Well, it’s been 30 years since our last Disney Princess. From the film that began the Disney Renaissance, and also from one of my favourite Disney films, this is Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ariel is a 16-year-old mermaid who’s fascinated by the human world above the surface, collecting human items as a hobby and wishing she lived above the surface. But her father, King Triton, warns her of the dangers of the human world. She eventually stumbles across a boat where she finds Prince Eric, whom she falls in love with and decides that she truly wants to be with him. A sea witch named Ursula convinces Ariel to make a deal with her by creating a spell which will turn her into a human for three days in exchange of her voice. Unless Ariel makes the Prince fall in love with her and kiss her within those three days, the spell will break and she’ll turn back into a mermaid.
Ariel’s voiced by famous voice actress Jodi Benson, who brings a perfect voice and sincerity to this character. One of my favourites, if not, my favourite Disney Princess voice actress. Ariel is also probably my favourite in terms of the way she’s animated. Both when she talks and when she’s mute, Sherri Stoner, the animation reference model to most of Ariel’s actions in key scenes (FUN FACT: Stoner is best known as the creator and voice of Slappy Squirrel from Animaniacs), gave movement, expression and emotion to this character which made her feel alive and human. You especially need to get the personality across when animating a mute character. Stoner would later do the live action references for Belle.
Most people love Ariel as much as I do, but some people are either mixed with her, or really despise her. Some people who have criticised her have said that she’s a selfish and whiny teenager, she’s passive, that her only motivation is to get the prince like any other Disney Princess, and that she doesn’t learn anything in the story. Now this is probably the Princess I’m gonna have to defend the most behind Snow White. Here’s my in-depth (and I’m emphasising: IN-DEPTH) analysis on Ariel, which will probably cover-up all the criticisms people have had over Ariel. I’m not implying that I’m right and they’re wrong, but this is what I interpreted out of her in this film, and why I believe people love Ariel so much.
Ariel is a kind girl and has good intentions. She does have trouble doing what she’s told, and can be very irresponsible and forgetful at times, but NEVER does she mean to cause real harm. While the first three Disney Princesses were written as young women, Ariel is the first in many to be written as a proper teenager. Teenagers are often associated with rebellion, although they’re also transitioning between a child and an adult. In the scene where her father refers to her as a little girl, Ariel says what a typical teenager would do: that’s she’s 16 and that she isn’t little anymore.
Ariel does actions against her peers and will disobey more orders, which is what anyone would normally do at her age (but NOT because she hates her father or because she’s a horrible person, but because her emotions will get the better out of her). Most of us have gone through something like this, and as we see in the film, it gets her into trouble at times and creates a lot of conflict. So she will be dissatisfied with being treated as a little kid and being stuck in one place. But what makes Ariel remarkable is that she ONLY sees the good in things, even when she’s told her entire life that the human world is nothing but barbaric and dangerous. Almost everyone tries to drill this thought into her mind (with specific reference to the musical number “Under the Sea”), even though they don’t know anything about the world above the sea other than the dangers it poses. She probably started her fascination with the human world at a young age, and through the items she collected and studied she developed a mind of her own. She may have gotten some details wrong here and there, like mistaking a fork for the use of a comb, but overall she does know who humans at the core, and ALWAYS has a positive outlook on them. Ariel wants people to truly see what she sees, and most of all she wants to explore and be a part of that world.
Unlike the previous three Princesses, Ariel’s is MUCH more proactive and character-driven; she has choices to make throughout the film and has to work through her challenges. Roger Ebert himself praised this character for those reasons in his review of the film. HECK! Even though Eric saves Ariel in the end, she saves Eric TWICE! And she saves Flounder and herself from the shark attack! So what’s this bullc**p about Ariel being passive??? Also, while Cinderella wishes for happiness in a general sense and doesn’t know exactly what to expect, Ariel’s idea of happiness is more specific: she wants to be in the world above the sea. A running theme that appears in most fairy tale-focused films, and even in most Disney films, is escapism: trying to escape the world you live in and being somewhere fantastical. About putting the idealist or fantasy world over the realistic and more realistic world. But interestingly enough, we have a mermaid, a magical creature out of all things, wishing to enter the “real” world. So to a certain extent, sometimes we do take the world we live in for granted and should learn to recognise the great things we have in our lives. Ariel isn’t truly dissatisfied with her life under the sea (she seems to appreciate the sea world just fine, as shown in “Under the Sea”). She just discovered something new, undiscovered, and completely different from our own world, and longs to connect to it. We can all understand what she’s going through, because that’s a very relatable desire. Not just teenagers, but EVERYONE has had a point in their lives where they’ve been longing for the exact same thing: the desire to connect to something you are so close to touching, but could never truly experience. This is pulled-off remarkably!
Even Eric (FINALLY! A developed prince! An actual character!) shares this in common with her, because it’s established that he’s kind of an explorer/adventurer and wants to discover, not just new worlds, but something new, just as much as Ariel wants to explore the human world. He also doesn’t want his royal duties to tie him down (as established at the beginning of the film when his manservant Grimsby tries to pick a future wife for him), so just like Ariel he wants to be free-spirited and choose the person he loves. Something else I wanna mention is that the love story is also beautifully integrated into the film. Eric doesn’t really know anything about this mysterious girl who saved his life and sang to him, but this experience was so profound to him that it convinced him that he’s in love with her: he mentioned earlier he wanted to find the girl of his dreams, and the mystery girl stumbling into his life felt like a wish that came up to him. And the interesting aspect comes from the fact that he develops a relationship with Ariel, not knowing that he’s already fallen in love with her! It becomes even more genuine when they develop their love from scratch again.
We root for Ariel’s desire to break-free even if everything doesn’t go according to plan. However, there are still things she needs to consider as the story moves forward. Her father has a real prejudice and misjudgement over humans, and he’s wrong to assume that humans are nothing but evil when he himself doesn’t know anything about them and refuses to listen to his daughter’s side of the story… but Ariel’s not entirely right either. Ariel does see the good in things, but she does lack understanding of the dangers that lie ahead. What she needs to learn is that in every action comes a consequence, and that there are more dangers to this world than she imagines. Growing up is about learning to make the right choices and understanding them. One’s actions will always have a consequence or an effect. At the very start of the film, when searching for human items in the sunken ship, she doesn’t consider the risk of a shark attack at all. Her decision is what got her and Flounder almost killed by the shark, and made her forget about the music concert. She doesn’t take into consideration the downsides to her actions, and this will make her leap into the world unprepared for things. Although at one point, she does reflect on her choice to become human:
ARIEL: If I become human… I’ll never be with my father or sisters again.
URSULA: That’s Right! But, you’ll have your man. Life’s full of tough choices, innit?
You see? That’s why Ursula makes such a great villain! She’s a great con artist!
Ariel in the end pays the price of her actions: it was her choice that led to her father taking Ariel’s place as a prisoner and having to give up his throne to Ursula. Even the film ends in a bitter-sweet note. Although Ariel does get exactly what she wants, it does mean she has to say goodbye to her family and friends, and Triton who gave her daughter happiness also had to say goodbye to her. In every decision, there’s something you have to give up or something you had to work for. For Ariel’s deal with Ursula, she had to give up her voice. To become human, she had to work for her love for Eric. Even Eric had to give up the search for the “mystery girl” to stay with the girl he knew he loved. This whole element is also pulled off magnificently, and is something which was actually borrowed from the original fairy tale.
I loved The Little Mermaid ever since the first time I watched it. Everything in this film, the love story, the magic spell, the villain and the father-daughter story are integrated extremely well into the film. There’s a fantastical essence you get with this film, but also a more down-to-earth aspect through the story and characters. All the characters are memorable, the music is top-notch, the animation is breathtaking, and it’s an overall experience. It’s one of Disney’s greatest accomplishments and best works, and it brought the start to the Disney Renaissance. Providing both a beautiful and memorable story, they also gave us Ariel, who is one of the most wonderful and likeable animated characters ever written.
Next time we’ll be taking a look at a girl who’s strange but special. A most peculiar mademoiselle: Belle.