When we first started putting together the 1989 Tournament of Films, I was excited to see what the initial pairings would be. Not only because I’m a bracketology dork, but also because there is a special kind of great writing that comes from the in-depth comparison of apples and oranges. So when I first saw that both Tetsuo: The Iron Man (picked by Chris) and The Little Mermaid (picked by Michelle) both survived the initial lottery phase, I was thrilled. Here, I thought, was the essence of what I was trying to achieve with this writing exercise: comparing a light, frothy cartoon parable for kids to a depraved, assonant black-and-white cyberpunk nightmare. Sadly, this dream match-up was not to be, but I ended up drawing something just as good, because the Bracket Gods saw it fit to pair The Little Mermaid up with Bruce Robinson’s slimy black comedy How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
This was my first foray into the cinematic partnership between writer/director Bruce Robinson and actor Richard E. Grant. Somehow, I have gone my entire adult life without seeing their first collaboration, Withnail & I (1987). As it stands, my only prior experiences with the work of these men were The Rum Diary (Robinson’s perfectly okay 2011 adaptation of the eponymous Hunter S. Thompson novel) and Spice World (where Grant played the Spice Girls’ road manager). I was, however, intimately familiar with The Little Mermaid in the way many people my age are. Between 1989 and 1999, my mother dutifully bought every single animated Disney home video release, catalog stuff included, for me and my sister. The Little Mermaid, the tale of a teenage mermaid princess named Ariel who falls in love with a human prince named Eric, was never my favourite. But I could never articulate it beyond dumb children’s stuff like “Oh, but that’s a girl’s movie, there’s nothing there for me.” Now I’m older and wiser, and I still think that The Little Mermaid doesn’t hold up that well, but not because of some faulty ingrained notions about gender. If anything, it suffers of the dreaded Princess Problem, which showed up a lot over the course of Disney’s long run at the head of the American animation table.
If you look back at Disney movies past, there’s a strong chance that if there’s a female lead, that her endgame isn’t so much character growth as it is “true love.” Sure, she leaves the homestead and tries to stake it out on her own. But by the time the credits roll, the status quo will be upheld, usually in the form of a royal wedding. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), true love is literally used as a deus ex machina to awaken the slumbering protagonist, in what plays like a pasteurized rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. This isn’t accidental: the bowdlerization of the ruthless, hardcore fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and, in the case of The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen is commonplace in the Disney-verse. In the Grimms’ version of Snow White, the princess gets revived not by a kiss, but by falling out of her stagecoach-mounted glass coffin thanks to a jagged tree root, resulting in the chunk of poisoned apple still lodged in her throat to come loose. Also, the story ends at Snow White’s wedding where, as atonement for the attempted murder of the princess, the Queen is forced to dance herself to death in a pair of heated-up cast-iron shoes. Holy shit!
The same goes for The Little Mermaid. The original fairy tales operates in the same realm of fairy-tale tit-for-tat body horror as Snow White, and similarly doesn’t engage with it. The Sea Witch doesn’t just take the mermaid’s voice, she cuts off her tongue. It’s mentioned that every step she takes as a human feels like she’s walking on knives with bleeding toes. And, spoiler alert, the tale ends in true operatic fashion where the mermaid kills herself rather than stab the man she loves. This would allow her to revert to her mermaid form, thanks to a Super Secret Magic Blade acquired by her sisters. But because of her selflessness, the mermaid gets a chance to earn a human soul as a spirit of the wind. Holy fucking shit! Now, I can see why the folks at Disney didn’t want to go in this direction. Complex metaphysical themes concerning God, self-sacrifice, and the nature of the soul would be too heady for a young mind to process. But one thing that Disney does incredibly well in the spirit of these fairy tales is phantasmagorical nightmare fuel. In The Little Mermaid, this includes King Triton energy-blasting a statue of Prince Eric to bits in front of Ariel, a joyously sadistic song about killing fish sung by René Auberjonois, and the climactic battle sequence, where the now-gargantuan sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll, amazing) bellows, with all the gravitas of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, “The sea and all its spoils bow to my power!” It’s the best sequence in the entire film, but by that point, it’s too little too late. At 82 minutes, it carves away so much story and subtext in order to move the story forward that very little registers amidst the mostly-okay songs and haphazard plotting. It’s a classic story stripped of the raw elemental power that fairy tales can provide.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising suffers in a similar way. It too treads well-worn ground: the film is a black comedy about the ills of mass media and the power it possesses. But where The Little Mermaid, whether mandated by corporate or otherwise, scrubbed a story clean for consumption, How to Get Ahead in Advertising made itself queasier to set it apart. In addition to the standard yuppie nightmare beats and anti-consumerist proselytizing (which Grant, with his pronounced widow’s peak, gaunt build, and acidic delivery, is uniquely equipped to pull off brilliantly), the film trades in gooey old-school science fiction, incorporating the body horror elements reminiscent of cheapie genre films of the 1950s. It is, after all, a movie about an ad executive so stressed out by his latest project that he develops a sentient boil on his neck. Or does he? The movie never really settles on an answer to that question, and besides, Grant’s sanity isn’t the point of the film. In its strange way, like the classic science fiction films it emulates, and the fairy tales and Bible stories they descend from, How to Get Ahead in Advertising is a morality play where the evil that men do is literalized as a green pus-filled boil of pure id.
The grotesques aren’t just physical. The film plays the lawful-evil thought processes of the ad man for laughs through hyperbole and outlandishness. The fact that no one at work thinks that Grant’s character is losing his mind, or rather that he’s just become ruder, is the best sustained gag in the film. They’re not so much concerned as they are slightly miffed. This level of comic ridiculousness climaxes when Grant, in a virtuoso display of reverse psychology, convinces his boss to glamourize pimples in an ad in order to then sell pimple cream. Said ad features a welt-faced, brassy-voiced singer belting her way through a cheesy, synthed-up cover of the Who’s “My Generation.” It’s just weird enough to excuse that fact that it’s a tad unsubtle. This can actually be said of How to Get Ahead in Advertising on the whole: it’s a standard anti-corporate black comedy, except when it isn’t. This includes the finale, which I won’t spoil, but will paraphrase: it isn’t so much about Good conquering Evil, it’s more about all of Evil’s subsequent victories being pyrrhic.
Ultimately, both How to Get Ahead in Advertising and The Little Mermaid are about people in positions of privilege trying to incur personal change in an environment that impedes it by design. It also lays bare the inherent danger in bucking the institutional status quo. How to Get Ahead in Advertising, while harping hard on the “ads suck” trope, does a great job of marrying classic science fiction, wordy monologues, and inspired lunacy to its thematic concerns. The Little Mermaid, on the other hand, gets scrubbed clean of any depth in could have had by dint of being in a hurry to get itself over with. And to end up at pretty much the same place, no less: Ariel’s journey isn’t so much an arc as it is a lateral move, making this a dry run for Disney’s greater successes in the 1990s. That said, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, with its double-fisted downward spiral into Boil Hell, moves on into the next round.
The winner: How to Get Ahead in Advertising
Both movies are in print and available on Amazon, Netflix, and your local video store.
The Little Mermaid; written and directed by Ron Clements and Jon Musker; based on The Little Mermaid by Hand Christian Andersen; starring Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, and Buddy Hackett; 82 minutes.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising; written and directed by Bruce Robinson; starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, and Jacqueline Tong; 94 minutes.