HomeEntertainment NewsWhy Does Ariel in 1989's 'The Little Mermaid' Get So Much Hate?

Why Does Ariel in 1989’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Get So Much Hate?

Back in 1989, reviews for The Little Mermaid were almost universally glowing. Critics liked the music, the animation, and the feeling of revival. The characters also earned praise, particularly the titular heroine. Ariel, wrote Roger Ebert in a representative review, was “a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously.” Fast forward to 2023, and while The Little Mermaid remains a popular entry in Disney’s cartoon library, Ariel faces less generous critics. There’s a common charge leveled against her and her film, by angry Princeton students, concerned mothers, and even Halle Bailey in promotion for Disney’s latest remake: Ariel surrenders her voice and her life for the sake of a man she doesn’t know, who fulfills all her dreams. It’s a well-worn argument, but one that doesn’t match the facts of the 1989 film.

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The Little Mermaid isn’t the only Disney movie to have the perceptions and memories of its critics supersede reality. The animated Cinderella is still dismissed as a hollow damsel waiting on a prince to save her, even though she stands up for herself, doesn’t set out to meet a man at the ball, and has a hand in her own rescue. The animated Jasmine explicitly stated in 1992 that her conflict was her life being decided for her, which didn’t stop the live-action Aladdin’s producer from claiming it was that she wanted love. But unlike Cinderella, The Little Mermaid is still a relatively young movie that many of its critics would have grown up with, and unlike Jasmine, Ariel is the main character. And her words and actions throughout her film so thoroughly refute the idea of her as a simplistic lovesick girl that children should be wary of emulating that the disconnect between perception and material feels all the greater.

RELATED: Everything 2023’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Changes From the Original Disney Classic


Ariel Has Plenty Going On Besides Eric in ‘The Little Mermaid’

Human Ariel brushing her hair with a fork in The Little Mermaid (1989)
Image via Disney

Prince Eric may open The Little Mermaid, but once the brief prologue aboard his ship is over, the first act of the film is squarely focused on Ariel. Initially, she’s built up off-screen; we learn that she’s a musical prodigy, that she regularly blows off rehearsal and even performances if something else is on her mind, and that she’s both the apple of King Triton’s eye and the bane of his existence with her misbehavior (a relationship that is explored in the lesser known third movie of the Little Mermaid trilogy). When she finally appears, Ariel quickly confirms her attention issues, being so focused on retrieving artifacts from a shipwreck that she misses the approaching shark. But she also demonstrates courage and ingenuity in outfoxing the shark to save Flounder.

A new viewer might wonder why such courage and ingenuity were needed to obtain a fork, or why silverware was worth blowing off your solo. But to Ariel, forks are an exotic piece of a world she’s long been fascinated by. Her grotto is stuffed with every human object she’s ever found, and she wants to learn about all of them. So what if all her information is faulty, courtesy of the well-meaning buffoon that is Scuttle the seagull? She’s making the best use of her available sources.

More than her blowing off commitments, it’s Ariel’s fascination with the human world that drives a wedge between her and Triton, who regards all humans as barbaric menaces. In their arguments, they display comparable tempers and stubborn streaks, neither swaying the other. Her father’s intolerance and her intellectual curiosity together are what move Ariel to want to be part of life on the surface instead of just learning about it. Her “I Want” song may be titled “Part of Your World,” but those lyrics only appear in the reprise; for the number proper, she longs to be part of that world, the world of forks and fires and a host of questions Ariel wants the answers to. We’re not told exactly how long Ariel’s dreamt of humanity, but it’s a mania that clearly predates the moment Eric catches her eye.

Ariel’s Temptation in ‘The Little Mermaid’ Is a Motivated Mistake

Ariel and Flounder smiling and swimming as they look toward the sky in 1989 The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

To object to Ariel devoting herself to a man she just met, you have to consider the “love at first sight” convention inherently faulty — and I don’t, certainly not in a fairy tale of such heightened reality as The Little Mermaid. As far as such stories go, Ariel is given more of an insight than most into Eric’s personality through his flute-playing, his modesty, and his bravery in saving his dog. The “first sight” principle is also complicated by Eric falling in love Ariel without knowing her, only that she has a beautiful voice and that she saved his life (a Disney first — the princess rescuing the prince).

To object to Ariel giving up her life for Eric, you also need that to be what actually happens in the movie — and it isn’t. Eric is the cherry on Ariel’s “I love the surface world” sundae, and she’s desperate to reconnect with him, but it never occurs to her to give up anything of herself for that chance. She pines, she daydreams, and she enjoys playing with the statue of Eric that Flounder recovered for her, but that’s as far as she goes on her own steam. What pushes her into the lair of the sea-witch (voiced by the magnificent Pat Carroll) is her father destroying her grotto. That show of rigidity and control — the only classic Disney scene to scare me as a little kid — leaves Ariel heartbroken, resentful, and open to temptation.

Of course, selling your voice to a witch who will keep you as a piece of seaweed for the rest of your life if you can’t fulfill a contract in three days is a bad idea. The Little Mermaid isn’t exactly subtle about this point. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a dark, slinky musical number full of unsettling visual touches, Flounder and Sebastian are on-hand as a Greek chorus, and Ariel herself is uncomfortable and doubtful throughout the song. She expressly states her hesitation at giving up her family, and she shows regret even as she signs the contract. Ursula may lead with Eric as a temptation, but considering how Ariel behaves in the scene, would she have even considered this if not for her father’s rage and her fascination with the surface independent of the prince? It seems not.

Teenagers – Even Disney Princess Teenagers – Are Flawed

Eric and Ariel holding hands and looking into each other's eyes in a boat during the Kiss the Girl scene in 1989 The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

I’ll concede Ariel’s critics this: her wanting to be human may predate her encounter with Eric, and she may have hesitated before taking Ursula’s offer, but her love for Eric is clearly a driving force behind that choice. It leaves her mute on land, and while Eric finds her, he has no idea she’s the girl who saved his life. Ariel gets just three days to make him see sense and kiss her, lest she be enslaved to Ursula. Making such a rash decision you know is wrong in a moment of lovesick vulnerability is the kind of stunt a teenager would pull — and that’s exactly what Ariel is.

Most Disney princesses don’t have an explicitly stated age in their films, but Ariel is confirmed early on as sixteen. And she’s one of the most believably written teenagers in the Disney canon. Many teens are bright, curious, open to new ideas and places, and prone to take refuge with friends more than family, as Ariel does with her animal sidekicks Flounder, Scuttle, and Sebastian. Many teens are also impulsive, emotional, reactive, and likely to make huge mistakes, especially when vulnerable from tensions with their family.

And they’re likely to go a little nuts when granted a long-felt desire. Ariel’s delighted to be in Eric’s company, of course, and she and her friends do try to win him over, but for much of her time on land, she takes full advantage of the chance to be part of the human world. She dances, she inspects hoofs and wheels, she applies Scuttle’s flawed intel on what a fork is for, she nearly crashes a carriage in her zestful first stab at driving — and what says “teenager” more than that? I wouldn’t recommend the DMV adopt Ariel as a mascot, but I think children would be fine seeing such a rounded and convincing character without running commentary from their parents.

The Real Problem With Ariel Is ‘The Little Mermaid’s Ending

Jodi Benson as Ariel and Pat Carroll as Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid'
Image via The Walt Disney Company

That Ariel’s motives for joining the human world are complex is, I think, a help to her romance with Eric; she clearly has a potentially happy life independent of him waiting for her on land, making the value she places on him more substantial. And their courtship, quick as it is in an 83-minute story, has a nice, sweet build-up to the moment Eric realizes who Ariel is. But that takes the film into its climax, and it’s in the climax that the one issue with Ariel’s treatment in the 1989 Little Mermaid appears.

It isn’t that she gives up everything for a man — we’ve seen that’s not the case. It isn’t that she doesn’t pay for her mistakes — her father loses his crown and his freedom because of her. It isn’t that “Kiss The Girl” has questionable lyrics. It’s that Ariel, the courageous and resourceful heroine of the film who has beaten sharks and rescued men from the sea, is turned into a passive damsel in distress at the bottom of a whirlpool. She gets in one good hair tug against Ursula, saving Eric’s life again, but after that, she might as well not be there while Eric fights the sea-witch. And that’s a disappointing way to use the story’s main character at a pivotal moment.

It’s worth noting that the film’s climax wasn’t what was originally intended. At the behest of production chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements blew Ursula up to giant size to provide a more dramatic confrontation. The original sequence kept the sea-witch on a human scale and involved more of a group effort to defeat her. Ariel put up a bit more of a fight before the change, including a hand-to-hand scuffle over her father’s trident. But she still ended up on the sidelines despite being the protagonist, and watching the story reel, it’s hard to imagine the original plan being less disappointing.

As substantive an issue as Ariel’s treatment in the climax is, it doesn’t detract from everything her character is in the rest of the film, nor does it take away from a beautifully rendered happy ending that acknowledges the price Ariel still has to pay to join the human world. A flawed climax doesn’t justify a remake either. If you want to see Disney’s Ariel have agency against Ursula, just play the first Kingdom Hearts game and put her in your party for that boss fight.

The Criticisms Against Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’ Don’t Hold Water

Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian in the ocean in 1989 The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

There seems to be a cottage industry of finding fault with art and entertainment from 30 to 40 years ago, and while many of those arguments are absolutely valid, the arguments against The Little Mermaid need a closer look. More than any other studio, Disney has had great success in keeping films like The Little Mermaid alive in pop culture, with successive generations embracing characters like Ariel. And of all the princess characters to embrace, Ariel offers so much to children of all ages. Brave, clever, and yes, flawed, but so humanely and believably flawed — this is not a heroine who should be reduced down to one romantic impulse or turned into a cautionary tale, but enjoyed as one of Disney’s best lead characters.

Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid is currently playing in theaters.

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