so caught up in the yearning for the voice. Ursula is taunting them to get together, declaring the love (be it Ariel or Snow White) invalid because all the boy loves is a voice he heard once; she spits on the idea that "true love" exists between them. Yet, Ursula is wrong; Ariel and Eric are falling in love anyway. So she pulls out her trump card, transforming into an Ariel clone and utilizing her voice (a more potent transformation than that from an evil queen into an old woman). Consider the "spell" that Eric is put under by Ursula/Vanessa's voice; he is robbed of his humanity and starts robotically demanding the wedding between him and his false bride. The look in his spellbound eyes, though, is fairly familiar. Why, he's sporting the same expression as that statue Grimsby gave him earlier! The one that portrayed him as a "posturing, princely figure"! He's gone from Prince Eric to Prince Charming.

The Little Mermaid, therefore, is playing the conventions of fairy tales against itself. By all means, the prince fell in love with this beautious voice, and so he should marry this beautious voice, right? No, Clements and Musker protest. That love is unreal and evil; when Ariel gains back her voice and starts using it herself, Eric's spell is still broken. He loves not the voice, but the person. But then, what does this say about Prince Charming and Snow White, whose entire romance seems formulated on the basis of pretty singing? Are they even in love? Does this fairy tale tell us anything true? There is no denying the fairy tale romance of Eric and Ariel, and yet theirs is complex, based upon who they are as opposed to what they are. Instead, Mermaid equates the type of love that Snow White offers as a pure fabrication, and not one to look up to. It is rightful that both Snow White and The Little Mermaid stand that the heads of their respective animation renaissances; indeed, both of them took a form languishing at one level and elevated it to one much higher. There may indeed come a new school of thought that looks at The Little Mermaid and scorns it for being unreal to their philosophies. But for now, The Little Mermaid remains the full embodiment of the violent changeover from the old to the new, insisting that the barest of fairy tale reality is no longer enough for the modern audience.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Jan 27, 2004

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