Making the Grades
Whenever I watch Disney's The Little Mermaid, I always wonder if the story is about rebellion or prejudice. The characters seem possessed of these differing opinions too.
To King Triton (voice of Kenneth Mars), ruler of the ocean realm, the behavior of his youngest and most talented daughter appears to be a haughty disregard for his orders. As stubborn as her stereotyped redheaded locks might predict, Ariel (Jodi Benson) is obsessed by the forbidden world of humans, and is constantly sneaking up to the surface to take a peak.
To the sixteen-year-old mermaid (with the carefully positioned clamshells), the unreasonable restrictions of her royal parent simply affirm his bigotry towards an amazing civilization, which he refuses to learn anything about. Her conviction that people are not the two-legged, fish-eating barbarians he claims they are increases after the water-waif witnesses a shipwreck and rescues a drowning man (Christopher Daniel Barnes) -- the fact the victim is a handsome prince might have influenced this conclusion.
When their heated viewpoints boil over, the reprimanded teenager swims off to look for a more sympathetic ear. A slippery octopus named Ursula (Pat Carroll) is happy to listen to the poor, unfortunate princess--for her own secret reasons. Having a bit of magic up her tentacles, the bosom-bouncing enchantress offers to grant legs to the lovesick girl in order for her to win the heart of the human she fancies. Of course, this charm comes with a price tag. Not only does the nautical maiden have just three days to get the boy to "kiss the girl," but she must also give up her voice for this privilege.
Meanwhile, the fatherly monarch assigns a trusty crab named Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), to keep a close eye on his wayward child. The staunch supporter of the sovereign arrives just in time to see the mermaid trade in her tail. Although at first horrified, the crusty crustacean soon finds his shell softening because of Ariel's doe-eyed admiration for Prince Eric. However, when he joins her efforts to satisfy the contract with the Sea Witch, they quickly discover the real cost of the bargain.Amidst this conflict of wills, the Disney production often conjures up frightening images of jaw-snapping sharks, lightening-zapping tridents, and spell-transforming potions. Young viewers may also be bothered by an angry confrontation between a parent and child, a violent conflict that depicts a character being impaled, and a scene parodying a horror movie where a sea creature stumbles into the kitchen of a seafood-cooking chef.
Despite these mild concerns, The Little Mermaid has made a big splash with family audiences since it's theatrical debut in 1989. Part of its appeal is the delightful soundtrack written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, which features such memorable tunes as Part of Your World, Under the Sea, and Kiss the Girl.
For me, the biggest fish to fry is still the debate over the film's message. Tolerance for cultural differences is an attribute I, and most other parents, would welcome our children to emulate--whereas willful rebellion against authority is something we'd rather not encourage. So, what is the story trying to say? Your enjoyment of this otherwise amazing animation is likely to depend upon your answer to that question.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Little Mermaid.
Do you think this story is about a rebellious teenager who gets her own way, or a father who overcomes his prejudice? Does King Triton’s solution to the problem between Ariel and Prince Eric’s union affect your opinion? Why do you think the ruler didn’t give the prince a tail instead? How might a different ending have changed the story?
Why does Ariel (the girl who has everything) feel the world above would be so much better than the ocean where she lives? Do you think she is right? Why do the things we don’t have often seem better than the things we do have?