The Da Vinci Mermaid


Just one more teeny tiny footnote regarding The Little Mermaid (1989). You may recall that this film is mentioned in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code — though not in Ron Howard’s film adaptation thereof. As I wrote in one of my reviews of that film:

One of the amusing things about the book is how shamelessly it throws together every bit of “evidence” it can muster—from classic paintings to Disney cartoons—to convince the reader the world is full of secrets and conspiracies. But the movie keeps its focus on the highbrow art, in what seems like a bid for credibility, or respectability.

The book mentions several Disney cartoons in passing, but takes a special interest in The Little Mermaid. Here is what it says:

. . . Langdon . . . had learned not to underestimate Disney’s grasp of symbolism. The Little Mermaid was a spellbinding tapestry of spiritual symbols so specifically goddess-related that they could not be coincidence.

When Langdon had first seen The Little Mermaid, he had actually gasped aloud when he noticed that the painting in Ariel’s underwater home was none other than seventeenth-century artist Georges de la Tour’s The Penitent Magdalene — a famous homage to the banished Mary Magdalene — fitting decor considering the movie turned out to be a ninety-minute collage of blatant symbolic references to the lost sanctity of Isis, Eve, Pisces the fish goddess, and, repeatedly, Mary Magdalene. The Little Mermaid’s name, Ariel, possessed powerful ties to the sacred feminine and, in the Book of Isaiah, was synonymous with “the Holy City besieged.” Of course, the Little Mermaid’s flowing red hair was certainly no coincidence either.

Most of those assertions are bogus, I’m sure. But what about the Georges de la Tour painting? What role does it play within the film itself, and why was it put in there? It appears during the sequence in which Ariel sings ‘Part of Your World’, at the point where she sings the lyric, “What is a fire, and why does it — what’s the word? — burn?” And in the audio commentary, one of the directors says:

That painting, right there, Glen Keane picked out that painting because he wanted a picture, an image, of a fire underwater to go with the lyric.

And who is Glen Keane, you ask? He is a Disney animator, the son of Family Circus cartoonist Bill Keane, the author of a series of ‘Parables for Kids’ books, and a professing Christian in his own right; in one of the bonus features on the DVD for Beauty and the Beast (1991), he even alludes to how his faith motivated him when he animated the Beast’s transformation back into a man.

So, the idea that there is some sort of secret mysterious heretical meaning behind this scene in the Disney film is pretty bogus.

Oh, and about the red hair. Here is what Keane’s colleagues have to say about that, in one of the featurettes on Disc 2:

Mark Henn (co-supervising animator, Ariel): The choice for red hair was definitely a very conscious, deliberate choice. For me, what I remember was simply the fact that we had just come out with a mermaid picture in Splash [1984], and you had a blonde Daryl Hannah, so right away it was just like, “Well, we gotta do something different.”

Maureen Donley (associate producer): I remember a si– major argument over Ariel’s hair. People would walk into the room with totally different images in their heads. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] thought he was going to see Daryl Hannah, maybe.

John Musker (co-writer, co-director and co-producer): He was like, “Guys, everybody knows mermaids are blonde, okay?” And we were like, “Do they know that? Do we know that?”

Roger Allers (story artist): The choice of red hair for Ariel works way better than blonde, because for one thing, you’ve got these lovely complements. You’ve got the red on top and the green tail, so you’ve got two complements which gives you an energy. Also, you want to take her into a dark place and her hair gets darker? A dark shade of red is really much more easy to accomplish than to take yellow, and make a dark yellow. Blecch.

So there you go. She’s got red hair partly because Daryl Hannah’s mermaid had blonde hair. Then again, Splash was directed by Ron Howard, who went on to direct The Da Vinci Code, so maybe there’s still room for the conspiracy theorists to maneuver here.


About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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