The latest trend in celebrity hairstyling is mermaid hair. Look at Rihanna: weave long, flowing and tinted deep red. Blake Lively wore a similar style when she appeared at the Time 100 Gala. And the appropriately named Scarlett Johansson was the latest to adopt the look. The inspiration is one mermaid, in particular—golden-voiced, purple-brassiered and, most notably, red-haired Ariel. Some seem surprised by this turn of hair-vents, but I, for one, am not so shocked. You see, ever since The Little Mermaid came out, I’ve been firmly of the opinion that it is not only a masterpiece but, quite possibly, the most satisfying movie I’ve ever seen.
The red-haired mermaid re-surfaced recently with the great hipster Ariel meme of 2011. A veritable school of other Disney princesses soon followed, but Ariel remained the most popular, due mostly to the funny cringe-expression on her face but also because no other Disney character has so fully attracted the unflagging, unanimous gawking of people across the entire sexual spectrum. With her bright eyes, big personality, generous bosom, and, yes, those titian locks, she is Girl Next Door meets Babe The Next Pond Over.
Last year, Second City brilliantly sent up the untoward morals one might draw from The Littler Mermaid in its web series “Advice for Young Girls ,” which starred actress Danielle Uhlarik and offered such wisdom as “If you have a father that loves you, run away from him” and “Don’t ever talk to a man unless he kisses you on the lips first. Then, as a woman, you’re allowed.” As recently as last weekend, SNL chose to address something as grave as bin Laden’s death by way of an “Under the Sea” parody starring Tina Fey and Keenan Thompson.
But jokes aside, The Little Mermaid succeeds because not only is it over-the-top and often surprisingly adult—there’s that infamous priest scene conspiracy theory, after all—but because it’s gorgeous and joyous and very, very funny. With the exception of the older adults (except King Triton, who is buffer than any cartoon dad has a right to be), most everyone in possession of a human torso in this movie is hot. Ariel, Prince Eric, Ursula the Sea Witch’s alter-ego, Vanessa. All six of Ariel’s sisters are bodacious, and by the way, you owe it to yourself to see how Ariel’s sisters appear in the “Characters from Disney’s The Little Mermaid” wiki.
But despite the relative attractiveness of many of the characters, the offbeat ones make a true play for our hearts, as well. Animator Ruben Aquino is said to have modeled Ursula after Divine, John Waters’s muse, and the Disney creation manages to be worthy of her divine inspiration. Ursula is one of the great villains of modern cinema: cunning, hilarious, and, without question, utterly fabulous. An Ursula bon mot, delivered in Pat Carroll’s delicious grumble, is available for almost every social situation. Want Miss Manners-style advice? “Don’t lurk in doorways; it’s ruuuuude!” Are you a copyeditor at Cosmo searching for that next killer headline? “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language—ha!” And, of course, should your pet(s) pass away, comfort yourself with a Phaedra-like tearing of hair and “My poor little poopsies!”
In fact, the single most brilliant YouTube video I’ve seen is the mesmerizing “Ursula’s Transformation Multilanguage,” a genius montage of Ursula’s heave of a laugh (given as she transforms into the beautiful Vanessa), dubbed in a dozen or so languages in one concatenated string. Once you’re accustomed to its insanity, it becomes fascinating and side-splitting. What carries you through it is the fact that Ursula, in all her fleshy, neon-ringed glory, is its star. Would that we all had something similar that drove us to madcap glee and endless cackling.
(Apropos of nothing: when I was a little kid and they made Gushers fruit snacks, I used to bite off one end of a Gusher, squeeze the filling on my lips, and say, “Well, Angelfish,” just like Ursula does with one of those pod-thingies when Ariel first meets her. Please, if only to save my therapist from more discussion of this, tell me at least one of you did the same. Any gender will do.)
And let us not forget that Sebastian, more so than any other plucky sidekick, made being a plucky sidekick so fashionable. Yes, Disney movies have always been full of such figures—key characters like The Jungle Book’s Baloo and Sleeping Beauty’s Flora, Fauna, and Meriweather spring to mind—but Sebastian is the gold (or ruby) standard. The Little Mermaid marked the resurrection of Disney’s animation scene after many tumultuous years, and the crab’s chutzpah may have been the company’s most valuable asset. Voiced to comic perfection by Samuel E. Wright, Sebastian is probably more active than any other sidekick ever. Here is a partial laundry list of things that he does: at the base level, he tries to keep Ariel punctual; he warns her about the impropriety of her collection of human treasures; he tries, in vain, to prevent her from visiting Ursula in the first place; he becomes, surprisingly, the chief architect of Ariel’s plan to undo Ursula’s plotting once Ariel is human; he is violently assaulted by a clearly deranged French chef, during which fracas he has salad and breadcrumbs shoved into his shell; he is then almost eaten; and, most terrifyingly, he has to remember that complicated and extremely prolix bridge of “Under the Sea.” What have you done for me lately?
Joining Sebastian is the adorable, plump Flounder and the squawk-raucous Scuttle, voiced by Buddy Hackett. I’ll admit, there is never a situation in which I don’t find the words “dinglehopper” and “snarfblatt” funny. And then there is the aforementioned chef, Louis; the delightful Carlotta (voiced by Edie McClurg, who is either Mrs. Poole from Valerie’s Family or the best part of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles depending on your disposition; and the gangly, loveable Sir Grimsby. If this cast were real and not animated, it would win the SAG Award for Best Ensemble.
And then there’s the movie’s music, especially its crown jewel, “Part of Your World.” This is the best song that has ever been in a movie, and I will not hear otherwise. Straight men, I guarantee you that in your life, you will date someone who sang this song into her mirror at some point as a child, so pay respect. (Gay men, this actually applies to you, too.) This was the song that taught me the word “reprimand.” Additionally, had I grown up underwater, it also would have taught me how to catch the light convincingly when singing in a grotto. My personal crush on Darren Criss of “Glee” predates his appearance on that show by a wide margin, simply because I was one of the thousands who had fallen in love with his performance of the song back when he was still strumming Disney ballads in his bedroom. Recently, I performed this song while doing a cabaret show in Beijing, and even though I was on the other side of the world, I still had people coming up to me saying that they knew every word. Ariel’s reach extends, indeed, across oceans. Once, when I performed “Part of Your World” at a show in New York, a friend said very wisely afterwards, “You know how there are some songs that are universal and could apply to many occasions? Yeah, not that one.” It’s true. It is very solidly a song about a mermaid who lives at the bottom of the sea and grossly, if adorably, misunderstands human culture. But I’ll take it, because I know I’m not the only one who swam in my neighbor’s pool and wished to Poseidon that I could grow a mer-tail at the age of 8.
The Little Mermaid is a delight—a musical, visual, and, yes, suggestive feast for the senses, so it’s really no great surprise that some of showbiz’s most sensational divas have adopted the Ariel look for themselves. I’d like to imagine an even wider sartorial, um, net cast: perhaps some dowagers might sport Warhol-like Ursula wigs; maybe a well-placed fork could act as Gaga’s next accessory; heck, if William and Kate can look strikingly like Eric and Ariel on their wedding day, there’s likely a place for someone to paint Flounder-like stripes across his or her next red carpet outfit. “Watch and you’ll see”: it’s a Little Mermaid world, and we’re all part of it.
Rakesh Satyal is the author of the Lambda Award-winning novel Blue Boy. The protagonist of his book is also obsessed with The Little Mermaid.