Disney’s 1989 animated feature The Little Mermaid is an enjoyable, fanciful tale of a strong-willed, titian-haired mermaid princess who falls head-over-fins in love with a human prince. The film is a mix of quite good and less-desirable features. On the positive side there are memorable songs, colorful animation, some good humor, a couple endearing characters, and the quintessential sordid, crafty villain (though you may rightly question my estimation of humor after that shameful pun in the last sentence). Yet despite its many attractive features, I would not rank The Little Mermaid with the best of Disney films. Its immature protagonist, Ariel, lacks certain admirable qualities such as good judgment, responsibility, and sympathetic understanding for others, and the film’s treatment of her faults lets her off the hook too easily.
The movie’s first scenes do well to evoke the excitement, power, and wonder of the sea. A ship bursts through the crest of a frothy wave and the viewer feels tossed up with the water to the tall ship’s deck where the dark-haired, bright-eyed Prince Eric pronounces it a “perfect day to be at sea!” The sailors begin a lively song about the “mysterious fathoms below”, and their references to merfolk and King Triton pique the viewer’s interest before s/he is plunged back down to discover the ethereal world under the ocean. Scenes of bright fish, skittish anemones, dolphins and a majestic whale meet the eye, and finally come the undulating forms of swimming mermen and mermaids.
While the viewer is drawn into the enchanting new experience of mermaids and magic, all Ariel can think of is becoming “part of that world up above”, as she sings; she is enthralled by the mysterious human realm just beyond the brink of her understanding. But this dream floats tantalizingly beyond her grasp due to her lack of human legs and as a result of her father King Triton’s injunction to stay away from the dangerous humans, whom he believes to be “barbarians” and “spineless, savage” creatures “incapable of any feeling”. At a large celebration at Triton’s palace, Ariel’s beautiful voice is supposed to be featured in a musical masterpiece written by the crab Sebastian, who is the king’s royal composer, but Ariel forgets about the concert. Instead she is off exploring a sunken shipwreck in hopes of finding artifacts from the human world. She surfaces to bring her finds to Scuttle, a well-intentioned, endearing, but inept seagull who wrongly identifies the human objects. After she hurries back home, her father and she have a heated dispute and he angrily commands her again to stay away from the dangerous surface. He assigns the crab Sebastian to keep watch over Ariel. Sebastian’s Jamaican-sounding accent and his ability to spontaneously conduct sea creatures to create music make him a fun character, even though his exasperation, high regard for rules, and his disapproval of his young charge do not make him unique among Disney characters. Similar characters include Prince Eric’s caretaker Grimsby, Cogsworth the clock in Beauty and the Beast and Zazu the hornbill in The Lion King.
Sebastian sings the upbeat song “Under the Sea” to convince Ariel that “such wonderful things surround [her] right here on the ocean floor”, so she does not need to gallivant off to the human world—“what more is [she] looking for?” Yet even before Sebastian has a change to finish his song Ariel sneaks away again to follow a ship, on which she sees Eric for the first time, and it is love at first sight. Suddenly a storm hits, and Ariel saves the unconscious Eric from drowning. Eric is even less of an original character than Sebastian because he is hardly distinguishable from other Disney males. His hair, facial expressions and voice are extremely similar to Aladdin’s, for instance. It seems he is in the film to occupy the stock role of handsome male love interest for the protagonist.
When Ariel’s father finds out that she disobeyed him again and furthermore that she is in love with a human, he destroys the treasures in her secret trove of objects from the human world, and leaves her in tears. The sly sea witch Ursula snatches up this opportunity to send her two minions to Ariel to pretend to sympathize with her. They coax her into coming to Ursula for help with pursuing her beloved Eric’s affection. Ursula proposes a deal to the young mermaid. She promises to change Ariel’s tail into human legs for three days. By the end of the third day Ariel must obtain a kiss of true love from Eric. The catch is that Ariel must relinquish her voice to the sea witch, and if Eric has not kissed Ariel by sunset on the third day, Ariel will become the property of Ursula.
Of course Ursula intends for Ariel to fail all along so that king Triton will be forced to give up his power in exchange for his daughter’s freedom. So when Ariel comes dangerously close to success in the form of Eric’s lips, Ursula must intervene. Her henchmen upset the boat in which the lovers sit and ruin the moment for a kiss of true love. Ursula then transforms herself to look like a beautiful woman. Using Ariel’s voice to lure Eric into her trap, the witch enchants him so that he vows to marry her the next day. Scuttle swoops on to the ship’s deck and sabotages the wedding, but it is too late. Ariel turns back into a mermaid and belongs to the witch. Triton is then driven to appease Ursula by giving her all his power in order to save his daughter. But the gallant Prince Eric slays Ursula by ramming her with the broken mast of the ship. As her dying form sinks below the waves, all is put to rights. Triton returns to his old self and his power returns. He himself turns Ariel into a human again and consents to her marrying Eric. As Triton and the merfolk wave goodbye, the lovers kiss and sail off under an arch of rainbow.
Thus the film rewards Ariel by making her dreams a reality. She finally belongs to the human world and is united with Eric. I agree that the film does well to praise Ariel for at least one characteristic. Unlike her father, she does not assume that the foreign land-dwellers called humans are simply depraved “barbarians”. Instead she takes time to examine the curious objects they have made. She finds beauty in them—even in a seemingly mundane, curved, silver fork—and subsequently senses that the people who made these things must also contain beauty and goodness in themselves: “I don’t see how a world that makes such beautiful things could be bad”, Ariel tells her friend Flounder. Although it is illusory that there is always a connection between making beautiful-looking objects and being morally upright, the association does have truth in it. (The aesthetic difference between the orcs’ and elves’ attire in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a prime example!) At any rate I believe there is always a connection between moral goodness and true beauty (which of course refers to more than just appearance), and perhaps that is the idea the creators of the film were drawing on. Ariel’s trust that humans are noble, and thus valuable beings, naturally prompts her to save Prince Eric from drowning whereas her father or another merperson would have likely left him to die. Ariel, Triton, and Eric all risk themselves in some way for another’s sake, and it is because of this that they are finally reconciled to each other in the end. Ariel’s father relinquishes his power to Ursula and suffers the transfiguration into a weak and wrinkled worm-like creature so that his daughter may be free from the witch. Eric nearly drowns again in his similar attempt to save Ariel from being dragged back to Ursula, and later he steers the breaking ship toward Ursula in order to stop her from killing Ariel, even though he could have chosen to flee to save himself. After Eric does this, Triton must understand that in their capacity to demonstrate real love humans are no different from merfolk. Triton no longer relegates humans to the status of barbarians, and he goes so far as to turn Ariel back into a human and consent to her marriage to Eric. The Little Mermaid rightly applauds Ariel for her willingness to believe in the nobility even of people different from her own, while her father had hastily judged the strangers to be degenerate and without feeling.
Aside from that however, there is much to dislike about Ariel. She often acts like a nine-year-old in a sixteen-year-old’s body. She is careless, irresponsible, somewhat selfish, and unsympathetic. The idea “Children must be free to live their own lives” which Sebastian pronounces near the end is presented as a wise theme of the film, and it may be true, but in the context of the movie it problematically suggests that each dangerous and disobedient thing Ariel did was Triton’s fault for being too stern. The movie glosses over her faults and asks the reader to light-heartedly shake his/her head at Ariel and laugh at her cute thoughtlessness. On Ariel’s first night as a human, Sebastian tries to tell her about the frightening day he had dodging a chef’s cleaver, and then he switches to giving her tips about how to make sure Eric falls in love with her. Her mind seems lost in dreamland. She doesn’t even listen and falls asleep. Sebastian pats her on the head and sighs lovingly, “You are hopeless . . . completely hopeless”, and the movie encourages the viewer to do the same instead of holding Ariel responsible for her actions.
Ariel is eager enough to extend sympathy to humans, but her sympathetic understanding for others stops there. At the outset the viewer learns from the chagrined Sebastian that Ariel rarely came to the musical rehearsals he held to prepare for the grand celebration at the palace. Then she is careless enough to forget about the concert altogether, even though she has a major solo part in it. Sebastian is clearly upset and hurt that she forgot. When he tells her that the concert was to be the “pinnacle of his distinguished career” but that she made him the “laughingstock”, she has her arms crossed and raises a skeptical eyebrow as if she does not think her thoughtlessness was a big deal at all. Granted Sebastian may be exaggerating, but she selfishly fails to show sympathy for him and her father. Also, her friend Flounder contends that missing the performance was not her fault because a shark chased her. In reality that was well after she left the palace anyway, so it is no excuse. In a later instance Ariel is angry at Sebastian for not being able to keep secrets from her father about her doings. She does not even try to imagine the difficult position he was in while trying to answer the sea king’s questions honestly but also protect Ariel’s secrets about the cavern of human-made treasures and about her infatuation with a human. Ariel is intoxicated with the world of humans and selfishly blinds herself to most of her friends’ and family’s concerns.
The little mermaid is also unable to fully imagine her father’s perspective on why he desires her to stay away from the surface of the water. To be fair Triton should allow her to voice her concerns and desires about the human world without getting angry at her and stopping the conversation. Still, Ariel shows poor judgment by continually sneaking off to the surface after he repeatedly told her not to do so. That will only worsen the current situation. As a sixteen-year-old she seems to believe she knows exactly what is dangerous and what is not, but the early incident in which she and Flounder were chased by a shark reveals that her danger assessment skills are still in their infancy. She had reassured Flounder that “nothing is going to happen” just before a razor-toothed shark burst upon them.
Ariel’s impulsive choice to sign the contract with the evil sea witch is a glaring example of her poor judgment and lack of responsibility. Perhaps she naively believes that she cannot possibly fail to fall in love with Eric in three days, so she does not heed the consequence of failure—belonging to Ursula forever. Yet since she is able to sense the correspondence between beautiful things and beautiful, moral beings, she should be able to take an educated glance around Ursula’s ugly, infested lair and deduce that the witch is not a benign being who intends to play fair. Yet when her father discovers the pact, Ariel’s desperate excuse is “Daddy, I didn’t know!”, and the film leaves it with that insufficient excuse.
Ariel’s character leaves much to be desired. Her willingness to trust that humans are as noble as merfolk is laudable. Yet how can one highly praise her curiosity and daring when she displays poor judgment of danger to herself and others, or no judgment at all? The Little Mermaid’s moral of allowing children freedom to “live their own lives” sounds admirable, but the movie’s failure to address Ariel’s selfishness and lack of sympathy and responsibility do nothing to prove its wisdom. In my estimation Ariel has a lot of maturing to do before she is ready to get married. It is a shame, really, that the caliber of the protagonist weighs down the rest of the film. As the beaming, sixteen-year-old sails away kissing her new love, I can’t help but wonder how happy their ever after will really be.