March 30th, 2009

Ariel Union

Is The Little Mermaid a diegetic musical?

Image via Wikipedia
Here's a thought I had recently -- Is The Little Mermaid (the 1989 film) a diegetic musical?  In other words, are all the instances of songs in the film really being sung by the characters (as opposed to a standard musical, where the singing is just a theatrical convention)?

Let me explain better (swiping an example from Wikipedia).  In The Sound of Music, most of the songs are non-diegetic.  For example, in "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?", the nuns aren't really singing to each other while they discuss how flighty Maria is, the singing is only there because it is a musical.  Conversely, "Do-Ri-Me" is a diegetic song -- Maria is actualy singing it to they children, and they are singing it back, because it is a music lesson.

A diegetic musical is one where all the songs are diegetic.  You don't see them much in theater, but they are common in film.  Usually they are biopics of musicians, like Selina or Ray.  The recent Once was also diegetic by design; while not a biopic, it was necessary to make the two main characters musicians to pull this off.

So I think TLM could be considered diagetic if you make one big assumption -- that the undersea culture is much more musical that our own, and it is common to express yourself in song there.

Does this work?  Let's take a look at the songs:
"Fathoms Below" & "Les Poissons": the only songs sung by humans, they are both working songs and very plausible as diegetic songs.
"Daughters of Triton": a performance at a concert.  Of course it is diagetic.
"Under the Sea" & "Kiss the Girl":  Here's where we have to start assuming that the sea creatures are more musical under the sea then we are here on land, always ready to break into song (especially when Sebastian is around).  But we are already believing in talking crabs, so why not?
"Part of Your World": If you buy what I said above, then it's not a big stretch to see this song as diegetic too.  It's a (mer)girl expressing her desires, and since her culture is very musical, why not do it in song?
"Poor Unfortunate Souls": OK, here's where it breaks down.  This one goes further than the others because it represents an actual conversation between Ursual and Ariel, and I can't figure out why it would be sung, since earlier conversations in the movie (like Triton & Ariel's arguments) are not (so it doesn't look like the musicality of the sea denizens extends this far).  The last part of the song where Ursula is casting her spell does make sense as a real song, so I guess you could argue that Ursula's singing earlier was more spell casting, trying to convince Ariel with magic as well as words, but I don't buy it.

So I guess that, in the end my conclusion is that The Little Mermaid is not a diegetic musical, because I can't buy "Poor Unfortunate Souls" as a diegetic song.

Does anybody else have any opinions, pro or con?  Or know if any of the filmmakers ever talked about this in any interviews?

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