Reviews of “The Little Mermaid” (1837) and related work
“The Little Mermaid” (1837)
Hans Christian Andersen (writer).
Read in 2020.
‣ The Little Mermaid (1989)
Review refers to the Swedish dub.
‣ Ponyo (2008)
While an alchemist who has given up hope seeks to rejuvenate the oceans, one of his children with the goddess of the sea decides to have an adventure and goes floating off between two jellyfishes.
Ghibli’s purest children’s film. It’s a wild fantasy, more so than Andersen’s fairy tale, preserving the whimsical beauty of Andersen’s environments, with very little plot. Instead of being the youngest of half a dozen sisters at fifteen, the little mermaid appears to be the oldest of hundreds at five. Her mother is alive but corresponds to the sea witch, her father is a human alchemist rather than a merfolk king, her voice is not threatened etc. As adaptations go, it’s much less faithful than Disney, but its source is still clear: Without the context of the fairy tale, the threat of turning to foam would appear even more nonsensical, especially as it is applied to a much younger child, not in the context of pubertal romantic anxiety.
The scope recalls Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), including a threat of apocalypticism brought on by environmental degradation, softened by the possibility of de-extinction, and involving unaligned “divine” intervention, the witch/goddess corresponding to the earlier kyoshinhei. Ponyo is set at a very different angle, appropriate for small children. There is no malice, no evil, and the ending is happy and naïve about personal development. As usual with Miyazaki, the apocalypse is portrayed largely as a good thing: it has hardly any negative results beyond inconveniencing a coastal town. Instead of realism, there are many wonderful scenes of children at play, with brilliantly vivid animation. Ponyo overpowers her surroundings with Totoro-like enlightened mindlessness: let the adults worry about the end of the world! The possibility of horrifying consequences is shifted to an abstract plane, leaving only a few scenes of adventure and melancholy.
This innocence about environmental problems prompts the question why Miyazaki added such a conflict at all. Perhaps it merely modernizes the threat of the mermaid killing the prince. In Andersen’s story, shipwrecks bring precious goods to the bottom, not filth. Similarly, it isn’t clear why Sōsuke, standing in for the prince, refers to his parents by their names, or quite what governs Ponyo’s physical transformations away from Fujimoto and the enchanted sea. Seeing this film in Japanese with my fellow adult fans, I felt no need of a more cohesive plot. When I saw the Swedish dub with my nieces, the youngest—then just turned six—was delighted and confused.