I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I say the story is not the strong point of this film. In fact, deep down at its core, the story is actually rather flawed. It’s about a mermaid who wants to be part of a different world, a world that her father, King Trident, forbids her to go. And this is the first big miss of the movie: why does the king feel this way? Did you notice that we are never introduced to Ariel’s mother? What if she died like the mermaid protagonist did in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and the Prince, as a result of the world that Ariel so desires? Darn, the movie simply flops here. Secondly, Ariel is naïve. She thinks she loves some guy because he’s handsome, she risks losing her family due to this sort of love at first sight mentality, and she thinks she can win someone’s love in three days without speaking. And ultimately, she gets everything her way by the end of this tale without ever having to change these preconceptions in the slightest bit. So why is this film my second favorite Disney movie of all-time?
If I want to be mesmerized by classic Disney storytelling, I’ll pick Beauty and the Beast. If I want to sit back, relax, and have a good time while revisiting the same sort of magical fairytale atmosphere, I’ll pick The Little Mermaid. Sure, it does not strike gold on its plot, but it just about delivers in every other aspect. I mean, you can literally hum every song from this movie, including Under the Sea, Part of your World, and Kiss the Girl. All of the sidekicks are memorable additions to the screenplay. They even had time to sneak in the crazy chef who ridiculously chases after the crab Tom and Jerry style! And… I’m not even at the best part.
This movie features my favorite Disney princess, the one and only, super attractive, passionate, whiney, sixteen-year-old, red-haired, free-spirited, little mermaid. You don’t love Ariel because she’s perfect; you love her because some part of you wants to be like her—someone who isn’t afraid to stick with her dreams no matter what anyone else says, and give up everything to get it, albeit a little misplaced. Not to mention that hair! I mean, Ariel never has a bad hair day. In the water it flows so marvelously, and even when tied-back on land it still manages to freely bounce about. In short, Ariel’s animation is delightful. And let’s talk about her voice! Was anyone not awe-inspired by Ariel’s Part of your World and whenever else she sings? Jodi Benson deserves a big round of applause for voicing Ariel as well as she did. For all these reasons, Ariel is just such a charismatic princess who makes her journey more than worthwhile to follow.
Bringing it all together
Both the prince and princess base their criteria for love in superficial ways: the prince is looking for someone who can sing like Ariel, and the princess is looking for a bipedal, good-looking guy like Eric. However, this is partially redeemed by the fact that Eric clearly demonstrates a sort of kindness to his dog on the boat, not to mention a touch of heroism, which may have contributed to Ariel’s fascination with him. Also, the voice that Eric vaguely heard following shipwreck represents a girl who saved his life, so in that sense, we can find non-superficial roots for their romance. But… maybe I’m just making up excuses for an otherwise near-perfect film. The real delight in this movie in regards to their romance is not their haphazard fantasizing about one another, but when they’re actually together! Eric, as Ursula predicted, gives Ariel a chance because, you gotta admit, she’s pretty darn hot, uh… for a cartoon animation I mean… but there seems to be real resistance in Eric from getting to know more about her before giving up on the girl with the beautiful voice (if only he knew!). After touring the town, however, I like to think that Ariel wins over Eric with her genuine and infectious admiration of the world Ariel so passionately desired. This human world does not fail to impress, and I can quite honestly say I’m glad it doesn’t. That is the real strong point of this movie: it captures the essence of teenage rebellion without ever antagonizing the concept. In other words, you want Ariel’s dreams to come true even if she can be naïve, whiney, shallow, disobedient, and just not perfect because, well, what’s admirable about her is just so admirable.
We have all felt what Ariel is going through because at the roots of Ariel’s dreams is the common thread of trying to experience something that is out-of-this-world, something extraordinary, something beyond the normal, daily routine. Disney is able to provide this to us through Ariel’s majestic, underwater palace, and what the underwater home of Ariel represents to us, the human world of ours represents to Ariel. If you can manage to recognize this, then you will be invested in Ariel’s dreams as much as you love the under-the-sea world. Pushing aside the romance and the father-daughter relationship for the princess was an extremely risky gamble that paid off spectacularly due to the breadth of ideals Ariel represents to us, whether that is beauty, independence of thought, or simply being a dreamer.
While I would have liked Disney to focus more on the father-daughter dynamic and fine-tune the romance, both certainly serve to add to the fairytale charm of its ending. With that said, I am still under the impression that it would have been more profound if the daughter could budge for her father since she certainly isn’t perfect. In the same way, this movie isn’t perfect—but what it does well is just so perfect to warrant its prestigious number two spot.