When I (erm) was in school, I had one of those Profs you hear about and usually aren’t fortunate enough to have – really charismatic, effortlessly makes the subject matter relatable and important (even if it’s modernist literature. Seriously.), you don’t take any notes because you just want to sit there and listen to the lecture forever, etc.
One of my favourite lectures* of his was on Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of fairy tales re-imagined and reworked into more adult stories. He started by showing us the trailer for Beauty and the Beast’s super-special-awesome-chocolatey-covered-awesome-super edition DVD/bluray release** or whatever it was, and made some snarky comments about both Disney and Beauty and the Beast specifically, as you do. I don’t remember what they were, but at least one of them had something to do with Disney women characters always being non-agents. To his credit he mentioned Mulan – or at least, someone did, and he admitted that later Disney may have started to change that up, but early Disney right through the Renaissance did not have particularly active women. Someone must have piped up with, “Well, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, etc, etc” because he said this (paraphrasing now):
“Look, I haven’t seen it” (he quite clearly implied on multiple occasions that he wouldn’t watch animated films, because, adult. Sigh. Academics.) “But I bet that she lives in this magical world, and everything’s really beautiful, and she has a family that she’s close with, and then there’s a man, and she instantly falls in love with him, and then she gives everything up to go and be with him with barely a backwards glance.”
He had help. Plenty of the young women in my class were happy to supply the details – “Well, she questions whether she wants to never see her father or sisters again…” “Yeah, a man is the inciting incident” “Yeah, there’s a whole song about how great it is in Atlantica that the crab sings to try to convince her to stay” and so on and so forth. But they gave up. He had a point, Ariel gives up her whole world for a man she hasn’t actually met yet.
When I went home that day I locked myself in my room to contemplate Disney (which is something I did even when my Profs didn’t spend ten minutes talking about it). And after a while of this, I had a eureka moment:
Wait. “Under the Sea” is for the audience, not Ariel.
I mean, it’s for Ariel, but she’s not really paying attention. She doesn’t hate it, no, but – she sings “Part of Your World” before she sees Eric. She has a pretty extensive collection of human relics that had to take some time to amass. She’s been mentally half in the human world for quite some time now. “Under the Sea” is not about demonstrating how little agency Ariel has besides wanting to be with her man. It’s for us, because Atlantica is awesome and we love animation and good music, and Howard Ashman, Alan Menkin, Ron Clements, John Musker, Glen Keane, friggin Jeffrey Katzenberg, and all the rest of them: they all knew that and were like, “Yup, here, have some, we’re feeling generous today!”
And thus, we begin our examination of the first Disney Renaissance movie, and its main character, much maligned (and unfairly, too) for being a sixteen year old with a crush who takes a couple of extreme steps in pursuit.
Let’s talk about love at first sight… and true love
Ah, love at first sight. No one believes in love at first sight. Even Disney movies these days don’t believe in love at first sight. The most recent example is Anna and Hans, so, I mean, we really don’t believe in it anymore.
But love at first sight was useful in earlier Disney movies, and meandering on through the rest of the 90s we still had a couple of examples: Aladdin and Jasmine, Pocahontas and John Smith (arguably?), Hercules and Meg (is it fair to include them when Meg’s whole thing is “I’m jaded for very understandable reasons and I refuse to admit anything about my feelings ever?” Yes, because Hercules is our main, and there’s really no reason for him to feel as deeply as he does about her. Except that she’s awesome, which we learn in time, but, like… she didn’t have to be, and for the first little while of his obsession with her he had nothing to go by… you know what, we’re talking about The Little Mermaid right now), um, maybe Kida and whoever the hell that guy is? Maybe not? Atlantis isn’t really on our radar.
Anyway. Love at first sight is useful because the movie has a finite running time. If your characters fall in love immediately it saves time for the rest of the plot. See Cinderella. And Sleeping Beauty. Even Aladdin to a certain extent.
Making your characters take the time to fall in love is not economical, but is now an all-important element of a Disney romance. Enchanted is where this becomes clear. Since that movie, our Disney romances have been fairly slow-burning: Tiana and Naveen, Rapunzel and Flynn, Anna and Kristoff – every one of these couples separates during the third act, usually with one party (or both) believing that their feelings are not mutual. When they reunite, they are made to believe that their story is over. Anna basically dies right in front of Kristoff instead of allowing him to save her, Naveen and Tiana are under the impression that they’re going to be frogs forever because they’ve chosen each other over being human, Rapunzel believes she’s going off to a non-life and Flynn is prepared to die for her – these couples suffer besides just having to figure out that they love each other over time. Huh.
The point we will attempt to make is that, while Enchanted is clearly the turning point, even if Disney movies were already becoming more sophisticated before that one came out and explicitly said, “Love at first sight is silly,” The Little Mermaid has a few fairly interesting mumblings about the subject as well.
So when Ariel’s watching Eric at his birthday celebration on a random fishing boat, we find out that he’s a romantic. When Grimsby tells him that his entire kingdom would like to see him happily settled down with the right girl, he answers, “Well she’s out there somewhere, I just – I just haven’t found her yet…. Believe me, Grim, when I find her I’ll know. It’ll just, BAM, hit me, like lightning.”
Then he almost burns to death/drowns.
When Ariel saves him and starts reprising her song, he hears her, and falls in love with her instantly due to two tidbits: she saved him (less important), and her voice is the most beautiful voice, like, ever.
When they meet again and she’s given her voice up, he’s convinced that she’s not the girl he’s looking for who he’s already in love with. We find it very interesting that his commitment to love at first musical rescue is what essentially forces the two of them to spend time together and not just get instantly married.
Eric clearly likes her right away. He finds her hijinks at dinner funny. They go on a magical journey through town and he seems happy to indulge her endless fangirl joy at discovering everything about the world (including a group of battery hens. Oh Ariel, one day your curiosity will lead you to some dark and depressing discoveries, you sweet summer child).
Then when on their (unintentionally?) romantic rowboat ride, it’s clear that the pair have chemistry. He’s into her but doesn’t want to just kiss her because…? Too shy, as the lyrics suggest? Maybe. But probably it’s also because he’s hung up on this notion that his actual true love is still out there, perhaps musically rescuing other unfortunates at sea.
Flotsam and Jetsam ruin it. An important question may be: would this kiss have worked? Ursula seems to think it would have, and if she’s right, that means that Eric can love Ariel without actually believing that she’s the right girl for him – they can share true love’s kiss while he still believes his true love is someone else. Huh.
Then we have a short scene in which Grimsby tells him that a real girl who’s warm and whatever else she is is better than some dream girl. Eric throws his flute away (come on, Eric, that’s a perfectly good flute, it doesn’t just have to be a symbol) and has apparently decided to trust his feelings instead of stubbornly chasing his romantic ideals about love at first musical rescue.
Ursula shows up in disguise. With Ariel’s voice. But it isn’t just the right voice that turns him away from acknowledging that he really does like Ariel; Ursula is cheating with some sort of brainwashing enchantment.
So that’s Eric. Ariel has a case of love at first sight too, and for her it really is at first sight. She sees him and is immediately in love with him. We’re skeptical about this – are her feelings really that deep just because he’s pretty?
He does re-board the burning ship to save his dog. That’d do it for erm. She also listens to his romantic notions about knowing right away. It’s not entirely about his looks.
Still. If this were being made now, or even several years ago, at most this would be labelled as a strong attraction. A crush that turns into something deeper over time. And she’d have to be given more of a reason for how strong that attraction would have to be – although, again, saving the dog is a pretty good reason as it is.
Ariel’s sisters accept without scrutiny that Ariel is in love, even if we can’t. And so does Triton. When Ariel blurts out, “But daddy I love him!” (sigh) it’s the breaking point. Clearly, Triton takes her love seriously too.
Even Ursula seems to believe it’s true love (or, at least, that the possibility that it’s true love exists). If she can believe it, why can’t we?
We scrutinize stories now, particularly when they are about/for girls, when it comes to how they depict romance. The Little Mermaid‘s true love plotline just wouldn’t cut it anymore, and we’re not sure if that’s fair.
Ariel is sixteen. Even if she weren’t sixteen, sometimes that ol’ romantic fancy just kind of hits you, no matter how mature you may think you are. Sure, you don’t immediately marry someone you just had a sudden rush of potent feelings towards, but Ariel didn’t exactly do that either. We like to believe that they waited (a couple more days) before that wedding scene at the end, and if they didn’t, well, who says they can’t get to know each other postnuptially?
Three also brought up a good point while we were arguing about this: the current way Disney tells this story (in which a girl, and sometimes also a guy, immediately “fall in love”) kind of ends up punishing the characters. It usually punishes the girl. Anna is punished for declaring herself to be in love with Hans. We aren’t supposed to blame her entirely, but at least some of that ending conflict is clearly Anna learning her lesson. And is that fair? Are we just mad at Ariel for falling in love instantly and the guy turned out to be a decent guy and they all lived happily ever after?
This is a meeeean villain. She’s truly evil and manages to still be a lot of fun to watch, unlike someone like the Horned King, who is just scary. Ursula manages to be both scary and very intriguing. We have a lot of thoughts about this.
Some people read body-shaming into Ursula’s character design, and we’re not going to say they’re wrong. But it’s important to note that other fat women in this and other Disney movies are always just matronly side characters, and every other woman villain is thin. There are shades of thin: Mother Gothel has curves, and Cruella is on the thinner side of thin – but there’s no one like Ursula.
She says of herself that she’s “wasted away to practically nothing, banished and exiled and practically starving,” (that line is read deliciously, as of course you know). Probably that is meant as a joke, but in reading the character it suggests that she’s cool with being fat. She wishes she were fatter. That’s – actually really cool.
And her being the villain doesn’t entirely take away from it. She explains her do-gooder attitude by showing two merpeople who have body image issues: a thin merman and a fat mermaid, who ask her for help. She helps them by making them conventionally attractive, and they immediately get together. As someone who has a healthier attitude about her own body, Ursula might have been in a position to help these merfolk accept themselves and learn to reject unrealistic cultural expectations. But she doesn’t, because she likes swindling people into her charming garden. That’s kind of interesting, right?
Ursula is also defeated in an interesting way: she’s manipulated Ariel, expecting that her love of a human prince is like other vulnerabilities that she has been using to trap merfolk in her garden. The difference is that Ariel and Eric are actually in love, and Ursula’s spiteful determination (look, we feel for Flotsam and Jetsam too, but it was basically her own fault) to kill Ariel ensures that Eric will impale her with a ship to stop her. It’s… not the best written third act action scene climax, but whatever. Thematically, it works for Ursula. She’s been looking for a way to get to Triton and settled on Ariel with her supposedly ridiculous notions of joining the human world and being in love with a human prince. She underestimates Ariel, and the legitimacy of her dreams, and pays for it.
It’s really Triton’s story, isn’t it
This is probably why the climax doesn’t work as well as it should: Ursula is really Triton’s villain. She’s using Ariel as bait, and then her murderous rampage against her is more of a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing.
But let’s talk about learning lessons: here is a very good video about this movie, in which Lindsay Ellis argues that Ariel not having to learn any lessons or face any (lasting) consequences for her rash actions is a major flaw of the movie. She points out that Triton is really the one who faces consequences and learns a lesson.
Ursula watches Ariel dreaming her dreams from a distance and laughs evilly about making use of her, but when it finally comes time to send her eel friends to collect Ariel, you’ll note that apart from a bit of nudging, Ursula hasn’t forced anything. It’s as if she knows what’s going to happen: Ariel wants to be human, Triton is prejudiced against humans (rightly :3). She seems to know that he’ll blow up at Ariel and make her vulnerable enough to fall into Ursula’s trap.
Ariel, in her right mind, would probably never have considered Ursula’s proposition, or even going to see her at all. But once Triton has made it clear that he will never accept her human fixation, she’s pretty much forced into seeking extreme means to her end. The movie emphasizes this. Triton’s face right after the scene makes it clear that he feels really bad, and when we next see him, now that Ariel is gone, we see how regretful he is. He knows he made a major mistake. Ariel’s choices are essentially his fault for rejecting his daughter’s true feelings.
The last lines of the movie are Triton’s and Ariel’s:
“Then, there’s only one problem left: how much I’m going to miss her.”
And after a wedding interlude:
“I love you, daddy.”
Their relationship is fixed, Triton turns Ariel into a human without her having to give up her voice, and all is well.
In Conclusion (LOL)
There are flaws in this movie, we don’t deny that. We wish the action at the end was tighter, we wish Ariel and Eric had spent a little more time getting to know each other before getting married, and we wish that Disney had more sexy fat women besides just Ursula (and maybe Madam Mim. Maybe?). But we wish that people didn’t just write this movie off as misogynistic on the basis that Ariel gives up everything for a man. There is more to her than that, and this story has a lot more to say.
* It wasn’t erm’s favourite lecture because he spent the first ten minutes snarking on about Disney movies he was too smart to watch – he had a lot of cool things to say about Angela Carter afterwards. And though erm fervently disagrees with his uninformed dismissal of TLM, his points on Beauty and the Beast stories were solid AF and maybe when we finally get around to talking about those they’ll work their way in there.