The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite Disney movies, because while it gets a lot of backlash for being “anti-feminist” and Ariel being a bad role model, neither of those things are true.
As an English major, I love analyzing literature, and as an animation lover, I love tackling animated metas, so I decided to combine the best of both worlds this week. I’ll be talking about Disney’s translation of The Little Mermaid from the Hans Christian Anderson tale (the one most of us think of as the “original”). Disney both takes inspiration from the tale and simultaneously dismantles its destructive messages to make it an empowering story. Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid meets a grim end, but Disney’s little mermaid ends triumphant.
Let’s start with the two major influences Disney took from the tale: the setting, and the general plotline.
(Note: because typing out full names is a pain for long metas like this, I’m going to refer to Hans Christian Anderson as HCA for the duration of the Meta.)
Look at This Stuff, Isn’t It Neat? (How Hans Christian Anderson Influenced the Movie’s Aesthetic)
One of the few things Disney does take away from HCA’s tale is the setting. Rereading the fairy tale made me realize that a lot of the scenery in the movie is loosely based off of HCA’s imaginings of Ariel’s world.
His description of Ursula’s lair: “All the trees and bushes were polyps, half animals and half plants. They looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the earth; all the branches were long slimy arm with supple worm-like fingers, and…they were constantly on the move” (Anderson 225).
(Eerie, isn’t it?)
There’s also the description of the Prince’s castle that we get later. It’s not exact, but certain phrases definitely fit: there are “great flights of marble stairs; one of these led straight into the sea,” “splendid gilt domes curved above the roof,” and “tall windows,” among other traits (Anderson 223). Now, let’s take a look at Eric’s castle:
But the setting wasn’t the only element of the tale that Disney was influenced by. They also stick to a surprising amount of the plot.
It Goes Like This: How Closely Disney Stuck to the Plot
Okay, so I’m going to give you a sequence of events:
Once upon a time, there was a little mermaid. She lived under the sea with her sisters and her widowed father, but she longed to see the human world. She was fascinated by humans and their world; she even collected treasures from above, including a marble statue of a handsome prince. When the little mermaid took a chance and went up to land, she observed a ship and watched the people aboard in awe, including a prince who she was very fond of. But then a storm came, throwing the prince overboard, and the little mermaid swooped in to save him. He didn’t know that he saved her. Her wanting gets the better of her, and she makes a deal with a sea witch go to on land, but gives up her voice as the price. Her obstacles include a time limit to win his love and a princess that the prince mistakes for the girl who saved him.
Sound familiar? Well, that’s actually what happens in both HCA’s tale and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Granted, some details are changed and toned down, but in general, the plot leading up to this point stays the same. It’s where the plot diverges that the story changes.
In HCA’s tale, the prince winds up marrying a human princess, unaware of who his true savor was. The unnamed little mermaid is left devastated. Failing to marry the prince means she will dissolve into sea foam and as per her agreement with the sea witch. The mermaid tries to enjoy her last day as a human (and alive), despite her heartbreak. But then her sisters appear with a knife they got from the sea witch, and offer her a choice: either she can die at dawn, or she can kill the prince with the dagger and regain her mermaid form to survive. The little mermaid chooses to sacrifice herself to save the prince, and dissolves into foam. But that’s not the end: she becomes a sprite and she can get that immortal soul she wants… if she does 300 years of good deeds. Oh, and it might not even be that “soon,” because there are hindrances along the way.
If Disney had gone with an ending like that, there would’ve been lots of traumatized and angry children. Their ending – with Ariel winning the prince back, taking Ursula down and permanently getting to stay on land where she belongs – is happier, and more importantly, more empowering. Let’s tackle how Disney dismantled the tale in order to create a happier and more empowering tale for Ariel.
HCA’s version of The Little Mermaid has extremely religious undertones, and since Disney doesn’t tend to tackle religion very often, they decided to remove those elements. Part of Ariel’s desire to become human stems from her desire to have an immortal soul. Why does she care about that?
Well… apparently mermaids don’t have an immortal soul… because… they just don’t? HCA never really explains this.
There’s this very weird bias against mermaids in the story where everything kind of just sucks for them. First, mermaids can’t cry: “She would have cried, only a mermaid hasn’t any tears, and so she suffers all the more” (Anderson 220). (Why? We don’t know.) Second, they don’t have immortal souls. Sure, they live longer than the average human (they have about a 300 year life span) but… they also dissolve into sea foam when they die and that’s it, game over. Which is super depressing.
Naturally, Disney decided not to tackle that depressing angle. Instead of their little mermaid fretting about an immortal soul, Ariel’s desire to be on earth is related to her adventurous spirit and her intrigue of the world above her. She wants to explore the world up above and be part of the human world, because she’s fascinated by them. Because her father regards humans as a taboo, she naturally is more interested, and his destruction of her treasures pushes her over the edge.
The writers also changed up Ariel’s goal. HCA’s tale is very specific about how Ariel needs to marry Eric in order to stay human. She has to: “win the Prince’s love, so that he forgets father and mother for [her] and always has [her] in his thoughts, and let the priest join [their] hands together to be man and wife” (Anderson 226).
If she doesn’t, she’ll die and dissolve into sea foam without that immortal soul. No pressure, Ariel!
Disney, on the other hand, makes things a little simpler: in order to stay human, Ariel needs to kiss Eric before the sun sets on the third day of her humanity in order to stay human. If not, her fins will reappear and Ursula will own her soul. Grim outlook? Yes. But it’s much less morbid than the fate awaiting HCA’s little mermaid.
Besides cutting religious aspects, Disney also spends more time developing different aspects of the story, including Prince Eric’s role in the plot, and Ariel’s encounters with Ursula and Triton. Ariel is also more empowered as a main character, and both she and Eric fight for the happy ending she deserves.
Ursula: From Neutral Force to Manipulative Sea Witch
The sea witch in HCA’s tale is pretty much a straightforward neutral force. She’s upfront about how toxic the deal the little mermaid is taking: “How stupid of you! Still, you shall have your way, and it’ll bring you misfortune” (Anderson 226).
But neutral forces don’t create much tension, so Disney went a more antagonistic route with their sea witch, Ursula – and it resulted in one of the best female villains Disney has ever created.
Unlike HCA’s sea witch, Ursula is more manipulative in her approach. Her lackeys hone in on Ariel just after Triton destroys her treasures and she’s at her lowest point, and Ursula goes in for the kill with her sales pitch/villain song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” While Ursula doesn’t exactly lie, she isn’t truthful about her intentions to Ariel. She pretends to be benevolent and helpful, while she’s really screwing Ariel over in the worst possible way. And when Ariel’s plan to win over Eric begins working, well, of course, Ursula can’t have that.
Enter “Vanessa,” the princess with Ariel’s beautiful voice, who swoops in and hypnotizes Eric. Like the prince in HCA’s tale, Eric mistakes her for the girl who saved him, and falls right into her clutches. But unlike the princess, who was an innocent third party, this princess is Ursula, who is anything but innocent. It’s only Ariel’s intervention that saves Eric from Ursula’s manipulations and together, the two of them are forced to stop her and save Ariel’s father.
Ariel’s father is another point I wanted to tackle, because man is his role so much better in the movie.
Triton and Ariel: A Father-Daughter Bond Explored
Ariel and Triton’s bond in The Little Mermaid is one of my absolute favorite things in The Little Mermaid. They fight, they don’t understand each other, but deep down, they love each other. That’s true familial love right there.
Triton gets a brief mention at the start of HCA’s tale and then never really comes into play again. In the movie though, Triton has a much bigger role. He’s the one who inadvertedly encourages Ariel’s love of the human world, partly by making one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make when trying to ward a child away: telling them not to explore it.
Ariel doesn’t listen to him, and instead of maybe explaining his aversion to the human world, Triton blows up at her for not listening him, ending his tantrum by destroying her collection. Ariel is crushed, and his betrayal sends her into Ursula’s grasps.
Triton is so remorseful over this that he turns himself over to Ursula and takes Ariel’s place in the deal to save her from a lifetime of servitude under Ursula. In return, Ariel saves him from Ursula’s grasp with the help of Eric, and Triton comes to an important realization as he sees Ariel watch Eric on land: maybe humans aren’t as terrible as he thought. And maybe his daughter knows what she wants on land.
His granting Ariel her legs again, even though he knows she’ll be far away from him on land, shows how far Triton has come as a character. And Ariel and Triton’s relationship has come far as well: at her wedding, they have Triton’s blessing, and we get that adorable heartwarming moment when Ariel hugs her father and whispers “I love you, daddy.”
Triton’s not the only one who’s given more depth, however: the little mermaid’s prince gets some depth as well, and it adds some wonderful dimension to the plot.
Prince Eric Gains a Personality
In HCA’s The Little Mermaid, the Prince is…well, kind of a total jerk. He’s very condescending to the little mermaid. He talks down to her like she’s a child: “my dear mute foundling with the speaking eyes” (Anderson 229) and also leads her on, even though he knows he won’t marry her. He’s not a wonderful character, and we start to wonder what on earth the little mermaid sees in him as the story goes on, especially once he abandons her for a princess.
That’s not the case with Prince Eric. Eric, unlike the prince in the fairytale, actually has a decent personality. He’s kind, loyal, funny, compassionate, and very empathetic. He’s adventurous: he wouldn’t explore the open seas if he wasn’t. He has hobbies: he’s an accomplished mariner and plays an instrument. He has a pet dog that he adores. And most importantly of all, he deeply cares for Ariel. From the moment he first sees her, he’s intrigued by her, and as he gets to know her more, he falls deeper and deeper in love with her. In fact, before Ursula arrives to ruin matters, he’s decided to give up on the mysterious girl with the beautiful voice, because he can’t live waiting for a dream girl to appear forever.
There’s also a nice dual strength to their relationship: while Ariel fights for Eric and saves his life, Eric fights for Ariel as well. He rows off to find Ariel after Ursula snatches her, declaring that “[he] lost her once; [he’s] not going to lose her again.” He’s the one who delivers the final blow on Ursula, saving Ariel from her. This equality is what makes their relationship so strong, and why ultimately they get their happy ending: because they both fought for it.
Ariel Empowered: A Triumphant End for The Little Mermaid
Disney’s many changes to the movie give depth to the story, but also give Ariel empowerment. The little mermaid in the story is sad and silent, always thinking and moping. She’s not a very proactive main character at times. Ariel, on the other hand, is extremely proactive. Ariel sets the entire plot into motion. She’s the one who saves Eric. She’s the one who goes to Ursula to make the deal. She stops Ursula from entrapping Eric. And she’s the one who takes it upon herself to stop Ursula once the deal backfires.
Unlike the little mermaid in the tale, who is very somber and introverted, Ariel is expressive and extroverted. Even without her voice, she uses her words and her body language to communicate with Eric and win him over. Her lack of a voice isn’t a hindrance: instead, she works around it and not only gets her voice back, but also wins her happy ending. The Little Mermaid ends with Ariel triumphant, happy on land with Prince Eric. The girl who wanted to explore up above so badly has finally gotten her chance to stand on land, and better yet, she has Eric as well. Bonus.
While HCA’s story is dark and depressing, Ariel’s story is heartwarming and triumphant. Disney’s changes truly transform what could’ve been a somber story into an empowering tale of a woman who decides that she wants more, and then goes out and gets what she wants. What’s more triumphant than that?
What do you guys think? Did Disney do a good job of empowering Ariel and giving the tale a brighter spin? Let us know in the comments!
Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 216-32. Print.