The line that gets me every damn time I watch the 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid isn’t one of the famous ones — a lyric from “Part of Your World,” Ariel’s defiant “But Daddy, I love him,” or even one of Sebastian’s quippy asides. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Triton finally realizes that Ariel will be happier on land, and uses his magical trident to give her legs. Afterward, he turns to Sebastian and says, “I guess there’s just one problem left — how much I’m going to miss her.”
That moment has more impact than any other line in the movie, because it disrupts the conventional “happily ever after” narrative. Unlike other Disney fairy-tale endings, the end of The Little Mermaid is deeply bittersweet. True love saves the day, and there’s a big wedding. But unlike Cinderella escaping from her abusive stepmother or Beauty and the Beast’s Belle reuniting with her father, Ariel leaves behind her loving family for a new life — and she can never return to the way things were.
The new 2023 live-action remake of The Little Mermaid keeps that line intact, but shifts the ending around it a bit in a way that overwrites the original movie’s sequel, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. But as it turns out, that isn’t a bad thing.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the 2023 Little Mermaid, and also for Return to the Sea.]
Triton is a strict, overprotective parent, but like many parents, he does what he does because he believes he’s keeping his daughter safe. Unlike many parents, however, he realizes the error of his ways and takes the opportunity to rectify them. He has to let his daughter go in order to give her a chance to be happy. But still, he’s sad! It’s moving! It presents a possibility that strict dads are capable of growth and recognizing that what they want is not necessarily what their daughters want!
The idea that Ariel has to permanently break with Triton to achieve her dreams is emphasized again in the direct-to-VHS sequel, where she makes the difficult choice to cut off all contact with the undersea world to protect her daughter from Ursula’s vengeful sister. Though The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea is one of the better Disney direct-to-video sequels, that era isn’t necessarily known for good movies. But there’s a particularly poignant scene in this one, where a grown-up Ariel walks to the beach and dips her feet in the water, looking up to the sky and sighing that she misses her father.
While screenwriter David Magee and director Rob Marshall preserve many things from the 1989 animated movie in their live-action version — including giving the “I’m going to miss her” line to Javier Bardem as Triton, who delivers it with as much tenderness and sadness as it deserves — they make a smart choice to tweak the ending so it isn’t as painful. And in the process, they close the door on any potential adaptation of the direct-to-VHS sequel.
Ariel and Eric still get married in the 2023 movie version, but their wedding is way more low-key. The important thing is that they head off on a long sea journey together, indulging both of their desires for exploration, and hoping to extend diplomatic relations for Eric’s small island nation. As they’re on a rowboat, about to head out to their ship, Triton emerges from the water and looks gravely at Ariel and Eric. More and more merpeople pop out of the water, and Triton tells Ariel that they will always be here for her.
It’s a small detail, but it still changes the ending considerably. Ariel doesn’t have to choose between worlds. She feels happier and more comfortable in the human world, but a part of her will always be a mermaid. This time, though, instead of a goodbye, the ending feels more like a new chapter for Ariel and her relationship with the underwater world. Marshall and Magee sprinkle some fantasy conflict between merpeople and humans into this version, without ever really digging into it or resolving it. But that conflict makes an ending where Ariel doesn’t have to choose between worlds feel even more resonant.
There’s still a lot to dive into (ha) in a potential sequel. (Possible sequels for these live-action remakes keep getting announced.) And it wouldn’t have to focus on giving Ariel a kid, or cutting her off from the mermaid world. Ariel and Eric’s relationship represents something new for both humans and merpeople, and their seafaring quest will certainly take them to uncharted waters, both literally and figuratively. Return to the Sea might not happen in live-action form, but there is a lot of ocean to explore out there. This time, Ariel knows her father will always be there for her, now that he’s learned to let her go.