The Little Mermaid (1989) is easily one of the most iconic and important Disney Princess movies of all time. But it seems that Disney is forgetting its own past and rewriting its own history for the worst.
Not only did the original Little Mermaid film kick off the Disney Renaissance period, it also rejuvenated audiences’ interest in the animated musical genre. Thanks to the songwriting genius of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, as well as the vocal talents of Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid paved the way for later Disney musicals.
Fan-favorite movies such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) may have been very different if not for the original Little Mermaid film. Truly, its legacy can’t be emphasized enough.
However, there are some common misconceptions about the original Ariel character that pop culture typically endorses. Namely, the idea that Ariel gives up her voice (and therefore her agency) for a man and for nothing else. Unfortunately, the beautiful actress playing the new Princess Ariel seems to agree.
In a recent interview with Variety, Halle Bailey said:
I’m really excited for my version of the film because we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy. It’s way bigger than that. It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life and what she wants. […] As women we are amazing, we are independent, we are modern, we are everything and above. And I’m glad that Disney is updating some of those themes.
While this is a very empowering statement, it totally erases the agency and characterization of the original Ariel.
In the original Little Mermaid film, Ariel is immediately characterized as being obsessed with human culture and human artifacts. When the audience meets the Disney Princess, she’s exploring a sunken ship for lost artifacts to add to her collection. Afterward, she takes them to Scuttle to learn more about human civilization. After receiving a scolding from King Triton, Ariel performs her iconic ‘I want’ song: “Part of Your World.”
Although the name of the song is “Part of Your World,” the lyrics sung are ‘Part of That World.’ The entire piece is sung about how the princess wants to experience life as a human, and it’s all established before she ever meets Prince Eric.
Then, when Ariel makes the bold decision to visit the Sea Witch, it’s not because she can’t stand the thought of living without Prince Eric for a second longer. Instead, it’s due to King Triton’s cruelty when he destroys her entire collection of human artifacts. A collection that took her years to develop, cultivate, and sort.
The Disney Princess isn’t just a love-sick girl. For all intents and purposes, Ariel is an anthropologist. Furthermore, the very notion that she can’t be both a young woman in love and an anthropologist fascinated with humans is an anti-feminist one.
Analysis aside, we must wait and see what Halle Bailey meant by the quote. That being said, it’s very foreboding that the lead actress has mischaracterized and discredited the very inspiration for her updated Disney Princess.