Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid was created out of sheer desperation. The studio hadn’t had an animated hit in two decades (or blockbuster since 1961’s 101 Dalmations). The entire ’80s passed them by without even a minor hit—a radically missed opportunity given the era’s optimism (as cheery and false as Mickey Mouse), and given that Don Bluth’s hit knockoff of the Disney formula An American Tale registered as some crazy neo-socialist rodent version of The Jungle with Italian-American cats standing in for slaughterhouse managers.
So even though the market was ripe for the picking, Disney’s animation department accordingly left very little to chance. The result wasn’t slim, but malnourished. It wasn’t quirky, but calculated. It didn’t touch the heart so much as assaulted it. Every second-string in-joke from the more rambunctious members of Disney’s stable of animators which made so many previous, dubious Disney features bearable—Cruella De Vil’s yin-yang hair, Fantasia’s demure hippo ballerinas, even The Aristocats’s swinging discothèque interlude—had been fussily eradicated from the palate. Well, maybe that’s not completely true, but we’ll get to Ursula in a moment.
The Little Mermaid is the story of one packrat pre-tween princess whose undersea kingdom is only matched in depth by her remarkable sense of consumer-minded entitlement. She keeps artifacts of human pop culture (mark my words, everyone who saw the film in theaters when they were young and really took Ariel’s plight to heart later decorated their Sweet 16 wheels with a bumper sticker reading: “I wish I could be like Barbie, that bitch got everything!”) in a cavernous underwater sarcophagus that, in essence, stands in for what’s truly missing in her life.
Ariel has everything except legs. More to the point, she has everything but what’s between those legs, and her hoarding materialism resonates as Disney’s prepubescent form of masturbation. Now we know what makes those Happy Meals so, um, “happy.” Which makes it all the more deviously satisfying is that Ariel comes into her own with the help of a bloated, androgynous octopussy who, legend has it, was modeled on John Waters’s leading lady Divine.
As voiced by Pat Carroll and as drawn by a team of chubby-chasers, Ursula is queer corpulence personified (another point of reference: Charles Laughton’s Nero in The Sign of the Cross), which explains her high position in the pantheon of anti-heroines for those kids who, like me, stomached the surrounding cloy by focusing on the diva tantrums. Her majesty’s lip-pursing, tentacle-caressing, boob-shaking antics caught the attention of others, though, and soon the moral majority (fresh off their scrutiny of Jessica Rabbit’s vagina on laserdisc) were noticing phalluses in the original VHS cover’s castle turrets and erections in the wedding pastor’s robe.
And from the looks of it, they won, as Beauty and the Beast was so freshly scrubbed and squeakily sexless that the Academy had no choice but to award it a best picture nomination. It isn’t a stretch to say that Triton’s self-sacrifice at The Little Mermaid’s end symbolizes the lengths parents’ willingness to blow their mad money budgets on Disney-imprinted bric-a-brac rather than allow their children an onanistic, copped feel of the other side.
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