Disney's The Little Mermaid turns 25 today. The animated classic is known for a singing mermaid who combs her hair with forks and a comical West Indian crab, but the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that inspired the film is a much darker, much more beautiful story.
In the 1989 movie, Ariel is a beautiful sea princess with a pristine voice who lives a relatively easy life. And despite the efforts of Ursula the evil sea witch, everything eventually goes Ariel's way. Compare that to the original, written in 1836 by the Danish fairy tale master whose work also inspired Disney's latest princess movie Frozen. Andersen's tale is a scary story about love and disappointment and death, and it's far superior to the Disney-fied animated movie.
Here are seven ways the original is better than the film:
1) The little mermaid wants immortality, not love
In film, Ariel's one true desire is love. She is desperate to marry Prince Eric and fall in love and dance around on (what do you call them?) feet. Her ultimate goal, just as with many of the Disney princesses who came after and before her, is love.
In the original, the little mermaid isn't so love focused. She wants to become human and fall in love, but that's because she's facing her own mortality. "Why have not we an immortal soul?" asked the little mermaid mournfully. She wants to become human so that her soul may live on after she dies, and to do that she must get the prince to love her. The religious undertones in the original tale are obvious, but the story also hinges on a very dark, yet common question: what happens after death?
2) Prince Eric is a jerk
Disney's Prince Eric is a lovable doofus — a blue-eyed, barrel chested, dim-witted man who takes a while to realize Ariel is the love of his life and do something about it. But he's actually the villain in Andersen's tale. He laughs at the little mermaid when she is in pain and ignores her when she needs him most. The little mermaid, though, still tries to love him. This kind of horrible, unhealthy relationship isn't modern-day Disney fairy tale material, but it is the stuff of modern-day reality.
3) The little mermaid isn't quite so bubbly
Ariel is bubbly and irresponsible, but the mermaid she was inspired by is shy, passive, and prone to lingering conversations with an old lady instead of outbursts of song.
4) The little mermaid isn't hyper-sexualized
One of the biggest critiques of Disney's The Little Mermaid is that Ariel was an unnecessarily sexualized character for a children's movie. The Los Angeles Times' Michael Wilmington called her, "a sexy little honey-bunch with a double-scallop-shell bra and a mane of red hair tossed in tumble-out-of-bed Southern California salon style. She has no gills, but, when she smiles, she shows an acre of Farrah Fawcett teeth."
The only thing "sexy" about Andersen's story is when the old lady tells the little mermaid that after marriage "his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind." The implication here is clear, but it's far from objectifying.
5) It hurts when the little mermaid gets her legs
It may have been cute when Ariel clumsily learned to stand on her legs, but it certainly wasn't true to the source material. Andersen's story paints a more brutal picture: "Every step she took was as the witch had said it would be, she felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives; but she bore it willingly, and stepped as lightly by the prince's side as a soap-bubble, so that he and all who saw her wondered at her graceful-swaying movements."
6) Love is complicated
"As the days passed, she loved the prince more fondly, and he loved her as he would love a little child." Love in Andersen's tale isn't a magical, mystical feeling. It's an action bred out of desire and need — she has to love him and be loved by him to become a human and gain a soul. Not quite the most romantic of reasons.
7) There isn't a happy ending
The prince believes another young maiden saved him from the sea, so he marries her instead. And the little mermaid turns into sea foam. It's suicide. It's misery. It's the opposite of a happy ending, and that sadness lingers in your head longer than the "Under the Sea."