Movie Review: The Little Mermaid

I first watched The Little Mermaid in the theaters when it came out. It was a very big deal at the time. A return to form for Disney, and it launched the string of successful animated movies that Disney would create next: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. I was a huge Disney fan growing up, and I still am. However, I was only 11 when it first came out, and while I’d definitely watched it multiple times since then, it has probably been 15-20 years since I last saw it. A lot can change with a person in that amount of time. Would the movie still hold up?

In my memory, it was this fast-paced comedy musical romance thing. The romance wasn’t that important to me as an 11 year old, but the music and comedy were. “Under the Sea” was so much fun, and so was “Les Poisson.” Ursula was a great villain. And rewatching it last night, all of that was definitely still the same. The music and animation were still fantastic. The plot . . . ?

That let me down quite a bit.

Who, exactly, are we supposed to root for in this movie? The obvious answer is Ariel, but what does she do that’s actually worth rooting for? She’s duped by a sea witch into giving up her voice (for a man she’s never talked to and has interacted with for a total of about 5 seconds). But I suppose you can at least argue up to that point she’s doing something. She has a goal (beautifully stated in “Part of Your World”), and she’s working toward that goal. Except the goal changes. It stops being about living her dream of living on land, and turns instead into somehow getting random prince boy to marry her.

Once she’s on land, she does absolutely nothing to advance her goal. Well, she stares lovingly into Eric’s eyes, but assuming you don’t count that as an active protagonist, she’s pretty much useless after she’s got legs. Sebastian does a fair attempt of helping her out, using his ninja composing skills to inspire a bunch of strange aquatic creatures into an impromptu serenade, but Sebastian is most definitely not the main character of the movie. True, he does change (going from being self-centered to actually risking his life so Ariel can get Eric), but . . . to say he’s anything more than a sidekick would be a stretch. (Though it makes me wonder how cool it could be if when Disney did the live action remake, they instead focused it all on Sebastian . . .)

In the end, who kills Ursula? Eric does. And what has he done to earn that? Not a whole lot. I realize this is far from a problem unique to The Little Mermaid, and that it’s long been lobbed as a critique of Disney movies, but I tend to hold movies that were made in the 80s to a higher standard of enlightenment than those made decades before then. And I get it: it’s a kids movie. It presents a simplified version of falling in love and living happily ever after. But I went into the movie knowing all the complaints people have made about Disney princesses of yore, and the counterarguments people have made that “it’s just a kids movie,” and I was curious what I would think about it.

The thing that really sealed the deal for me was talking to Daniela about it after the movie. She had no real patience for the plot either. Would I boycott this movie and refuse to let my kids watch it? Of course not. But I can’t watch it today without seeing the weaknesses of the movie, regardless of how I once watched it. Comparing it to Moana or Frozen or Tangled or any number of more recent Disney movies, and I for one am grateful they stopped with the damsel in distress plot and went with something people can really admire.

In the end, this one’s just a 7/10 for me. Still love the art and music. Wish the plot were better.


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