Time for another Princess Review, freshly moved from the community blogs to right here. If you missed the first ones, there’s an introductory post here, as well as earlier reviews of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.
Released a full thirty years after Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid is the first princess movie made in the Disney Renaissance. It’s also one of the most heavily criticized, with many citing encouragement to trade one’s family for genitalia. Given its more modern release, the old defense of “that’s just how things were back then” is no longer valid.
The Little Mermaid starts out aboard a fishing ship, where Prince Eric of a nearby seaside kingdom learns about King Triton, the underwater king responsible for the tides, from the sailors aboard his ship. He’s a bit incredulous- mermaids certainly don’t exist!
Meanwhile, King Triton tries to enjoy a concert by his royal composer, Sebastian the Crab. Triton’s youngest daughter, Ariel, is singing for the first time, and he’s excited to see her debut…except Ariel chose to investigate a shipwreck instead. To her credit, she does get a totally awesome fork out of it.
Ariel rushes back to her father to apologize about missing the concert, but lets slip that she went to the surface to identify her new treasures. Triton forbids her from going to the surface again: if a human saw her, he’d murder her! Ariel huffs about being sixteen and able to make her own decisions before storming out. Triton is suspicious and sends Sebastian out to snoop. Ariel unwittingly leads the crab back to her junk-filled grotto, where she sings about how awesome legs and fire are. Sebastian reveals himself, and just as they’re arguing over whether or not to tell Triton about Ariel’s secret hobbies, the mermaid is distracted by a shadow overhead and swims to investigate.
It just so happens to be a ship on which Prince Eric is celebrating his birthday, complete with jig-dancing and appropriately-timed violin. Ariel is immediately smitten by his dashing looks and off-screen smoking. While Ariel is staring at Eric, a surprise hurricane hits. Eric and the crew evacuate to lifeboats just as lightning his the ship. Eric climbs back into the flaming wreck to save his adorable dog, who he is able to throw overboard right before the fire reaches the gunpowder supply and the ship explodes.
Ariel finds Eric, drags him back to the beach, flops suggestively on top of him, and sings. Her obsessive song is interrupted by the arrival of other humans. She sings a bit more on a rock further out to sea, makes a pact with Sebastian not to talk about the whole affair, and then swims home. Triton immediately notices that she’s acting strangely, and when he squeezes the truth out of Sebastian, his first action is to destroy all of Ariel’s stuff.
Ursula, the resident octo-villian out for Triton’s throne, takes this opportunity to convince Ariel to trade her voice for a pair of legs and a trip to the surface. If Ariel can’t make Eric fall in love with her in three days, Ursula will take her soul. Ariel takes advantage of this totally fair deal and heads off to the beach to seduce her man. She and Eric spend some time together, but without her voice, Eric doesn’t know that the Hot Mystery Lifeguard he’s been looking for is right there with him. He slowly falls for Ariel despite (or because of) her silence, and just as they’re about to kiss, Ursula’s goons step up to interrupt them.
Deciding this was just too close, Ursula disguises herself as a brunette Ariel, complete with stolen voice, and hypnotizes Eric. They plan a hasty wedding that Ariel’s animal pals crash at the last minute. Ariel’s voice returns to her, but it’s too late- she and Ursula change back to their regular forms and plunge back into the sea. Triton comes to the rescue, trading his soul for Ariel’s, and Ursula briefly becomes the queen of the ocean before Eric stabs her to death with a ship. Triton realizes it’s time to sever, so he turns Ariel into a human and hangs out in the ocean while Eric and Ariel have a boat wedding of their own.
I absolutely adored The Little Mermaid as a kid. I grew up on islands and pretending to be mermaids was The Thing To Do. Many beach and pool trips involved having imaginary adventures with sea creatures and deciding what colors our sea shells would be. In retrospect, an obsession with being a mermaid is a pretty interesting reaction to a movie about a mermaid who is obsessed with being a human.
Ariel is also pretty easy to relate to as an only child. Having a huge cavern full of stuff and wanting more? Right there with you, girl.
Triton is totally against the idea of Ariel looking at a human, much less dating one. He refuses to listen to any good qualities that humans may have, instead sticking to his preconceived notions. By the end of the movie, Eric’s actions make Triton think twice about his prejudices, and he not only allows his daughter to become human, but also gives his blessings. This is a pretty big gesture on Triton’s part, given that Eric’s kingdom thrives off of murdering Triton’s subjects and eating their corpses.
Maybe they’ll turn back to farming after the wedding.
A lot of the princess movies have involved marriage at sixteen, but Ariel constantly refers to her age as proof that she can do anything. Her young marriage certainly isn’t the worst of it. “I know I missed the concert that everyone was depending on me for, but I’m sixteen! You keep saying that those people are dangerous, but I’m sixteen! I know that this octopus lady is totally evil, but I’m sixteen!” Granted, this is how most sixteen-year-olds feel, and teenage girls were rebelling far before 1989, but it’s not a feeling that needs encouragement.
The message that most people disagree with in the movie is Ariel’s decision to leave her family forever for a man. And, while I can see that objection, I don’t think that’s the message the movie is sending. When Ariel trades her voice to Ursula, she’s just had a huge fight with her father, and she’s still very hesitant about the whole thing. She knows that it’s a big sacrifice, and even after they fought, she still loves her father and doesn’t want to leave him. It’s pretty clear to the audience, even a young audience, that signing her soul away is not the best decision that Ariel could make, and one that she only makes under extreme pressure.
Ariel’s final transformation is the biggest factor in her departure from the sea. Triton mentions before he transforms her that he’ll miss her, but given that he and Ariel’s sisters are in full view of the humans attending the wedding, one gets the impression that their parting is not forever. His little girl won’t be living with him anymore, but they’ll still visit and have a relationship with each other. This parting from her family is much like the standard parting that happens when people move in with their partners: it’s sad, but it’s not like they can’t ever see each other again.
Given that prior princess romances were based on walking past each other, Ariel and Eric easily have the strongest relationship. Ariel’s attraction is, at first, just superficial…and then she sees Eric save his dog.
Eric climbs back into a flaming boat to save his dog. He sacrifices himself for the dog. That is awesome. You know he’s worth it if he’ll do something like that. Hell, I want to marry him after seeing that.
On Eric’s half, he wants to marry the woman who saved his life, but the only knowledge he has of her is a vague recollection of her face and the sound of her voice. He searches for weeks without finding out a thing. When he meets voiceless Ariel, he finds her charming despite her silence, and eventually figures that his dream woman isn’t a realistic goal. This is a bit of a confusing message: on the one hand, Eric is letting go of his unrealistic expectations of his dream woman in favor of someone real, but on the other, he’s settling for someone he thinks less of. Neither are ideal.
Despite depicting a somewhat healthier relationship than previous Disney movies, The Little Mermaid has a few messages that are a bit dangerous. Ariel’s independence and sense of adventure feel like a big improvement on the meek princesses from earlier films, but combined with other outside influences, her assertion that she is a capable adult goes a bit over the edge. The media is vocal about the possible problems in marketing Princesses, but few people object to the products encouraging little girls to be teenagers. It’s absolutely everywhere, from TV shows to toddler toys, and combined with the idea that one is completely independent once reaching one’s teens, it’s a pretty horrible message to send out. I know I was definitely affected by it, and friends agree that, as children, they had many of the same obsessions Ariel did: acquiring items from a glamorous world inhabited by people above them…and, you know, saving drowning sailors.
Basically, if an only child is watching this over and over, she might need a few talks, and perhaps a demonstration about chores and tax forms. Otherwise, a kid could just enjoy the sweet sounds of musical sea cockroaches.