The Little Mermaid was a game-changing project for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ flagging animation department, but more than that, it completely redefined the idea of the Disney princess. When the animated movie reached theaters in 1989, it had been 30 years since the studio’s previous princess film, Sleeping Beauty. Previous Disney princesses, like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, are kind and caring, but they’re mostly beautiful ciphers who take care of their households and flit around with cutesy forest animals encircling them. Ariel felt like something new for Disney: a daring, outspoken young woman who isn’t afraid to pursue what she wants, instead of sitting by a wishing well, patiently hoping her world will change. As Roger Ebert put it at the time, Ariel is a “fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.”
Ariel saves the life of her love interest, Prince Eric, stands up to her tyrant father, and dares to face the Sea Witch. She has a genuine interest in something besides domestic skills: studying and collecting objects from the human world. But her trajectory eventually yields to the fairy-tale formula, with Prince Eric rescuing her from the villain and celebrating with a wedding.
The positive changes made in Rob Marshall’s live-action remake The Little Mermaid show us what Ariel’s character looks like without those cliches. Halle Bailey’s luminescent performance is a large part of Ariel’s transformation into a more well-rounded character. Her interpretation of “Part of Your World,” in particular, induces goosebumps; her whole body vibrates with a desperate yearning to escape her oppressive world. Bailey’s voice fills each pure, soulful note with profound emotion. She brings Ariel’s intelligence, curiosity, and feistiness to magnificent life.
One of the biggest criticisms about the original Little Mermaid is that Ariel is only 16 when she gives up her life to be with Prince Eric. (The live-action iteration never mentions her age.) Even Bailey disapproved of that aspect of the animated film, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m really excited for my version of the film because we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy.” Instead, the new version elaborates on Ariel’s personal journey: “It’s way bigger than that,” Bailey said. “It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life, and what she wants.”
While these critiques of the animated film are valid, they gloss over the fact that Ariel always had a fascination with the human world and wanted to join it. Eric was a catalyst, but if she hadn’t met him, she likely would have found another reason to seek out Ursula and accept her proposition, whether she was head-over-fins for a human or not. But The Little Mermaid does end like every other Disney princess story up to that point: with a fairy-tale wedding. The live-action version, which is an hour longer than the original film, giving it lots of time to add more detail, tones down the love-at-first-sight trope without losing any of the romance.
Animated Ariel’s attachment to Eric is deep and immediate, from her enraptured smile when she first notices him on his ship to her swift declaration of love. Halle Bailey’s Ariel, on the other hand, respects Eric’s compassionate and kind qualities more than his looks. Initially, she’s more fascinated with him as someone to study, rather than being struck by Cupid’s arrow. She continuously defends humans as individuals, and she points out that they aren’t intentionally harming the seas with their shipwrecks. Her determination to be a part of the human world is more of a driving force in this new film than any instant infatuation.
The Little Mermaid live-action movie develops Ariel and Eric’s relationship in a far more realistic and beautiful way. They’re written as two sides of the same coin: They both have strict parents who want to shelter them from the potential harm of the outside world, and they both enjoy exploring, poring over maps, and stargazing. Eric is even a collector, just like Ariel, with an entire room devoted to nautical treasures. In the 1989 film, Eric is preoccupied with finding the angelic-voiced woman who rescued him from a shipwreck, so much so that he doesn’t really spend time with Ariel until his aide Grimsby forces them to take a carriage ride together. In the 2023 version, they enjoy sneaking around and breaking free from the confines of the palace to laugh, dance, and enjoy the island together.
One of the best moments between Ariel and Eric comes during “Kiss the Girl,” where Ariel takes control of her own narrative by finding a way to teach Eric her name. It’s a small but significant interaction that gives Bailey’s Ariel greater strength and independence. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song “For the First Time” also gives her more agency and perspective, allowing the audience inside her head to experience her excitement and trepidation about being on land for the first time. The Little Mermaid from 1989 never does this — it focuses more on Sebastian’s kitchen hijinks and leaves Ariel’s reactions to what happens around her as silent gestures. The new version gives her a voice throughout the entire film.
The live-action release doesn’t always get it right. The changes made to “Poor Unfortunate Souls’’ are disappointing. Ursula adds a confusing caveat to the spell: Ariel can’t remember that she needs Prince Eric to kiss her. The filmmakers cut the entire verse where Ursula pretends that Ariel can earn Eric’s love by performing the historical stereotypes of femininity — silence, submissiveness, and conventional beauty. We were never meant to take Ursula’s suggestion that Ariel seduce Eric with “body language” seriously, since it comes from a villain character who’s clearly being self-serving, as well as a little lewd.
But the original film does reinforce Ursula’s message. Animated Eric is smitten by Ariel’s looks, especially in her pink ball gown. Grimsby even calls her a “vision.” Ariel often seems like a beautiful accessory in Eric’s palace, and a mild distraction Eric turns to when he wants to escape his obsession with his mysterious savior on the beach.
Live-action Eric, on the other hand, appreciates Ariel’s intelligence and sense of humor. He values her for her personality and their mutual interests in global discovery, rather than just responding to her looks. Which robs Ursula of a little menace and manipulation — her gender performativity was always a particularly sly way to reveal her conniving nature.
Ariel’s tenacity does fade toward the end of the film, as she assumes the traditional female role in a fairy-tale romance. But the live-action interpretation sustains her bravery and self-determination throughout. She’s the one who takes charge and defeats Ursula. Like most of the Disney princess films at the time, the animated Little Mermaid ends with a matrimonial kiss, as Ariel, a 16-year-old girl, leaves behind her strict, authoritative father for the handsome Prince Eric. The sequel, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, immediately segues into Ariel’s role as a mother, ensuring that we barely see her as an individual: She skips from childhood to parenthood with barely a beat between them.
The new version, on the other hand, sends the newlyweds off on a voyage to explore the corners of the world together. Their upcoming adventures and the true bond they’ve forged over their shared passions are far more important than settling down and raising heirs. This delightful ending is a much better fit for the courageous mermaid who longed to see everything the human world has to offer — not just a limited domestic role.
“As women we are amazing, we are independent, we are modern, we are everything and above. And I’m glad that Disney is updating some of those themes,” Halle Bailey said in an interview with Edition. Ariel has always been a spunky heroine, relentlessly pursuing her dreams no matter what anyone thinks. And she paved the way for future princesses with even more autonomy and gumption. The changes in the latest adaptation of The Little Mermaid let Ariel break even further out of her traditional Disney shell, and turn her into a dynamic female protagonist who’s truly admirable.