Analysis

The Origins of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin

This post is 2 in the series: The Origins of the Disney Princesses

Last week I went over the tales behind the first three Disney princess movies, and introduced you to Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. Now it’s time for movies four through six. After Sleeping Beauty in 1959, Disney made less successful movies for thirty years.  Then came the Disney Renaissance, beginning with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989. By that time Disney was bolder, so these movies have more dramatic changes from the tales that inspired them.

The Little Mermaid

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If you read Han Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, you’ll find remarkable similarities to the Disney movie. The statue, the shipwreck on the prince’s birthday, the witch’s eels, and even those creepy seaweed things all come from the original story. Some characters are more or less important. The mer king is barely mentioned. Instead, the unnamed heroine has a kind grandmother who tells her stories about the surface. Still, the fairy tale and the movie tell largely the same story.

That is, until she strikes a bargain with the sea witch, and her tongue is cut out. Ariel gets some nice legs out of the deal, but in the original, stepping on her feet is incredibly painful. She does it anyway, even dancing for the prince and court. With no voice, dancing is her only way to charm the prince. She has no time limit on getting him to fall in love with her, but if she fails and he weds another, she’ll die. For a long time she remains his companion and servant.

There’s no witchy plans to rule the mer kingdom in the original story. The sea witch doesn’t use the heroine’s incredible voice to ensnare the prince. Even if she wanted the mermaid to fail, she wouldn’t need to. He doesn’t know the mermaid saved his life; instead he thinks a different woman did it. He decides the other woman is his one true love. As convenience would have it, she’s also a princess. He takes everyone out on a wedding boat, and he and the princess marry. Knowing she’ll die at dawn, the mermaid does one last, sad dance for them before they retire to the cabin.

That night, her sisters appear above the water and give her a knife. They’ve made a deal with the witch: if she kills the prince before dawn, she can go back to being a mermaid. But she still loves him, so she chooses to die instead. As the sun rises, she throws herself back into the sea, ending the tragic tale.

Or it would have ended that way if not for some strange insert about immortal souls and air spirits. Let’s rewind a bit. While the mermaid is longing for the prince, her grandmother happens to tell her that humans have immortal souls. Mermaids can only get one if a human falls so in love with them that they completely forget about the existence of their parents* and wed them. After hearing this, the mermaid decides she really wants the prince AND an immortal soul. Her deal with the witch gives her the opportunity to gain both.

After she fails and her body turns into sea foam, it is revealed that air spirits exist, and she’s now one of them. After three hundred years of hard work bringing the winds where they’re needed, she can earn an immortal soul and go to heaven. Hans Christian Anderson insisted this ending was his intention the entire time he was writing the story. Not everyone believes it.

Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast comes from a French novel by Madame de Villeneuve. In her tale, the kingdom is populated by fairies. One such fairy is called the Madam of Time, and she doesn’t get the idea of consent. When the prince refuses to marry her, she punishes him by turning him into a beast. He isn’t cruel like in the Disney version, he has great manners. Well… for the most part.

Belle is the daughter of a merchant (and secretly a fairy princess!). Her father gets lost in the woods and decides that the Prince’s empty-looking castle is a great place to rest and eat. That’s fine, the beast’s totally cool with it. That is, until the merchant decides to pick a rose from the garden for Belle, at which point he goes psychotic and threatens to kill the man. After some begging, the beast agrees to spare him if one of his daughters willingly comes to live with him forever. Like a good father, the merchant goes home and sends Belle his way.

Belle’s time at the castle is pretty peaceful; she doesn’t even see the beast that much. He just shows up every evening to talk to her. And to ask to sleep with her. Luckily for her, he knows what consent is. But not harassment, because he asks again every day, just in case her “no” becomes a “yes.”

So she doesn’t have to sleep with the beast, but she does have to sleep with some pretty creepy dreams. In them, there is a handsome prince, and a super preachy woman who tells her to be grateful to the beast for all his kindness. This continues until she gets homesick and asks the beast to allow her to visit her family. He grants her request, but warns her if she doesn’t return quickly, he’ll die. Not because there any sort of time limit to his cure, or fatal repercussions for exceeding it, just because his feelings for her have grown into a fixation that should be treated at the nearest mental hospital.

Naturally Belle is delayed in returning, and the beast plays his part by dramatically dying to attract the attention of his love interest. But she revives him! After watching his near-fatal display of affection, she realizes how much she cares for him, and decides to say “yes” the next time he asks to sleep with her.

Instead of sexy times, he just lays in her bed and falls asleep. Belle sleeps next to him, and when she wakes up he has transformed into the prince from her dreams. But it isn’t happily ever after yet, because his royal mother objects to his plan to marry a merchant’s daughter. Luckily for the couple, the preachy fairy godmother from Belle’s dreams comes by and explains that she’s actually a fairy princess who was switched at birth. A fairy because her mother was a fairy, a princess because she’s the daughter of the beast’s uncle. In other words, his cousin. They marry anyway, because incest is a royal tradition.

Aladdin

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Disney’s Aladdin is based on Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, from One and One Thousand Nights, aka Arabian Nights. Though this interwoven collection started in the 8th century and contains Middle Eastern folktales, Aladdin was added to it by the Frenchman Antoine Galland in 1710.

To make its history even more confusing, the story actually takes place in China. Supposedly Aladdin and the other characters (with the exception of the villain) are Chinese, but they have Arabic names and generally behave like Muslims. There’s two competing theories for this – either the story took place in a Muslim area of China like Turkestan, or an early storyteller put it in China to make it feel exotic, without knowing anything about the Chinese. Regardless, moving the story to the Middle East was a good judgement call on Disney’s part.

In the original story, Aladdin is super lazy. So much so that his father dies from disappointment. His mother has to work extra hard to support both of them, but he still just plays in the streets. Then one day, an evil magician shows up. In the original, this villain isn’t the same character as the sultan’s vizier, so he can’t throw Aladdin in jail. Instead, he pretends to be his uncle, and takes Aladdin to the mountains to reveal the entrance to the treasure chamber. Aladdin has to put his hand on door and say his father and grandfather’s name, suggesting that his lineage, and not any “diamond in the rough” business, is responsible for his ability to open it. Then the magician sends him in to get the lamp.

But first he gives him a magical ring containing a lesser genie.

That’s right, Aladdin gets not one, but two genies. And there’s no three wish limit to these genies either; they just continually give Aladdin whatever he wants. Having the lamp is like having Q from Star Trek at your beck and call, 24/7. And when Aladdin insists on exiting the treasure chamber before handing over the lamp he just retrieved, the magician gets mad and shuts him in the cave – with both genies.

As you can imagine, Aladdin figures it out and transports home. For a while, Aladdin just sells some silver the lamp genie gives him. He doesn’t do more because he’s unambitious. That is, until he hears that the sultan’s daughter is heading to the baths. To prove he can be as creepy as any fairytale prince, Aladdin sneaks into the baths to spy on her as she removes her veil.* Upon seeing her uncovered, he decides he must have her as his bride.

Sorry, there’s no romantic carpet ride, or any flying carpets at all. Aladdin just buys her from her father. Having heard about his new obsession, his mother obligingly visits the sultan with gifts of jewels to arrange the marriage for him. The sultan is impressed and promises the princess in marriage to Aladdin.

But the vizier wants the princess to marry his own son, and convinces the sultan to go back on his word. When Aladdin finds out that his crush just got married to someone else, he has the lamp genie kidnap the newlyweds by transporting them – in their bed – into his home. He then transports the competing groom out, and sleeps next to the sultan’s terrified daughter, before returning both of them in the morning. The groom is also freaked out by this, and after three consecutive days of it happening, he asks the sultan to nullify their marriage just so he doesn’t have to go through it again. And the princess? Like a good, plot-convenient heroine, she stops being scared and starts being into Aladdin around the same time.

Aladdin gets the genie to make him an impressive palace full of servants* to bring his bride home to. But they don’t get their happy ending yet. The magician, who’s heard about Aladdin’s good fortune, returns to take it all from him. The lamp is apparently sitting out in the open, and Aladdin’s wife doesn’t know it’s magical, so it’s easy for the magician to trick her into giving it to him. Once he has the lamp, he flies the entire palace, complete with wife, servants, and treasure, to his home in North Africa.

The sultan, angered by the disappearance of the palace and his daughter, almost executes Aladdin. The hero gets him to relent by promising he’ll find the princess in no more than forty days. Without the lamp, Aladdin must rely on his wits and charm alone to find his wife and get the palace back. Just kidding, he uses the second genie in his ring. This genie can’t undo anything the lamp genie did, but it transports him to the palace. The princess then drugs the magician,* allowing Aladdin to get the lamp back and fly the palace home.

He sends the magician off in chains, but what do you know, the magician has a brother who wants revenge. Luckily this guy doesn’t have any more imagination than his sibling, because he uses the same “trick the wife” routine. This time it’s by dressing up as a wise woman.* The lamp genie warns Aladdin, and he kills the guy.

Aladdin and his wife live happily ever after. Like the Disney movie suggests, Aladdin one day succeeds his father-in-law and becomes sultan.

 

That’s it for these movies. Next week I’ll cover Pocahontas, Mulan, and the Princess and the Frog.

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