Anvilicious: Andersen had the mermaid transfigured into a daughter of the air, who after three hundred years of good deeds can go to heaven. Then he re-revised it, so it's not her good deeds that earn her a soul — it's yours! — every child listening to the story. P.L. Travers snapped at Andersen in one of her folklore essays: "'But a year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you."
Applicability: This story is open to quite a few allegorical interpretations.
The undersea world of the merfolk can be seen to represent the pagan world - the first stories of merfolk are from pagan Greek and Assyrian folklore, after all – while the human world represents Christianity with its promise of an immortal soul. Compared to the charming, carefree yet soulless "pagan" world of the sea, the humans' Christian world requires suffering and sacrifices, but with the ultimate reward of heaven.
This can also be viewed as a story about growing up. In this interpretation, the merfolk's world represents childhood, while the human world represents adulthood. Like most 15-year-olds, the mermaid is eager to grow up and experience new freedom and adventures, especially romantic love. But when she actually enters the human/adult world, she faces tragic loss of innocence, subjected to pain and hardships she never expected and never able to go back to the safe, happy world of her childhood. In this light, the story can be seen as a warning to children and teenagers not to go chasing after adulthood too soon – and particularly to young girls not to throw away their innocence too soon for a man.
Yet another interpretation is about social class relations. In this view, the mermaid represents a person of (literally) lower birth who longs to join the elite world represented by the prince and other humans, but who is doomed to be snubbed by them no matter how much she deserves their esteem. The story can be seen to represent the working class-born Andersen's "fish out of water" feelings among the elite.
Another interpretation based in Andersen's own life is that the story is an early example of Have You Tried Not Being a Monster? The mermaid has feelings for someone she's not allowed to, literally can't speak of her feelings (e.g. "the love that dares not speak its name"), and the prince ultimately rejects her to be with someone more "conventional," his fiancée princess. Andersen himself was bisexual, and is thought to have written The Little Mermaid out of a similar experience in his life: he fell in love with a man he could never have, both because the man was already engaged and because back then, homosexual relationships were a taboo.
Most of these interpretations can also apply to the Disney film, but with a more optimistic spin. The Disney version also has some interesting possible interpretations all its own: see below.
Fanon Discontinuity: The various endings. Some readers and scholars would have preferred for the story to end tragically with the mermaid being changed into foam and dying, rather than the slightly cloying Bittersweet Ending of the mermaid being changed into a daughter of the air with a chance at Heaven.
Values Dissonance: Modern readers often have trouble with the story's moral of "Even heathens can reach salvation if they suffer enough."
On the other hand, others see the moral of unrequited selfless love as a bit of a Values Resonance. Not to mention the fact that the original story can be read as a homosexual allegory.
The Woobie: Dear God, Hans, how much does this poor girl have to go through? For the crime of being born a fay being rather than an oh-so-lucky human, she has to suffer endless pain, have her tongue cut out, commit suicide, and then hope that no child is naughty for 300 years straight (or she cries) before she can get into heaven?
Alternate Aesop Interpretation: The film doesn't necessarily have An Aesop - but it's been argued that the story is really a cautionary tale for parents. Triton is pretty applicable to the standard overprotective parent that goes too far and unwittingly sends his child into the arms of someone who wants to hurt and exploit her.
Americans Hate Tingle: Despite being well liked elsewhere, the Disney adaptation is not well liked by Danish folk (Denmark is where the Little Mermaid story originated), mainly because of it abandoning the moral of the original story.
The most common allegorical view of this film is that it's a story about growing up. Ariel's life under the sea can be seen to represent childhood, pleasant and secure yet confining, while the human world represents adulthood, with all its potential dangers and struggles, yet with freedom and new joys that a child can't know... not the least of which is romantic love. Like many parents, Triton wants to protect Ariel like a child forever, but like most teenagers, Ariel is eager to grow up and have new experiences. In the end, like all parents, Triton realizes that he needs to let Ariel leave home and build her own life.
As shown by the number of times on this very page that tropers have called Triton "racist," it can also be viewed as an anti-racism story. Open-minded Ariel looks beyond her birth culture's normalized bigotry, sees the value in a different culture, and eventually falls in love with a person from that group and chooses to adopt their ways. Triton's eventual change of heart can be seen to promote universal equality and positive race relations.
Like the original story, this version can also be viewed as a gay allegory. Ariel's love is forbidden by her society, and like all too many gays and lesbians, she's forced to leave her prejudiced family behind and risk her very life (the threat of Ursula serving as a stand-in for hate crimes or AIDS) in order to truly be herself and love who she wants to love. She also faces the risk of Eric not returning her feelings (e.g. not sharing her orientation), or returning them but choosing a more "conventional" partner like "Vanessa" instead. Even though the happy ending is a hetero marriage, it can be seen to represent LGBTQ equality, with Ariel attaining the secure love, joy and acceptance that Andersen (bisexual) and lyricist Howard Ashman (gay and eventually died of AIDS) both undoubtedly longed for. The fact that it culminates in Triton making a rainbow appear over the newlyweds only enhances this vibe.
It's also been argued that Ariel's becoming human can be seen as a metaphor for a transgender woman transitioning. She always wanted to join the human world (metaphor for transitioning), as she sings "Part of Your World" before she meets Eric. Then when she meets Eric, she decides to transition then so she can be with him - she always wanted to eventually, the prospect of getting a boyfriend just gave her the final push, as is the case with some transgender women. So Ariel gets legs and, one can assume, what goes between them. Also there is the rejection by and later reconciliation with her father, as a coming-out story might have. Check out some more info here.
On a less positive aspect, other people see Ariel's infatuation with the human world and link it unfavorably to young kids who fetishize other cultures (i.e.: western fans of anime/manga, weaboos), while rejecting their own, but they have a very shallow idea of what the culture entails. So to them Ariel comes off as even more shallow than ever, believing that her obsession with the human world will stop once she matures and grows (like it happens a lot with teenage fans).
Author's Saving Throw: While badly written, the sequel does attempt to address the constant complaints of Ariel's character. While it was stupid for Ariel to lie to Melody, the sequel has her portrayed as more mature and levelheaded than she was as a teenager. It also has her attempting to fix the damage she created due to her lies, and has her admit that she was wrong for lying and apologizes to Melody at the end.
Is Ariel a good character/role model or a terrible one? Those who dislike her point to her being selfish and reckless and whose sense of rebelliousness and occasional irresponsibility often causes problems. Her making a deal with Ursula, who she knows to not be trustworthy and who curses those who can't fulfill their end of a deal was a pretty big mistake, especially since it's for the sake of a man she barely knows. They also note that she doesn't appear to learn anything from the ordeal. Fans of her praise her bravery and decisive attitude, feeling that she's good as a flawed protagonist rather than being too unrealistically perfect. They also make the arguments that she has every right to want a life where she can find happiness, that she'd long been fascinated by the surface world and not just Eric, that after the deal she does spend a good deal of time getting to know Eric, that the film doesn't portray the deal as a good thing, but an understandable mistake in an extremely vulnerable moment and that she has to earn her happy ending, big time.
King Triton. A well-meaning father who only wants what's best for Ariel, or an idiotic and possibly racist Jerkass father who doesn't handle Ariel's fascination with humans tactfully and brought the events of the second half of the movie upon himself because he couldn't hold his temper?
Broken Base: Who is the oldest sibling: Aquata or Attina? Aquata was originally the heir, however the third movie puts Attina as the oldest. Fans differ on which they prefer.
In Finland, as in many European countries, the movie was dubbed twice. Fans can get quite intense about which dub is better, especially the two voices for Ariel: Johanna Nurmimaa, the first Ariel has a more mature, operatic voice that's completely different from Jodi Benson's, while the second Ariel, Nina Tapio, has a light, contemporary sound, closer to Jodi's.
Draco in Leather Pants: Ursula gets this a lot. Usually because Evil Is Sexy. Then there's some (mistakenly) see her as an unfairly villified feminist icon because she's confident, intelligent, happily single, and powerful. Some even go so far as claim that she's just a victim of Triton's tyranny. Naturally these interpretations completely ignore that Ursula is a cruel, power-hungry, manipulative sadist like most villains.
Sebastian was so popular that voice actor Samuel E. Wright recorded two albums as the character. There was even a tie-in Disney Channel special, and the character also starred in his own shorts on the short-lived Saturday Morning CartoonRaw Toonage, along with his nemesis Louis.
"Vanessa" (Ursula's disguised form) is really popular with some fans.
Epileptic Trees: In The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown puts forth the theory that the directors and animators were pagan goddess worshipers and scattered clues and obscure references to the "Sacred Feminine" throughout the film, including Ariel's red hair. The reality is far less mystical though: the animators chose to make Ariel a redhead to avoid comparisons with Daryl Hannah's blonde mermaid character from Splash, and also because it gave a nice contrast with the blue sea and her green tail.
Some viewers found Ursula sexy even in her original form. "Don't underestimate the importance of BODY LANGUAGE!"
Fair for Its Day: Today some take issue with the movie as its heroine is a girl who abandons her family and her home for a guy she hardly knows. At the time though, Ariel was written by Disney to be a proactive girl, following after the more passive and demure Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. She also was the first Disney princess to set out and win the heart of the guy she loved, rather than have him show up and carry her off. (And she was also the first Disney Princess to save the life of her prince, twice.)
Fandom Rivalry: Ariel is often compared (sometimes unfavourably) to the Disney protagonists that came after her. Belle from Beauty and the Beast is the most common, Belle usually being held up as a better feminist role model. If a debate about whether Ariel is feminist or not comes up, she's usually compared to Belle in some way. This has gone the other way in recent years, as Belle has gotten a backlash from some fans who feel she is too perfect - the Unshaved Mouse in particular preferring Ariel because she was flawed. It's also been pointed out that Pocahontas gets compared to Simba for the reverse reasons that Belle and Ariel are compared; Pocahontas being too perfect and Simba being flawed. Simba is praised for his flaws, while Ariel is criticised for hers.
Fanon: Despite the fact that it was scrapped for the final film, many fans still write Ursula as Triton's sister.
Mythology fans will recognize Ursula and Morgana as cecaelias, a race of half-octopus,half-human creatures.
Many fans who learn the What Could Have BeenFanon are confused on how Triton (a merman) and Ursula (a Cecaelias) could be brother-and-sister. Those familiar with Greek Mythology, and the fruitful spawn of Poseidon (Triton's father), will know that children of the Greek Gods were frequently different species of each other.
Ariel is named after the air spirit from William Shakespeare's The Tempest. This is most likely a reference to the original ending, in which the un-named mermaid dies and turns into an air spirit.
Ursula's incantation for casting the spell on Ariel includes the words "Laryngitis" and "Glossitis". Someone well-versed in medical terminology would notice that they are rather common conditions that may result in mute-ness.
In the original Hans Christian Andersen book, the mermaid had to earn an immortal soul at the end where she previously had none, and nowadays it is often joked that gingers have no soul. Consider Ariel's hair color in the Disney adaptation.
Vanessa, a villainous split personality of Ursula, is voiced by Jodi Benson. In the English dub of Grandia II, Jodi Benson voices Millenia, a villainous split personality.
Ariel was modelled after actress Alyssa Milano. Years later, Milano's character on Charmed would be turned into a mermaid - in a plot that heavily references this film. To make it even more hilarious, Milano is terrified of water (and shooting the underwater scenes were very tricky for her).
The Little Mermaid used the Can-Can when Louis is chasing Sebastian, and that wasn't the only landmark release in 1989 to use that. Super Mario had it for invincibility on his debut Game Boy game, which had an underwater level.
Moral Event Horizon: Ursula starts well over the line and really crosses when she interferes with her own deal with Ariel and hypnotizes Eric into falling in love with her in disguise. It gets worse when she attempts to blast Ariel with the trident, after turning into a giant version of herself. Also in the TV series, she attempts to murder an alleged bad-luck creature despite it being completely harmless to begin with.
For some fans, the added seconds of animation in the DVD release of the film, such as having the camera show the shark's face at the beginning before it crashes through the window, or give more focus on Ursula's giant form and her attempting to zap Ariel with the trident comes off as this, due to those extra sequences clearly having a lower quality in the animation and reducing the frightening tone of those scenes. For instance, the shark's face looks like it came out of a more juvenile cartoon, and Ursula's extra seconds with a hammy laugh added comes off as more silly than scary.
The scene where Sebastian has his Heel Realization and agrees to help Ariel find Eric, is a fairly heartwarming moment... but when you remember that Ariel is essentially standing there naked from the seashells down, the scene can come off as seeming a bit silly. Especially if you listen to the DVD commentary where the crew discusses how they had to be very careful with the camera angles for obvious reasons, and relied very heavily on her Godiva Hair.
The spell to take Ariel's voice includes the word "laryngitis," which Ursula sings with the exact same portentousness as the rest. It works for kids, but can really seem weird for adults who get the reference.
Ariel is frequently criticized for entering the deal with Ursula. A lot of the criticisms miss the fact that the film portrays it as a bad thing, the fact that Ursula is waiting until Ariel is in a particularly vulnerable moment to strike, and of course the fact that Ursula actively sabotages the deal when Ariel comes too close to fulfilling on her end.
Ariel will also never live down her choice itself, giving up her life under the sea with her family for a man she barely knew. The fact that she already wanted to gain feet and join the human world long before she ever saw Eric is another point the criticisms fail to grasp.
Mark Hamill has a very brief role at the very beginning as one of the sailors talking to Eric. While he was known for his work in Star Wars, this was a few years before he was well-known as an accomplished voice actor, with roles like the Joker, Fire Lord Ozai, Malefor, or Skips.
Ron the Death Eater: Being on two opposing sides of an issue, both Ariel and King Triton have people who ignore all faults and/or good qualities in one while demonizing the other.
King Triton. While Triton’s hatred of humans may come off as extreme while having a scary Hair-Trigger Temper which resulted in him infamously destroying Ariel’s grotto, Triton is also shown as a loving father and he can be a nice guy when he’s not angry. His detractors, on the other hand, forget that he's a single parent trying to raise seven daughters, and run an entire kingdom. It also helps that he immediately regrets his overreaction to Ariel's love for Eric, and the effect it ended up having on her.
Ariel. While she can come off as naïve, irrational, and (unintentionally) selfish, she is for the most part, a kind, adventurous, and well-meaning teenager. Her detractors, on the other hand, overlook the fact that she's also a sheltered teenager who, simply doesn't feel she fits in where she is and wants a life of her own. As for the deal with Ursula, she didn't exactly jump right into it. She was manipulated and pressured into taking it at a time when Triton's actions had left her hurt and vulnerable. She, too immediately regrets the consequence of her own mistake. That is to say, Triton nearly suffering the same fate as Ursula's other victims.
"Seinfeld" Is Unfunny: The movie seems a bit like a paint-by-numbers Disney flick these days. Literally everything about it was new and groundbreaking at the time. Merging a fairy tale with Broadway elements? This was the first film to really popularize that formula. So numerous animated films these days owe their existence to this one. And in a form of meta Early Installment Weirdness, Ursula in her initial scenes delivers a very theatrical monologue that's Leaning on the Fourth Wall, which doesn't happen in any of the other Renaissance movies.
The scene of Ariel finishing her "I Want" Song reprise, which shows her singing on a boulder while a wave crashes behind her in the background, is almost always the one scene that you will see in Disney's advertising and commercial spots that mention this movie.
The underwater musical in "Under the Sea" may be another one. Particularly the shot of the little sea horses swimming up around Ariel at the end are put in many generic Disney-referring clips.
There's a third one, the one in which Ariel rises from the ocean after being turned human by Ursula.
Signature Song: "Under the Sea" with "Part of Your World" also a contender.
Squick: Ursula. All the time. Especially when talking to Ariel and performing a lot of giggling like a Burlesque entertainer.
Triton isn't wrong that humans do catch and eat fish (his subjects), and since merpeople are half-fish his concern for his daughter getting "snared on some fish-eaters' hook" isn't completely unfounded. note He turns out to be wrong about humans while she's right, but this is more due to Moral Luck than actual knowledge on Ariel's part, since she started out just as ignorant about the human world as he was, Of course, fish are 100% sentient in this mythos, which humans are completely unaware of. The Carnivore Confusion doesn't help matters either - in real life, fish eat other fish all the time.
On a lesser note, Triton and Sebastian scolding Ariel for missing the concert. Based on Flounder's reaction, it seems the audience is supposed to think they shouldn't reprimand her at all for missing the concert. ("But it wasn't her fault!") However, this is far from Ariel's first no-show (as Sebastian noted earlier, "If only she'd show up for rehearsal once in a while," and Triton's "I just don't know what we're going to do with you, young lady"), and they have a point that because of her absence, the concert was ruined and those in it (Sebastian, her sisters) were humiliated. While Triton and Sebastian are too hard on her and won't hear her out, they have every right to be angry and hold her accountable for her actions.
Superlative Dubbing: Ariel's stunning Norwegian voice done by Sissel Kyrkjebø gained a lot of attention, to the point she went on to voice Ariel in the Danish and Swedish dubs as well. To further exemplify the beauty of Sissel's voice, she's also the One-Woman Wail you hear on the Titanic soundtrack.
Pay close attention to Louis the chef's ditty "Les Poissons", which has the same melody as "Be Our Guest".
Testosterone Brigade: Ariel has one due to her general appearance, which includes a Seashell Bra and nothing else when a mermaid, and her various nude scenes, which undoubtedly sped up puberty for many.
They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot: The film doesn't delve into Ariel's character at the third arc of the movie and how the experience has changed her (if it changes her at all). One of the most criticized aspects of the movie about her shallowness could have easily been fixed by showing how sorry she was at her action that almost cost Triton his kingdom. A scene where Ariel apologises to Triton after Ursula's defeat was storyboarded, but deleted from the finished film. There is a moment where she tells Triton that she's sorry and didn't know what she was getting herself into... but she's cut off before she can say too much more, making it less satisfying than a full scene would be.
Unbuilt Trope: As the first proper Disney-Broadway film, that so many Animated Musicals have been inspired by, it's surprising to see that the musical elements are at least justified in-universe. A supporting character is a concert composer and he's responsible for some of the film's more splashy numbers. The heroine having a beautiful singing voice is also a plot point - and it's exploited by the villain.
What Measure Is a Non-Badass?: Being a non-action girl whose main motivation is becoming human to be with her prince, many people love to yell, "Ariel is a stupid bitch and a bad role model for little girls who THROWS HER LIFE AWAY FOR A GUY!" without stopping to realize that she already wanted to see the human world, Eric was mostly the final push she needed to make the decision to go there, and Ursula was doing some pushing of her own in a particularly vulnerable moment for Ariel, etc. Apparently a woman isn't allowed to fall in romantic love ever; nor is romantic love allowed to be a partial motivation to do something she wanted to do anyway. She also gets a lot of flak for needing to be rescued by Eric at the end, even though she had saved him twice before that.
What an Idiot!: Ariel somehow forgetting the concert was that day is a little believable. What raises eyebrows is that none of the other concert personnel seem to have reminded her at all. Or that her sisters - who are visibly shocked that Ariel isn't there - didn't at least check to make sure she was in her position on the stage. Sebastian really deserved the embarrassment he got for allowing such a mistake to happen.
The Woobie: Ariel is really good at looking like a kicked puppy.
Falling into the Jerkass Woobie category is Triton. Yes, he holds some pretty racist views in regards to humans and goes way too far in punishing Ariel by destroying her collection. However, when he finally realizes what a terrible mistake he's made, Ariel is already gone and there's no sign of her.
Undertow from the sequel. With Melody being a copy of her mother, Morgana and her sting rays being copies of Ursula, Flotsam, and Jetsam, and Tip and Dash being copies of...Timon and Pumbaa, Undertow is the only new character with some originality. Doesn't hurt that he's voiced by Clancy Brown.
Benjamin from the prequel. While the movie doesn't sit too well with the fans most agree that he is its saving grace, being an Ambiguously Gay and yet still very cute manatee.
Gabriella in the tv series, a deaf mermaid who used sign language (her octopus sidekick served as a translator) and appeared in two episodes. Fans love her, not just for being adorable but also for being an example of positive representation in a kids' show.
"Funny Aneurysm" Moment/Harsher in Hindsight: In-universe example: In the episode "Metal Fish", Ariel saves Hans Christian Andersen, and it is heavily implied that he ended up writing the story in honor of her saving him. Said story ended up published a year later in the story, and given what happened to the character based on her, it's unlikely that Andersen was too happy that Ariel married Eric.
Heartwarming in Hindsight: Ursula not being as much of a Benevolent Boss to Flotsam and Jetsam in the prequel TV series as she was in the original movie may imply that she's gotten closer to them as time progressed.
Magnificent Bastard: The Evil Manta from the series, who manages to turn the different species of the entire kingdom against each other in his debut episode. Not only that, he also tricked Ariel into setting him free to begin with. Oh, and he's voiced by Tim Curry, no less. Though his fourth and final appearance puts him through Badass and Villain Decay; suddenly he's a father, Tim Curry voices him a lot less creepily, and he ends up with some redeeming qualities.
Triton has gotten this a lot more since The Little Mermaid Ariels Beginning, with many fans now seeing him as an oppressive tyrant who randomly outlaws anything he doesn't like (music, the surface) because, in this film, he outlaws his entire kingdom from singing or playing any music because of his grief for his own dead wife. Of course, the fact that this is a direct-to-video prequel made years after the first film, by a completely different studio, with none of the original creative team from the first movie being involved, doesn't stop fans from forming this opinion.
Ariel also gets some of this in regards to her parenting towards Melody in the sequel. While Ariel was indeed wrong to lie to Melody regarding her mermaid heritage, many fans are a little too eager to shame her for how overprotective she was of Melody. This ignored the fact that Ariel did try to keep Melody from making the same mistakes she did. Also that Triton was being paranoid about humans in general when he tried to keep Ariel safe, while Ariel was trying to protect Melody from a definite threat in Morgana. Although, it doesn't help that Ariel doesn't explain to Melody what the "definite threat" is, but simply tells her to stay away from the ocean because "it's dangerous," just like when her father told her to stay away from humans because "they're dangerous."
Also bordering with a major case of It Runs in the Family and Adult Fear: Triton may have been paranoid, but his heart was in the right place, and he proved to love her daughter so much to sacrifice everything, including himself, to keep her safe and happy. Exactly what Ariel did: she just needed to be a mother herself to understand how hard is being a parent.
Strawman Has a Point: Triton has even more of a point if you've seen Ariel's Beginning and consider it to be canon. Ariel's mother was killed when human fishermen came to steal mermaid relics and accidentally(?) rammed their boat into her. Even if Triton accepted her passing in the end, that doesn't necessarily mean that he thinks highly of humans. It's no wonder he doesn't like humans—they killed his wife!
They Wasted a Perfectly Good Character: The Evil Manta. He was at first set up as the main villain of the animated series instead of Ursula, since the series takes place before the movie, and it would make a lot less sense for Ariel to make that deal with Ursula if she had already faced and fought against her before their first meeting in the movie. Only, after a while, Ursula did appear in the series, after which Manta only appeared in one more episode. Plus the possibility of him being the villain of the sequel instead of "Ursula's crazy sister".
Though not for lack of trying, Ursula was never quite as menacing in the show as she was in the movie. The only time she was about to cross the Moral Event Horizon was when she tried to kill the harmless "bad-luck creature" from the episode Against the tide.
King Triton in Ariel's Beginning. The guy lost his wife Athena in a pirate attack, and many years later he still can't listen to music without being reminded of that tragic happening. Through the whole movie he looks so sad and depressed of what he had lost, and his strained relationship with Ariel ain't helping him.
It gets worse: by the first movie, his relationship with Ariel is so damaged that she prefers trying her luck with Ursula than trusting him again, he's visibly distraught and blaming himself for her escape and, when finally after years of bickering manages to patch his relationship with his daughter, he's grimly reminded that Ariel forgave him at her own marriage. When he realizes that he's going to miss her, he also realizes that now Ariel has her own family to care for, and he can never, ever get back the time they spent bickering. And then, in the second movie, we find out that he didn't even get to be a grandfather for his (possibly) first granddaughter.
Melody in the sequel after being humiliated at her birthday party.