“The Little Mermaid” was the first film in a string of hits Disney would release from 1989 until 1999. It was the rain that relieved a drought for Disney after the dismal performances of “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Oliver and Company” and “The Black Cauldron.” So why did “The Little Mermaid” succeed at the box office?
The film focuses on Ariel (Jodi Benson), a mermaid princess who strays away from activities and dreams of being on the surface. This troubles both her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), and the court conductor, Sebastian the Crab (Samuel E. Wright). On one evening, Ariel floats to the surface and sees a celebration on a boat. There she spies Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) and falls in love with him, eventually saving him when his ship burns. But Ariel cannot be with the prince because humans are different and they’re savages. Then Ursula (Pat Carroll) arrives on the scene and offers Ariel a deal: She can be a human and remain a human if she shares true love’s kiss with Eric before the third sunset after the transformation. If she fails to get true love’s kiss, she will return to her mermaid form and become the property of Ursula. Crazy in love, Ariel takes the deal.
The most obvious reason as to why “The Little Mermaid” was essentially an instant classic is that it’s one of the best movies Disney has ever made. The film features fantastic animation, great voice acting and wonderful songs. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote many of the best Disney songs ever done and quite a few of their best songs are in this film, such as “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl.” The film also does something the three films I mentioned earlier did not do, which is tell a love story. Most people love a love story and this film features a girl meets boy story.
The film also features Ursula, who is possibly Disney’s best villain. Ursula schemes and does everything possible to rule the sea. She also camps it up–although young Meghan-Annette thought Ursula was a guy–while being a delightful character to watch. No, she doesn’t burn down an occupied house because she’s lusting after someone nor does she destroy an entire village to send a message to a ruler, but watching her character is a delight and she does go to great lengths to get what she wants. She also has a motivation for why she does her plan. It’s established that Ursula used to be part of the royal court, but was banished for trying to seize the throne. While it’s not clear why she wanted it in the past, her banishment explains why she wants the throne now.
Although all of the songs in the film are great, I do want to focus on “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” We know “Part of Your World,” which is a classic “I Want” song that is found in musical theater. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” shows how Ursula uses Ariel’s desires and manipulates her into becoming a human. Ursula starts off by explaining how she works as a “businesswoman,” but after explaining the deal tells Ariel that she doesn’t need her voice.
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what’s idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with idle conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man.
With that speech it’s easy to understand why Ariel would give up an incredibly prized possession, her voice, to get the guy of her dreams.
Before I get to the main point of my posts, I would like to say that after watching this film I’ve noticed that “Someone different than you is a savage” is a recurring theme in Disney films released during the decade known as the Disney renaissance. In this film, it’s humans to merfolk; in “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s the Beast to the villagers; for “Pocahontas,” the natives to the settlers and reverse; in “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” it’s everyone outside of the cathedral to Quasimodo (as per what Frollo says) and gypsies to Frollo. This certainly creates a lot of dramatic tension in the films, but I find it interesting that it’s a theme Disney kept bringing up during this time period.
But is Ariel a Good Role Model for Children? No.
Sure, she’s a rebellious teenager, but Mulan struggles to meet the expectation of her society and is awesome. The problem here is that Ariel falls head-over-heels for a human and even defends him even though she hasn’t really had time to interact with him at length. (I’ll give “Pocahontas” credit for having Pocahontas defend John Smith and the settlers after she’s gotten to know him.) After her father tells her to stay away from the surface, she trades her voice to get human legs. This could be interpreted by people, and has been interpreted to mean that if you really want a man, change your body and he’ll like you.
I will admit that it’s good that Eric falls in love with her even though she can’t talk, which means that even though she is imperfect, he still likes her. (I don’t interpret that as being the result of men not liking girls who talk, as Ursula suggests.) But Ariel, although strong-willed, does make a deal to get the guy she wants. She also gets her friends into dangerous situations.
So in terms of “Is she a good role model,” I have to say no. But at least Ariel has a strong personality, which more than I can say about Cinderella or Aurora. It also helps that Ariel is placed in a really good movie, so if you haven’t seen “The Little Mermaid,” you have to see this movie.