This version of The Little Mermaid conveys entirely different messages from Hans Christian Andersen’s original. The following description of this story is taken from the Introduction to Reading and The Growing Mind, under the subheading Opposite Mermaids.
Disney’s Mermaid shows children that happiness in life is possible, through adventurous and persistent effort. The main character, Ariel, shares her name with a mischievous sprite from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She is amazed by and loves the wonderful man-made ‘thing-a-ma-bobs” and “what’s-its” that drift down from the surface. She is fascinated by the opportunities of the forbidden human world, wondering, “I don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.” She sings with triumph in her voice:
I wanna be where the people are
Up were they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wandering free, wish I could be
Part of that world (my emphasis)
She is in love with the tremendous possibilities of the human world. (Amazingly one director wanted to remove this song because children might find it boring, yet it is the driving idea behind all of Ariel’s subsequent actions.)
One day the shadow of a ship passes overhead, and she spirits up to see it. She secretly watches the lively crew, as they celebrate Prince Eric’s birthday. We see enough to know the Prince is well-liked, benevolent, tactful and ‘Disney’ handsome.
Then, as she watches, an enormous storm builds. It tears apart the ship and the crew begins to drown. Violating all the laws of her father, King Triton, she involves herself in human affairs by swimming the drowning prince to a beach. She sings to him, but hides as he regains consciousness. All he remembers is the wondrous beauty of her singing.
As he leaves the beach she sings,
I don’t know when, I don’t know how,
But, I know something’s starting right now.
Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be
Part of your world. (my emphasis)
Ariel is doubly in love: humanity and the prince are her priceless ideals.
Ariel now seeks to be transformed into human form, and the dark sea witch agrees to help. The terms are terrifying: if she fails, and the prince marries another, she will be trapped forever in the witch’s horrid garden of shriveled, worm-like ‘souls’. And, as advance payment in case Ariel succeeds, the witch claims Ariel’s singing voice! Without her voice, how will the Prince recognize her? How will she win him? Nonetheless, Ariel is absolutely determined to try.
The witch’s spell extracts Ariel’s ‘voice’, storing it in a locket, and transforms her tail to legs. In time, Ariel succeeds in impressing the uncertain prince, which prompts the witch to interfere to ensure her own agenda. Ariel and helpful friends fight back, overcoming a number of nearly catastrophic complications.
When the witch’s deceit is exposed, Ariel retrieves the locket containing her voice. The prince realizes Ariel is his rescuer and, deservingly, she wins all.
Children can see that Ariel chose to become human because humans are unique and special. This is an important message every child should believe about his own humanity. And, it is anything but trite. A child’s self image should not be undermined by the misanthropy found in modern film, literature, environmentalism, and even school textbooks. This Little Mermaid shows young audiences that determined pursuit of worthy goals can lead to success and happiness, even through daunting challenges.
The Little Mermaid is one of the best children’s videos one could buy. The minor flaws can be overlooked through the usual suspension of disbelief that fairy tales require. Most major criticisms against it are either unimportant or simply wrong.
If we consider the seriousness of Ariel’s ideals, the cartoon artistry and several frivolous scenes may be seen as overly playful. Yet that same playfulness serves as comic relief, making it less frightening to the younger child. A shift toward the quality, —not the maturity— of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” might have suggested the story’s positive theme be taken more seriously.
As a complete fantasy, the story loses a few points because it provides little or no factual, real world content that a child can learn. However, its tremendous abstract view of the real world, often expressed in the musical score, (particularly the lyrics in “Part of Your World”) add enormous value to the story’s Romantic style. It is uplifting and life-affirming.
Some complain there are scenes too scary for younger children. Most children will not mind a bit, but for others your calmness will calm them. Be with them during their first viewing. Act as a mentor/commentator. Use light language and comment, in a way that makes you and the child operate as companion movie critics. Offer entirely reasonable comments that momentarily draw the child out of the story to evaluate its logic. Particularly useful are comments that get the child step out of the story long enough to see the story as being imaginary: “Look how the eels have shifty eyes to make them look nasty”. Ask, “Could anyone’s voice really be put in a shell?”, or comment that “those little worm things are pretty weird, but they aren’t dead, are they?” There are lots of opportunities for this, if you stay alert to the happiness of your child.
Some reviewers have shrieked a feminist interpretation of the story. They find The Little Mermaid presents Ariel as an overly young female, throwing away her identity for a man she has seen only two or three times. Only by ignoring the fullness of the plot’s events and theme, could one conclude she is both a “little tramp” and a helpless female pining for a man to guide her life.
In fact, Ariel decided there was greatness in human beings and their creations well before she discovered Prince Eric. Then, in Eric, she saw a great young man. He even rescues Grimsby and Max during the hurricane. His heroism is precisely what Ariel later needs when Ursula the witch gains Triton’s scepter. Ariel has gone to great lengths to obtain true value, in a human of the opposite sex, and her efforts were certainly not those of a helpless, empty-headed female. The latter part of the story does focus mainly on her obtaining Eric’s kiss, but does that mean we should forget her first reason for being there? Her pursuit of Eric is not subjugating herself to male chauvinism; it is a female properly ‘sighting’ the object of her desire. Their first kiss is the culmination of a struggle that required both of their character and ideals to achieve. It is a kiss that spiritless curmudgeons would do well to discover.
These curmudgeons claim Ariel throws away her identity for a man, but it is Ursula who steals Ariel’s identity by stealing her beautiful ‘voice’. Ariel regains her voice when Ursula’s treachery is exposed and Ariel’s voice is freed from the witch’s locket. Feminists might note that the creature stealing Ariel’s identity was not a warlock, but a witch.
Finally, this Disney story has a muddled climax because it carries a dual theme. The plot surrounding the major theme –Ariel’s pursuit of independent happiness as a human– reaches a climax when Eric grasps who Ariel really is. Almost immediately the moment is stolen from the audience by the secondary theme as the Sea Witch’s ulterior, power-lusting motive takes precedence. Ursula’s spell returns Ariel to mermaid form, stealing away the independence and happiness she so nearly gained.
Now, Eric and Ariel find themselves in a battle with Ursula over leadership of the entire Mer-Kingdom. Eric’s heroism is revisited, as he is instrumental in destroying Ursula and returning Triton’s royal scepter. Is it a climax or denouement when Triton uses his scepter to make Ariel human again? In the end it is not so important that Ursula was destroyed. What is important is that Ariel can be human and be with Eric, with her family’s approval.