The Little Mermaid, which opened 25 years ago today, ushered in the Disney Renaissance that would last through the 1990s. Part of what made the film revolutionary? The Little Mermaid herself. Ariel, for better or for worse, created an entire breed of “spunky” Disney princesses.
Audiences meet Snow White and Cinderella as kind, gentle doormats, cheerful and gracefully submissive despite their gloomy circumstances. By contrast, Ariel is first introduced as a rule-flouting adventurer, a rebel whose boundless curiosity leads her friend Flounder into danger. She later meets her prince by saving him from drowning. In discussing the film with Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert said, “I think the thing I like the best is the character is active. She’s not just a little girl that things happened to. She’s up there; she’s going to go to the surface; she’s going to find her prince; she’s going to take care of business so you can really identify with it.”
Then there’s Ariel’s big solo, “Part of Your World”—which isn’t very revolutionary on its surface. As Little Mermaid lyricist Howard Ashman explained in a lecture delivered to the Disney staff, the song belongs to a long tradition of “I Want” songs sung by Disney (and Broadway) leading ladies. Cinderella, for instance, croons “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” at the start of her own movie.
“Part of Your World” is a perfect “I Want” song, one that follows in the tradition of My Fair Lady‘s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” or even Ashman and Mermaid composer Alan Menken’s “Somewhere That’s Green,” from Little Shop of Horrors. But in comparing “Part of Your World” to, say, “A Dream Is a Wish,” you can see just how Ariel differed from her predecessors.
While “A Dream Is a Wish” is completely passive—it’s even written in the second person—”Part of Your World” is brimming with agency. Ariel’s dream is to ask questions; what she really wants is knowledge. She doesn’t even get to the whole boy thing until the song’s reprise; up until that moment, she’s been singing “part of that world,” not part of “your” world, meaning Prince Eric’s. In the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, animator Glen Keane explains that he knew he had to animate Ariel after hearing that song—and it’s clear why. Ashman’s lyrics gave this girl what the Disney princesses before her (officially, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty) mostly lacked: a personality.
This certainly isn’t to say that Ariel is the perfect feminist role model for the young girls who idolize her. (Me? Guilty. Honestly, who doesn’t want that red hair?) The movie’s entire plot revolves around the mermaid giving up her voice for the love of a man. Even when Ariel does this, though, the move is her choice to make. She’s not the victim of an evil queen’s poison apple (Snow White) or curse (Sleeping Beauty); she decides her own fate. That decision is certainly ill-advised, but it’s a decision nonetheless. Just as strong female characters can be derided for being progressive only on a surface level, so too can the spunky Disney princesses—and it makes sense that this archetype would walk before it could run.
Ariel created a mold that Disney would continue filling for years, with varying degrees of success. Belle was a beautiful outcast (“a puzzle to the rest of us”); Jasmine was frustrated by her sheltered life and the kingdom’s rules about who she must marry. By the time Mulan was released in 1998, Disney was finally ready for a heroine who becomes a warrior, acting not out of love for a man, but out of love for her family. (And yes, Mulan isn’t technically royalty—but she’s treated as such by Disney itself.) And in last year’s Frozen, Disney gave us the character who is the most rightful heir to Ariel’s spunky crown—not in the magical Elsa, but in her sister Anna.
Anna, who even sports a muted version of the mermaid’s crimson mane, is in some ways a corrective to Ariel. Like Ariel, she’s gregarious, at times charmingly awkward, and initially sees a prince as her way to a more exciting life outside of her castle—but, unlike Ariel, she ultimately has her illusions shattered. Anna is derided by multiple characters for giving herself over so impulsively to a man; her decision to marry someone she’s just met precipitates the fight that propels the movie’s adventure. That adventure has little to do with Anna’s desire for a prince. In Frozen, Disney did the 21st century version of what The Little Mermaid did 25 years ago—they took a formula and undermined it.
Sure, it took a while to get to that point. But without Ariel, we would have never gotten there in the first place.