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Distributor: United Artists, music by Leigh Harline, September 10, 1932
Date of the First DVD or VHS
Crossover (In the 30s many shorts by Walt Disney Productions were just technical experiments. Usually they were presented before the main feature movie, often for adults. Later, it was issued along with other animations from the “Silly Symphony” series, so it is hard)
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Author of the Entry:
Anna Mik, University of Warsaw, email@example.com
Peer-reviewer of the Entry:
Elżbieta Olechowska, University of Warsaw, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Hale, University of New England, email@example.com
, 1891 - 1971
Mostly known for his work in Walt Disney Productions in the 1930s. (He directed the famous Flowers and Trees in 1932 and the short Three Little Pigs in 1933, among others, for both of which he won Academy Awards for Short Animation). He started to work for Disney in 1929 as the second professional animator from New York City. Throughout his career he struggled with many problems with different production companies and got famous for his eccentrics (he changed his name with last name several times). After his Oscar success, he transferred to the Van Beuren Studios, where he directed (inter alia) shorts with Molly Moo-Cow and Felix the Cat.
The animation starts with the introduction of King Neptune sitting on his throne in his underwater kingdom. He sings:
The king of the sea,
And a jolly old king am I,
I rule the sea with an iron hand,
They obey my will or die,
The sailors are my loyal friends,
And friends of theirs am I,
The king of the sea,
And a jolly old king
As he sings, the orchestra consisting of various sea creatures (octopuses, sea horses, etc.) accompany him. They are actually an opening parade for mermaids, who visit King Neptune, and gracefully swim around him, pinching him as he tries to catch them causing general laughter. This jolly scene however is about to be interrupted. On the surface, a ship full of drunk pirates approaches the settlement of King Neptune. One of the pirates spots mermaids relaxing on the rocks. Loathsome men kidnap an unsuspecting mermaid. She tries to free herself, but the delicate creature does not stand a chance. Pirates surround her and try to touch her, which clearly suggests an attempt of sexual abuse. Fortunately, the rest of the mermaids immediately raise an alarm. The whole sea (waters and sea creatures combined) arm themselves and gather all their forces to free the kidnapped girl. Men cannot prevail faced with (among others) octopuses flying as helicopters and whales firing fishes. Pirates are defeated and punished. King Neptune temporarily trapped by the anchor and chains of the pirates’ ship, is now free and deals the final blow. He sinks the ship and sits on it as previously on his throne. The abused mermaid is rewarded with diamonds from pirates’ treasure, and the rest of the girls help themselves from the treasure as well. Final song of King Neptune reaffirms once and for all that he is the definite master of the sea, and all gets back to the status quo.
Probably the most interesting thing in this animation is the approach to the topic of women and womanhood. In Greek and Roman mythology sirens (later called mermaids) were depicted as dangerous creatures that harmed lost sailors. They were absolutely unforgiving and cruel, and barely showed any human traits. Here roles are reversed: innocent girls are abused by vicious men who just want to use and hurt them. In King Neptune mermaids are delicate, gentle, and not dangerous at all (which is not an original concept, as for example Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen has already softened the classical depiction of sirens). Men took on the role of the mythical siren, however instead of devouring women, they attempt to rape them (which symbolically might carry the same meaning). Of course Disney’s mermaids belong to various depictions of those creatures drawn from wide “mythology of the sea,” so not only classical tradition, but also folklore of sailors, etc.
As far as Disney animation is concerned, here mermaids are not covering their breasts which are tastefully but distinctly drawn and shown. This strategy of drawing will slowly decline in next animations, however it is interesting that even in times of censorship, Disney seemed to be less conservative than now.
But the feminine seems to be something more than only the depiction of women’s bare chests. After the ‘rape scene’, when all the sea finds out about the kidnapping, we deal with a very interesting realization of the cultural construct: nature (importantly: waters, often connected to the feminine) is reacting aggressively to the threat created by men. It shows not only solidarity between women (here – mermaids), but also between women and nature. Sea creatures do not hesitate or ask any questions: they simply attack the ship, the embodiment of evil and danger. Their determination shows the great power and potential of cooperation between women and animals, even if it is only a symbolic depiction of an utopian matriarchal dream. After all, King Neptune is the one who definitively deals with pirates and keeps his position in the underwater hierarchy. At the end of the day, as he sings himself, he is a good friend with sailors.
Edwin M. Bradley, The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931 (Jefferson, NC:
Stephen Cavalier, The World History of Animation, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
Karl F. Cohen, Forbidden Animation. Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1997).
Kristian Moen, Film and Fairy Tales. The Birth of Modern Fantasy (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013).
Russel Meritt, J.B. Kaufman, Walt Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’: a companion to the Classic cartoon series, (Gemona, UD: La Cineteca del Friuli, 2006)
Dave Smith (ed.), “Burt Gillett” (entry); “Playful Pan” (entry) in Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. 4th ed. (Glendale, CA: Disney Books, 2015).
Dubbed in many languages.