Impressions: In Defense of The Little Mermaid

Recently someone asked for kid’s movies with terrible messages. I have a problem with these questions overall because they often involve interpretations that kids are simply not naturally going to come to. However, I concede there is value in reading children’s media critically to make sure we counter messages that we don’t mean to give to our children. These discussions always bring up two Disney movies. Ironically not the Disney movie that functions only to whitewash colonization. No, the two movies are the one that proves that nobody really understands what Stockholm Syndrome is, and The Little Mermaid. As people like to describe it- The movie about a young girl who makes a deal with the devil while having a fit, almost destroying her world, just for some guy.

Only no. That’s not what that movie is. But before I get ahead of myself, I want to say this isn’t going to be a bulk defense of the movie or even Disney itself. Disney speaks directly to children and has for decades, and frankly, I don’t think they put the care into that responsibility that they should. There are, in fact, a lot of pretty bad messages and moments in the history of Disney. However, I also dislike the phase we all seem to go through where we come up with some interpretation of the movie that completely misses several key points and then throw that around. The Little Mermaid particularly upsets me because there is a vital message for parents in the movie that we frankly don’t talk about.

That digression out of the way, no, that’s not actually what The Little Mermaid is about.

Ariel does not do everything she does for Eric. You have to completely ignore the first part of the movie, including one of the most famous Disney songs ever written, to come to that conclusion. The entire first part of the movie serves to bluntly inform us that Ariel is obsessed with the surface world. She is willing to put herself at great risk because she wants to see, experience, and importantly learn more about a world that she is aware of but does not have access to.

The entire song Part of Your World is not about Eric; she hasn’t met Eric yet. It’s about humans; it’s about wanting to experience something beyond herself. This is actually a good thing. It being a good thing is only furthered by the fact that Triton, at no point, can explain why humans are bad only that they are. Now we can extrapolate various reasons why the king of the seas might hate humans, but what we are specifically given is that Triton hates all humans, and Ariel wants to experience their life. Which is more positive for kids?

Only after we are told of Ariel’s clear passion for the human world, and Triton’s hatred for it, she finally sees Eric. Yes, it is a bit problematic. All Disney romances are. Even the ones that try to have them “get to know each other” are still romance on fast forward. A great deal of older Disney romances depend on “love at first sight,” which is a terrible message for kids. Still, even in that problematic world, this one is still not the worst. Ariel is not simply attracted to Eric because he’s handsome. He didn’t just sing a song (Snow White) or dance with her (Cinderella). Ariel observes him being kind, getting respect from the men without lording over them, and then when the ship starts to go down, sees his bravery. It is still an issue, but her reasoning for falling for Eric is at least mildly more developed and based on pretty decent personality traits.

I don’t love the fact that once she gets her legs, the whole focus is on the romance, however, in comparison to other Disney stories with a central romance, this is far from the worst. Eric actually has a personality, a rather good one, and Ariel’s desire to be human is not solely for Eric, heightened by him.

“But she didn’t actually try to be human until Eric.” I mean… we don’t know that for sure, and there was another rather important event that took place, that goes into the message parents ignore by the way, that is the final catalyst.

Triton, who has been ignoring and disrespecting Ariel’s desires pretty much her entire life, is the one that throws a fit. A borderline, if not outright abusive fit, in fact. He destroys everything dear to her in an extreme show of rage, leaves her heartbroken and afraid, and unable to be comforted by anybody.

Then in comes Ursula.

Ariel makes a huge mistake in making a deal with Ursula, but she has been driven to it. She is a young woman who made a mistake in the face of years of behavior from her father. After realizing the full consequences of this mistake, she is ready to bear responsibility. Neither her father nor Eric allow her to face it on her own, but she is willing. She is also willing to fight back against Ursula to set things right.

After doing so, she is then totally and completely ready to say goodbye to Eric and the human world, realizing she messed up in going for her dream. It is only because Triton finally realizes what a jackass he’s been that Ariel does not meet a more depressing fate like in the story.

So again. She did not selfishly make a bad deal while having a fit over some guy. She was driven to make a bad deal by years of an unsupportive father who went to an extreme in his rage, and she felt like she had no other options. She is then willing to do and sacrifice what is needed to undo the mistake but only doesn’t have to because it’s Disney.

The interpretation of the movie is already bad but made even worse by the fact that this is one of the few Disney movies that I think has a powerful message for the parents. Whether intentional or not, the entire movie is screaming at adults not to be like Triton.

Triton has the ability to send Ariel to the surface in a more safe and controlled way. He won’t. He won’t even explain to her calmly or rationally why he doesn’t want her to go. Just does the standard “because I said so,” completely ignoring that it makes no impact on her actual desires. Nothing that Triton nor Sebastian does or says throughout the movie makes any difference to Ariel in how badly she wants to experience a new world, and they just don’t seem to notice or care.

Triton could have supported and compromised with Ariel, and everything would have been okay. He could have talked to her. He could have realized his demands and anger were only driving her away and driving her to feel like she couldn’t express her desires. He could have not lost his temper and raged at her, then left her broken and crying, even while knowing he had messed up at that point. Triton could have done anything to be a better parent to Ariel, and we could have skipped the entire movie.

Yes, Ariel is a little bratty. Yes, there is way too much focus on the romance at a certain point in the movie. Yes, Ariel makes a huge mistake, the consequences of which could have been terrible. But that is not the only context of this movie. Ariel is driven and pushed by a father, something we’ve seen in many movies, and usually, our response is more supportive of the child, but for some reason, with this movie, people just refuse.

The Little Mermaid is not a perfect movie, but the amount of hatred it gets baffles me. The terrible message you are claiming it has isn’t actually the message and ignores the much larger one. Support your kids, talk to your kids. Realize your kids’ dreams might be different than the ones you wanted them to have, and you can’t force them to change. Find compromise with them. Don’t drive them to seek solutions to problems with bad people when you could provide them yourself.

Everything in The Little Mermaid could be solved by Triton being a better father, and instead, we talk about what a brat she is. It’s time to stop.

What do you think? Do you think the bad parts of The Little Mermaid override the case I am trying to make for it? Do you also think this movie is unfairly hated? Let me know.

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