Moral Simplification in Disney's The Little Mermaid
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Moral Simplification in Disney's The Little Mermaid

While generally praising Walt Disney's technical contributions to animated film, critics have been troubled by the studio's treatment of classic children's literature and fairy tales. In a famous attack over 25 years ago, Sayers blasted Disney for showing "scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors" and treating folk texts "without regard for [their] anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the 'gimmick' [of animation]" (602). Her complaint specifically addressed a tendency to "dummy down" source material by eliminating psychological conflict: "Disney falsifies life by pretending that everything is so sweet, so saccharine, so without any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence" (609).

More recently, this pattern, which Schickel calls "Disneyfication" (225),1 has been criticized on ideological grounds for reinforcing and/or contributing to dominant patriarchal and capitalist systems. For instance, Stone charges that Disney's adaptations of Snow White and other "classic" fairy tales "amplify . . . the stereotype of good versus bad women" already present in the source material, offering heroines who "seem barely alive" and villains who are invariably female (44). Dorfman observes a neocolonial plundering of folklore and children's literature in the service of Disney's "average North American image" (24). So pervasive is Disneyfication that, as Zipes has noted, the Disney method has become the prototype for most film adaptations of fairy tales (and one might extend this to children's literature in general) made by other studios, all mass-mediated vehicles which co-opt fairy tales' subversive potential and convert it to the service of corporate capitalism (113-14).

Much Disneyfication, at least in the era of Walt himself, was evidently conscious; the filmmaker admitted that he sought out simple stories and simplified them further to create "nice" children's films. In Pinocchio, for instance, Disney intentionally narrowed the story to create a more cohesive plot and altered Pinocchio's character from that of a delinquent to "a well-meaning boy who was consistently led astray by conniving characters" (Thomas 26); this sanitized hero was judged more acceptable [End Page 83] for children. Disney himself acknowledged his preference for the morally simple over the complex:

I look for a story with heart. . . . It should be a simple story with characters the audience can really care about. They've got to have a rooting interest.

That was the trouble with Alice. There we had a classic we couldn't tamper with; I resolved never to do another one. The picture was filled with weird characters you couldn't get with. (Thomas 22)

The conscious effort to produce children's movies with no alarming moral ambiguities contributed to such well-known Disney signatures as the ubiquitous cute animals, either as adjuncts to the film's main characters (Snow White, Cinderella) or as anthropomorphized protagonists (Robin Hood, Oliver!). Less noted signature traits of Disneyfication include the use of dogs and cats as moral compasses2 and the imposition of generational conflict, absent from the original, which is always satisfactorily resolved, restoring family order (Sleeping Beauty).

Walt Disney is dead but his successors have followed and magnified the pattern he created for animated film. All of the characteristics described above are present in the studio's adaptation of The Little Mermaid; as one film critic noted, "we have seen before . . . funny animal friends, a handsome prince, a grotesque villainess and her less funny animal friends" (Lloyd). Peter Schneider, Disney animation chief during the production of The Little Mermaid, says that "people have been trying to figure out what Walt would have done and to hold on to his tradition" (Solomon 273), and in Mermaid, as successful a commercial product as any of Disney's early triumphs, the studio appears to have identified "what Walt would have done." Schneider attempts to argue that Disney tradition was to innovate constantly; in effect, he denies any sameness to Disney products under Walt. But a Disney studio style for animated features was noted as early as Dumbo in 1941 (McReynolds 788) and Disney animator Ron Clements, who originated the Little Mermaid project in 1985, acknowledged that he tried to make...


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