During this time of Disney live-action remakes, I saw a discussion online regarding the why. A few people stepped in to claim Disney had to remake their films to maintain their rights to their stories. I pointed out that almost every Disney film, and in particular the ones being remade, is based on a story that already exists in the public domain. (That is, everyone can make a movie about The Little Mermaid, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) as long as they do not steal additions, songs, etc. from the Disney versions. Out of curiosity I began seeking out pre-Disney versions of these stories. I started with Mulan, and found a Chinese opera from the 1960s (and evidence of earlier versions, though I couldn't find copies online). In particular I sought out older versions of the Little Mermaid, and thought I would share my findings.
Before I do, I just wanted to mention that the ending of the original Hans Christian Anderson tale was in part an inspiration for the character of Aura in Elf Mastery. Aura often proclaims herself a Daughter of the Air, which is a term used in English translations to describe what happens to the little mermaid after she dies. (If you are not aware, in the original fairy tale, the prince marries someone else and the little mermaid turns into the foam of the sea). An important element of the original story was that the little mermaid wasn't just in love with the prince: mermaids have no immortal soul, as do humans, but by the prince falling in love with her and marrying her, she was to be able to share his soul and receive admission to the afterlife with him. Without this, her death would mean her end. She is given the opportunity to save herself by turning herself back into a mermaid before she dies: her sisters purchased a knife from the sea witch. If she stabs the prince in the heart and lets the blood wash her feet, she will re-grow her tail and be able to return to the sea. She refuses, and submits to die herself, only for her sacrifice is rewarded by being allowed to join the Daughters of the Air, who tell her
“A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.”
(Accessed online at http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html)
Thus the Daughters of the Air carry the wind, cooling the air, and spreading the perfumed scents of flowers, and the inspiration for Aura.
Now I have found many versions of pre-Disney Little Mermaid, and would like to post them here. So far they are all available on Youtube, though there is one from a Spanish film called Fantasia 3 that I have not been able to locate. (Help in this regard would be appreciated.) Without further ado, here they are, in no particular order:
1) The first is a Czech version from 1976. It is live action, but not exactly high budget. The mermaids live under the sea, but have legs instead of fish-tails. I do like the costumes, and there is a song I rather like starting about 6 minutes in.
2) This one is also from 1976, but from Russia. A bit of a higher budget affair than the Czech version, but less stylized.
3) There is an earlier Russian version. The link I provide says 1960, but another I saw said 1968. Wikipedia also says 1968. The first 3 minutes are an intro. The animation becomes much more interesting after 3 minutes in. I find the style of animation quite unique and interesting, if not the storytelling itself.
4) This one is possibly a better well-known pre-Disney version. It is a Japanese animation from 1975. I grew up watching this at my cousins' house.
5) In 1958 Shirley Temple did a TV series called Shirley Temple's Storybook. Each episode re-enacts a famous tale. One of these episodes was The Little Mermaid. The best part is her visit to the sea witch.
6) Reader's Digest made an animated narration of the story in the 1970s. The video says 1975, but I think that's a typo, as the description and IMDB both say 1974.
7) There was a 1966 movie called The Daydreamer which tells the story of an unfocused protagonist (who I believe is supposed to be Hans Christian Anderson, though he is credited as Chris) who keeps daydreaming elements of his stories. It has a lot of big stars of the time, including Patty Duke and Boris Karloff. Hayley Mills voices the Mermaid. The Little Mermaid segment takes place from about 17:00-35:00 minutes marks.
8) Danny Kaye did a movie about Hans Christian Anderson in 1952. A short portion of the film is a ballet version of the Little Mermaid. I don't think this clip is complete (it cuts off when she rescues the prince), but I can't find any more of this segment.
Well, that's what I've found so far. Kind of neat to see all these interpretations of the same story. Just need to find a copy of Fantasia 3 to get the version by Eloy de la Iglesia. If anyone else has any other pre-Disney versions, let me know!
Bryant Reil currently resides in Kelowna, BC. Recent accomplishments include completing a Master's degree, and having finished two books, Elf Mastery and Elf Doubt. The third book, Elf Righteous, is underway.