1989 was about when my older sister started being allowed to go to the movies alone with her friends. She turned fifteen that year, so I guess it’s possible she’d been doing so for a few years at that point; I’m honestly not sure. But I do remember my mom’s taking her and her friends to the mall with the theatre for that one—and I myself didn’t see it in the theatre at all, because I wouldn’t turn thirteen until December of that year. So this is a marker of the Disney Renaissance, yes, but it’s also a marker of a very personal era in my life.
Which is appropriate, given Ariel (Jodi Benson in every animated appearance the character has had, I believe) is a teenager just starting to strike out on her own. In the original fairy tale, she’s sixteen. She is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), and she is obsessed with the surface world. She has a hideaway full of Human Stuff, none of which she really understands because it’s all been explained to her by Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), a seagull who doesn’t actually know, like, anything much at all about humans.
Then one day, she sees and falls in love with Prince Eric of Somewhere Or Another (Christopher Daniel Barnes, actually sixteen at the time). She saves his life. She decides to trade her voice to Ursula the Sea-Witch (Pat Carroll) in exchange for legs. Either she wins Eric’s heart or she is condemned to being a scary polyp-thing in Ursula’s garden. She’s actually doing pretty well at it, well enough for Ursula to come to Eric’s kingdom in disguise as Vanessa (also Jodi Benson), who claims to have saved Eric’s life, and after all who is there to say anything different?
Many of the details that people don’t seem to like about Disney movies are, frankly, present in the original story. Like the fact that Ariel (nameless in Andersen’s version) is sixteen. Like the fact that she’s willing to trade everything for a human she doesn’t know who can’t even remember that she’s the one who saved his life. Andersen didn’t like his own original ending and changed it to the whole “becomes a spirit of the air” thing, and is that better or worse than just freakin’ having the guy help her defeat the witch so she can get her voice back?
Honestly, as stories of teenage rebellion go, the Disney version is far from the worst. A version where the character survive is at least something—is it better or worse for Ariel to live married to Eric than for Juliet to die after marrying Romeo? And Ariel is arguably the start of the Disney tendency to actually give their heroines something approaching agency. She fights back against her father’s overreaction—and destroying her entire stash really is an overreaction. It’s definitely unsuccessful, as anyone who’s ever been a teenager should know—you don’t win your child away from their favourite thing by destroying it. You just alienate your child that way.
It’s interesting that Eric is a prince despite not, from what anyone can tell, having parents. He had Grimsby (Ben Wright, who actually told them after he’d been cast that he was in fact the voice of Roger in 101 Dalmatians and the wolf in The Jungle Book), but it’s quite clear that Grimsby is a servant. Eric may or may not be the same age as Barnes, but that doesn’t matter. The fact that he’s referred to as “prince” is not a sign of age in any monarchy that I know of—the youngest English king was Henry VI, who was just shy of nine months old, and even he was considerably older than six-day-old Mary Queen of Scots when she took the throne. At least he could probably sit up in his.
Then again, a royal household including both a king (Ariel’s mother may be dead, but her mother’s dead in the original story, too) and all his children is fairly unusual. That Triton is concerned at all with his relationship with his child is unusual. We know many things about Henry VIII, but no one ever suggested that he was a father to emulate—and he was mostly just a different kind of bad than his own father. So maybe Eric is Prince of Monaco, and maybe he’s just living in his own household the way so many other royals did at the time.
Ariel is the first Disney heroine to get the now-obligatory “I want song.” In fact, the term “I want song” was coined by the late Howard Ashman (who also tended to refer to “Part of Your World” as “Somewhere That’s Dry,” because it shares many similarities with his previous “Somewhere That’s Green”). Ariel has specific desires that she voices clearly. Oh, it may have some roots in “I’m Wishing” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but Snow White, and later Aurora and “Once Upon a Dream” just kind of generically sings about how nice it would be to Find a Boy. Ariel’s not even thinking about that until she sees Eric—she’s much more interested in knowledge.
Ariel is, of course, “descended” from the Disney princesses who came before her—though it had been a long time since Disney had gone to the fairy tale well; it’s something they do less often than people realize, I think. Aurora (also canonically sixteen in her own fairy tale) had been the last one. Funny that neither of them get any lines through quite a lot of their stories, albeit in Aurora’s case because she was asleep. Her pink dress is supposed to evoke Snow White’s sleeves, Aurora’s waistline and neckline, Cinderella’s full skirts, Cinderella’s mother’s dress’s shade. On the other hand, she’s also supposed to evoke ’80s teen sensation Alyssa Milano, who was not exactly the same as those characters.
And just for fun, Ursula was supposed to evoke Divine, because sure, why not? And apparently some of her mannerisms as she sings are lifted from Howard Ashman. Honestly, I don’t know why Ursula isn’t more of a queer icon, unless there’s a fandom that I’m simply unaware of. Which wouldn’t be terribly surprising, given that I’m not exactly up on all queer fandom. Still, Ursula may not be my favourite Disney villain, but she’s still a lot of fun and lifts the movie up to an even higher level than it already would be, and that’s a great deal to do with the performance of Pat Carroll. I look over the list of the other people considered for the role, and I don’t think any of them would have been as good. So we’re very lucky indeed.