The Little Mermaid never gave up her voice for a man - and the remake (im)proves it
The Little Mermaid spoilers follow.
When Disney's animated feature The Little Mermaid swam into cinemas back in 1989, it was seen as revolutionary.
The tale of a plucky young mermaid who defies her father's orders to explore life beyond the sea – combined with vibrant, hand-drawn animation and some unforgettable songs – was a major hit with audiences and critics alike.
Not only this, but The Little Mermaid breathed new life into the studio and sparked an entire era of classic Disney hits (Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Aladdin, The Lion King... the list goes on!). In other words, it set the standard for animated feature films and helped transform Disney into the empire it is today.
However, while the film was a hit over 3o years ago, it hasn't withstood the test of time. In recent years, The Little Mermaid has been heavily criticised for promoting the idea that giving up your voice for a man you've just met is a reasonable decision.
In 2018, Kiera Knightley revealed that she banned her kids from watching the film because of this plot point, while Mindy Kaling referred to it as "problematic".
Even Rob Marshall, who directed the live-action remake, believes that Ariel sacrificing her voice for Prince Eric was "baked into the original," which is exactly why he made sure to include some updates in his own retelling.
Although Marshall's remake certainly adds some welcome improvements and will surely get the naysayers onboard (more on that later), we're not sure this ever was the case in the original to begin with.
From the get-go, it's clear that Ariel is fascinated by the human world and that she longs to explore it.
She effectively gives up her voice (that being her solo during 'Triton's Daughters') at the beginning of the film to check out a shipwreck with Flounder, so she can collect more "gizmos" and "thingamabobs" for her trove of objects from the world up above.
Then, of course, Ariel sings her 'I wish' song: 'Part of Your World'. Long before she ever sets eyes on the prince, Ariel tells us she wants to be "where the people are," that she would "love to explore the shore up above." The lyric "bright young women, sick of swimmin', ready to stand," provides viewers with a pretty clear message, too.
It's also important to remember that Ariel takes Ursula up on her offer after her father, King Triton, destroys her collection of precious treasures. She feels misunderstood by her family and longs to break free from the confines of her sea-quarters for a place in the world where she won't be "reprimanded" for being different.
We concede, Ariel does a little too much fawning over Eric before getting her legs, which is why the criticism of her giving up her voice for him can be understood. But this is where Marshall's updates come in.
Like the original, Ariel swims up to Eric's ship and marvels at the crew dancing while fireworks light up the sky, before she saves him.
But unlike the original – in which Ariel does a whole "he loves me, he loves me not" spiel that definitely could have been left out – Halle Bailey's Ariel tells Sebastian: "If you had just seen it up there, the ship rolled on the wind, and they filled the sky with fire."
It drives forward this idea that Ariel is initially captivated by humans and their world, not Eric. If anything, courting a charming prince up on the surface is just another perk, or perhaps another excuse.
Once Ariel arrives on shore for the first time, Marshall still finds a way to give her a voice despite Ursula's curse through a new and fittingly titled song, 'For the First Time'.
She doesn't rush off to find Eric but instead takes the time to explore land and try all the things she had always dreamed of. Here, she tell us: "Look at me, suddenly I am on land and I'm free."
But, if you still believe Ariel gave up her voice for Eric after watching the remake, then at least Jonah Hauer-King's version of the character actually makes this a romance worth rooting for.
When speaking to Digital Spy about the film, Marshall explained how he wanted to explore and understand why Ariel is interested in Eric. He may be brave and handsome in the original animation, but, as Marshall put it, he doesn't really have any substance and he isn't "fully dimensional".
The remake's Eric, like Ariel, feels trapped by his mother's rules and harbours a deep wanderlust for life beyond his island kingdom. He even has his own collection of treasures from Ariel's world that they're able to bond over. It makes sense that this pair would relate to one another on a deeper level, as opposed to an initial, physical attraction.
"The great thing is we were able to find these two kindred spirits that have similar journeys," said Marshall. "They both feel displaced, they both feel they want something more and they’re not afraid of someone who’s different from them, or a culture that’s different from them."
It also helps that Ursula makes Ariel forget that she needs to kiss the prince to lift the curse this time around. In other words, when they do finally kiss, it's because Ariel wants to, not because she has to.
These elements make their love story all the more compelling and, dare we say, a little more understandable if she did give up her life under the sea for him.
Thankfully, though, we think it's safe to say that the remake's Ariel takes up Ursula's bargain to achieve her life-long dream: a life on land. Marshall's improvements are certainly welcome and remove any lingering doubts about this, but remember, the 1989 version achieved her life-long dream too.
The Little Mermaid live-action movie is out in cinemas now. The animated movie is streaming on Disney+.
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