Part of the issue Everything old is new again from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
“Originals,” of course, rarely are.
In 1989, a redheaded mermaid made her big-screen debut. She wanted to be part of the above-surface world, where people walk around on (what do you call ‘em?) feet, to wander free on the sand in the sunshine. She fell in love with a handsome, kind prince. After some terrifying obstacles and a near-miss, they married. Ariel got her feet.
For Disney, The Little Mermaid was a big hit, the start of a new era for the studio’s animated entertainment. She launched a hot streak that would continue through the 1990s: Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). They were hits then, the early films in particular, and form a foundational plank in billions of lives. A tremendous percentage of people walking around on the planet can sing snatches of “Part of Your World” or “A Whole New World” or “Circle of Life” at the drop of a hat.
Yet 30 years after these films defined an era, Disney seems determined to make sure its most beloved movies — including The Little Mermaid — feel like the emblem of a world that’s run out of ideas. One by one, they’re all being remade into “live-action” versions (a misnomer, unless you believe the Lion King’s magicians taught a bunch of wildlife to talk) that are in many ways identical to the originals, except not animated. The songs are re-recorded, the parts re-cast, some new bits are added. In the new Little Mermaid, Ariel is played by the young Black actress Halle Bailey, an innovation that’s both a welcome iteration on a story and a tacit acknowledgement of the overwhelming whiteness of most of Disney’s history.
New, the films are not, mostly to their detriment: the songs are the same, the story beats maintained, because who wants to see their childhood messed with too much? Strangely, their existence could imply that the originals are unwatchable today — which, of course, is both ridiculous and vaguely insulting, and everybody knows it. They’re obviously unnecessary. Which doesn’t keep audiences from seeing them. Search the internet for “why is Disney remaking all of their films,” and the answer you get, most often, is “because they make a lot of money.”
To call the originals “originals,” though, is wrong, sort of. Each followed a familiar Disney template: an old fairy tale or folk tale with some disturbing undercurrents gets scrubbed up a bit, made suitable for children but enjoyable for adults, draped in some of the catchiest tunes you’ve ever heard and capped with an inevitable happy ending. Each is an adaptation of an older, much-told story. Beauty and the Beast draws from an 18th-century French fairy tale, and also quotes a 1946 Jean Cocteau film. Aladdin comes from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk tales framed by Scheherazade’s desperate attempt to stay alive. The Lion King is mostly Hamlet, but with sprinklings of the Bible and a bit of Bambi. The stories come from novels and history, mythology and pulp. They are adaptations, new iterations of old stories. Plenty about them innovates on their source material, but they aren’t “new,” not really.
Ariel, too, preexisted Disney, though she didn’t have a name. Back then, she was the protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story “Den lille Havfrue,” an unnamed young mermaid who longs to be human. She wants an eternal soul, which she can only get by marrying a human. When mermaids die, they turn to sea foam, with no persisting soul. So she turns her eyes to the world above the waves, where she finds an indifferent prince who jerks her around a lot. He marries someone else, and she goes to his bed to kill him, but instead sacrifices herself, jumping into water and turning to sea foam. Her sacrifice, however, is rewarded by the spirits of the air, who give her the chance to earn her soul through performing a few centuries of good works.
It’s a far less happy tale than in Disney’s telling, its unnamed protagonist given what she wants but only through great labor. Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is neither morality tale nor heroic romance. In fact, scholars agree it was probably Andersen’s expression of anger and longing for Edvard Collin, the son of his patron, upon the occasion of Collin’s marriage to a young woman.
Andersen said that his story had no model. That wasn’t strictly — or even kind of — true. Beings that were half-woman and half-fish had been part of Nordic ballads and folklore as early as the medieval era, when they turned up in songs and stories, sometimes as helpers to sailors. Furthermore, a few years before “The Little Mermaid,” Andersen had written another story entitled “Agnete og Havmanden” (or “Agent and the Merman”), which also turned on the matter of its subject’s immortal soul. That story, in turn, was based on a Danish folk ballad handed down across generations.
Even the idea of a mermaid is far from unique to the chillier regions of Europe. Human culture seems to have a distinct attraction to the idea of a water-dwelling spirit that’s partly woman, partly fish, often mystical or divine, frequently associated with fertility. Scholars have chronicled mentions of mermaid-like creatures in ancient written records as far back as the third century BCE. The Syriac fertility goddess Atargatis was described in the first century BCE as having “the face of a woman, and otherwise the entire body of a fish.”
Whether or not Andersen was aware, there’s a whole bevy of mermaid-adjacent creatures throughout the world’s cultures. There are the sirens of the Odyssey, who are actually half-bird, half-woman, and lure sailors to their deaths. Centuries after Homer wrote about them, they became conflated with mermaids, and are frequently depicted as having fish tails. Or there’s Mami Wata, the water goddess pervasive throughout African folklore, who brings fertility and wealth and is tied to lust. From Iran to Indonesia, fertility and prosperity are embodied in spirits and goddesses, usually with feminine attributes, that live in water.
There’s a more murderous variation, too, who seems to lurk in the background of Andersen’s story. (We might properly think of her as a very, very distant antecedent of the antagonistic mermaids in Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.) The 16th-century physician, alchemist, and philosopher Paracelsus proposed the existence of a creature called an “undine,” one of the four elemental beings, a spirit inhabiting water. The idea gripped European imaginations. An undine can gain an immortal soul if a man falls in love with her. If he leaves her, however, she has to kill him, and she may die too. Paracelsus’s conception wasn’t invented from whole cloth; he seems to have melded the European folklore figure of Melusina, a woman who is a fish from the waist down, with a 14th-century High German novella entitled Peter von Staufenberg, in which a magical woman kills her human lover when he marries another woman. Undine is a remix.
In 1811, Baron Friederich de la Motte Fouqué made of Paracelsus’s undine a wildly popular novella, entitled Undine, the story of a water spirit who marries a knight in order to gain an immortal soul. Fouqué mixed the undine with some occult philosophy derived from Paracelsus’s other work, and also maybe an opera entitled Das Donauweibchen, or “Danube mermaid.”
Undine was such a success that it spawned dozens of derivations. Here are just a few: E.T.A. Hoffmann and Albert Lortzing both wrote librettos based on Fouqué’s novella, in 1816 and 1845, respectively — decades before, and then after, Andersen’s little mermaid entered the world. Composers flocked to the tale, with figures as eminent as Tchaikovsky taking a crack at it; he composed his own Undina opera in 1869. In 1892, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote the play Pelléas et Mélisande based partly on Undine, and Maeterlinck’s play in turn was adapted into a 1902 opera with music by Claude Debussy. A 1916 silent film explored the story. In 1958, the eminent choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton premiered a ballet entitled Ondine, based also on Fouqué, with legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn in the lead role.
The undine — who is soft and yielding until deserted, and then dangerous beyond belief — is both sister to and antithesis of Andersen’s little mermaid, and thus a forerunner of Ariel. Yet by the time Disney’s mermaid swam on screen, the danger had been stripped away from her, handed to the sea-witch Ursula. There’s no moment when you fear that Ariel will murder Prince Eric. That won’t happen in the remake, either.
So decide for yourself. Was Andersen’s mermaid without model? Or was it a new idea? Was it a tired remix and reboot of what came before? Or is she part of a natural process, a progression borne out through time?
Furthermore, if this is simply the way of things, why does Disney’s seemingly bottomless drive to make “live-action” remakes of its animated “originals” feel so creatively bankrupt?
Do they make you, too, feel like we’re living in a culture that’s just run out of ideas?
“Every piece of art is made with reference — overt or not, conscious or not — to the traditions, practices, and possibilities of its genre, and so is in dialogue with other work,” A.O. Scott points out to me. Until recently the New York Times’s film critic, Scott has watched, and reviewed, more remixes and reboots than most people will see in a lifetime. He makes the case in his book Better Living Through Criticism that all art is, in a sense, criticism — a work that builds and comments upon other works of art — and that criticism in this sense is itself art.
“This isn’t to say that a reboot or imitation can’t be an original or critical work,” he says. The history of art is, after all, a history of remakes and reboots, paintings that take styles and symbols from the past and interpret them, sometimes in profoundly original ways. “But in those cases it’s the assertion of an individual style, the imposition of a personal will, on the material that makes the difference.”
So when Andersen uses folklore, legends, and the writings of a 16th-century alchemist to tell the story of a little mermaid, he isn’t being new. But he is being original. His personal will — in this case, thwarted desire for a man who would never love him back — is imposed on the material, shaping it into something related to but different from the stories told by Fouqué or medieval ballad singers or Homer or people in Africa and Indonesia.
Spend enough time around human stories, and you start to realize that all of culture seems suspiciously like variations on the same few ideas, archetypes, and arcs that we have, since our earliest ancestors, relied upon to make meaning from the world. Andersen is doing the same. So is Disney.
Art, however, is more than its ideas, its “content.” There’s something more than just content that attracts us to art, to stories. In the most enduring works, we are drawn to the evidence of a human’s sensibilities and proclivities and obsessions and passions exerted on the material. Yes, William Shakespeare based most of his plays on stories and histories that predated him. But the hook to see Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t (and still isn’t) that you want to see the familiar events of Richard’s life played out in front of you once again so you can remember them. It’s the language and the rhythm, the way the tale unspools, the themes and their interpretation. What we see on stage is a creative intelligence — that of the writer, and of the director, too. It’s the source of the old axiom: art isn’t just what it’s about, but how it’s about it.
Of course, we haven’t come to the end of new ideas. Humans are inexorably creative, coming up with new ways of looking at the world, new ways of reinventing old human obsessions, of making meaning of our lives, all the time. We are creatures who remix and invert and mash up and imagine. As a wise man once said, there is nothing new under the sun.
So why do things feel different now? Why do I expect so little from Disney’s live-action remakes? Or the latest reboot of a sitcom from the ’90s? Or the millionth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Why does it feel like the kind of movies we were watching and celebrating in 1967 and in 1999 would be plainly impossible to make today?
In my professional career as a critic, I’ve seen plenty of shifts in the art on offer. I’m not naive enough to adopt an end of history attitude; the market goes in cycles, and I hope the independent-film heyday of the late aughts will return some day.
That said, it’s hard to deny that the kind of movies we were watching and celebrating 30 years ago feel markedly different from the glut of familiar entertainment now. The culprit, I think, is simple: the “new” entertainment we’re offered by corporations today is filtered through an assertion of ownership over the ideas therein. We live in an entertainment culture dominated by movies and TV and video games, and who knows what else, drawn from “existing IP” by risk-averse companies. Ideas with a built-in audience and a proven market value are favored over the risk of a remix that has a different ending, a daring take, a complex or frightening element that’s not in its source material. Now, ideas are owned by a company, which gets to dictate who can do the remixing and reinventing, and along which lines, and who can sue if the fence gets jumped.
“IP is an artifact of the marketplace,” Scott says. “IP is about who has the right to exploit material, and that person is never an artist, but always a corporate entity looking to extend its brand and limit what can be done with certain images and stories, and who can do it.”
Certainly, intellectual property laws exist for a reason. They can, at their best, encourage creativity and the sharing of new ideas by allowing creators to benefit from their work. In a market-driven world, trademarks and copyrights protect creativity.
But increasingly, the new stories on our screens don’t, and can’t, become part of our commons, fertilizing a field for us to plow and plant with our own versions molded by our own creative intelligences — or at least, not if we fear a lawsuit (or fan outrage). Yes, film and television have been dominated by adaptations of stories owned by corporations since the dawn of the moving image. But there’s axiomatically more of it now than ever before. And in a world where the simple tools for creativity are easily accessible to ordinary people, not just studios who can afford expensive equipment, the lockdown on stories, and the insistence on constant regurgitation of the same stuff with the same predictable outcome, feels particularly egregious. Particularly stale. Particularly like we’ve stifled our culture into stasis.
Is it really new ideas we’re looking for? Or do we yearn for the ability to be surprised, to fall in love with new versions of old stories that speak to our time?
Human nature doesn’t change, but the world in which humans live does. And our world presents us with particular challenges and fears. Fragmentation and alienation from one another. Technological advancements that challenge what it means to be human. New ways to conceive of our identities. A looming sense that nature is not within our control.
What we’re looking and longing for when we complain of stagnancy in the culture isn’t some wholly new idea. Instead, I think, something within us wants to hear the old stories told in new ways — not just converted from hand-drawn animation to more realistic computerized versions with the same story beats and songs, but with something to say to our age.
Art like this can be scary and threatening and makes people complain when it challenges their comfort, and that’s why companies don’t do it. Don’t look to Disney for that kind of innovation, that kind of meaning-making; they seem to have abandoned it decades ago.
The art that endures out of our age, I think, will be made by people who sense how to harness the old romances and myths and figures that frighten us — the water-spirits, the partly-human, partly-something-else creatures that lurk around the edges of our species’ subconscious — and make them speak to our new world, and the world our children will live in, too. Art makes meaning from chaos, the same as it always has. There are artists with fresh imaginations who break through the fence. It’s incumbent on us to be ready.