Ariel likes the ocean. She really does.
And well she should. She’s a princess, after all—not just any ol’ princess, either, but youngest daughter of King Triton, emperor of the Earth’s Seven Seas. Given that 71% of the planet is water, that’s a pretty big empire. Rome? The British Empire? Pish. Small, dry potatoes compared to Triton’s domain. And as Triton’s beloved daughter, Ariel wants for nothing. She can have absolutely anything she wants—as long as it’s, y’know, underwater.
And therein lies the problem.
You know how teens can be. They think the seaweed always grows greener on the other side of the reef. And Ariel is fascinated by that other 29% of the planet: the dry side.
Yes, she knows that those humans—those creatures with their funny feet—tend catch some of her scaly friends and eat them. Sure, Ariel’s own mother met her end at the point of an ill-placed harpoon. But humans can’t be all bad, can they?
Yes, thinks King Triton. Yes, they can.
The king hopes his daughter’s fascination with the surface world is a fad, like all kids go through. She’s testing the limits, pushing boundaries, exploring new ideas. Why, teens on the surface do it all the time. These youngsters come to their senses eventually.
Perhaps Ariel would’ve, too.
But when the teen pops her head above water one night, she sees stars, and fireworks, and a ship sailing proud and strong. And on that ship she sees … him. A handsome young sailor with feet that move and shift as gracefully as any mackerel or tuna.
When the ship encounters a terrible surface storm, and the young man—Prince Eric—takes a tumble into the sea, Ariel knows she can’t let him drown. She must save him.
So she does. And as Eric wakes up, as Ariel sings her powerful siren song to him, something happens in that forbidden moment of contact: Something catches spark. In that instant, the two now connect in a way that King Triton wouldn’t understand—and if he did, he’d be horrified.
The land has always held a powerful pull for Ariel. But love pulls stronger still. It tugs like the undertow and is as implacable as the current.
And this new thing, this new feeling, just might sweep Ariel away.
Let’s start with the obvious: Regardless of what Daddy Triton might say, saving Eric was a good thing. We should always try to rescue people from drowning, whether we have tails and scales or not. That act creates some wide-reaching ripples that not only touch Ariel and Eric, but two very different societies.
The surface world and Triton’s underwater realm are deeply hostile to each other as the story begins. In the opening scene, several sailors are doing their best to harpoon what they think is a mermaid, believing that mermaids lure men to their deaths. Below the surface, Triton believes that humankind itself is bad—a bias made exponentially stronger because humans killed his wife.
But (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here) Eric and Ariel’s relationship eventually helps the process of healing: Both Triton and Eric’s mother, Queen Selina, realize that they were both wrong about painting the other side with so broad a brush. And while humankind and merfolk are inherently very different people, we see the beginnings of a better relationship between the two.
Another thing to note: King Triton makes a few mistakes in curbing his daughter’s interests and passions. But he loves Ariel deeply—so deeply, in fact, that he’s willing to sacrifice a great deal, including himself, for her.
Magic comes by the gallon here, and its primary practitioner is, of course, Ursula, the Sea Witch. Using a variety of ingredients kept in glowing containers, she magically gives Ariel a pair of legs in exchange for Ariel’s voice. And that voice itself is, in this telling, magic itself: We’re told that the voice of a mermaid is a powerful “siren song” that can charm those who hear it. (That ability stems from Greek mythology, by the way; the song of Sirens would lure sailors to their death).
Triton’s trident is also magical. He uses it to zap a bevy of surface artifacts and to grant a special boon to someone. And when it falls into the wrong hands, we see just how powerful it can be.
Citizens of Queen Selina’s island kingdom (and the queen herself) lament the number of ships recently sunk: “Shipwrecks,” Selina grumbles. “Hurricanes. The sea gods are against us.”
Ariel and her fellow merfolk are dressed slightly more modestly than they were in the 1989 animated film. Instead of Ariel wearing a pair of seashells, for instance, she has a wide band of fabric-like stuff wrapped around her chest. But despite those efforts, the film feels slightly more titillating: We are, of course, talking about real flesh-and-blood people in these mer-garments, so all the bare shoulders and belly buttons (and in the case of mer-guys, exposed torsos) we see may be more sensually distracting for some.
Of special note: When Ariel becomes a human, she transforms sans clothes. We don’t see anything critical, of course. But whereas the animated Ariel was covered almost immediately by an old sail or something, our live-action mermaid is covered only in her own hair. Later, we see Ariel taking a bath, and the camera catches her from the shoulders up. It’s a scene taken directly from the original, but again, it has a different vibe in this live-action take.
In the original film, Ariel needed to get the prince to kiss her within three days. That’s still true here. But in an era where girls are just as likely to make the first moves on guys, and to sidestep questions of romantic manipulation, the 2023 version makes a subtle switch. Thanks to Ursula’s magic, Ariel doesn’t remember that the prince needs to kiss her at all. She only knows that she likes the guy. It’s up to Ariel’s friends to encourage Eric to plant a smooch during the classic song “Kiss the Girl,” while Ariel is truly innocent of any ulterior intent. The lyrics also have been tweaked to reflect a bit more consensual intent.
We do, of course, see (sea?) kissing. The voluptuous Ursula does press her hands underneath her breasts at times (as we saw in the original movie), but her outfit doesn’t bare shoulders. And a critical verse—the one that includes the line, “and don’t forget about the importance of body language”—has been removed in the live-action version. Eric is sometimes seen with an open shirt.
I know many readers will be curious: I didn’t notice any LGBT content in the movie. There are efforts online, however, to re-interpret the original Hans Christian Anderson story, The Little Mermaid, as a tale of unrequited gay love.
A ship is set on fire and destroyed during a fierce storm at sea. Prince Eric nearly drowns. Sailors try to harpoon a sea creature they mistake for a mermaid. (The harpoons miss their targets.)
Ariel takes Eric on a dangerous carriage ride. Triton uses his magic trident to destroy a great many artifacts. Someone is killed by the trident, with the body turning into ash. Electric eels bind characters and shock them. A shark makes a scary attack on Ariel and her fish friend, Flounder. Scuttle, the bird, misspeaks about what Ariel’s supposed to do with Eric. “Has Ariel killed the prince yet?” she asks.
This may be a spoiler for those who didn’t see the original animated film: A climactic sea battle features a very large, very angry Ursula trying to kill a character. She’s eventually stopped in the act by the impaling prow of a ship.
Ariel and Eric’s love story is sweet and disarming. It’s also rather problematic from a parents’ point of view. Ariel disobeys and ultimately defies her father. And while Ariel’s age is never given, we can assume that she’s not of legal age to make her own decisions or run off with anyone, even if he is a prince. Certainly, if Ariel was a 16-year-old human, her relationship with Eric would take on a darker hue, and we’d view her teenage rebellion a little more harshly.
Eric lies to his mother, too, and he sneaks out of the castle against her explicit wishes.
But both parents exasperate their children as well. Triton certainly overreacts at one point in the movie; meanwhile, Queen Selina can be shortsighted in both her treatment of Eric and the health of her own kingdom.
Anthropomorphic animals verbally fight and belittle one another, albeit comically so.
Disney has never been one to turn down a chance to make a buck. But you can understand why they would’ve waited so long to remake their 1989 classic.
If 1937’s Snow White began Disney’s animated legend, The Little Mermaid revived it. It marked the dawn of what folks call the Disney Renaissance and headed a string of undisputed critical and commercial hits: Beauty and the Beast; Aladdin; The Lion King; etc. People grew up loving this movie, which raises the stakes for any remake. And honestly, with its partly underwater setting and mix of humanoid and animal characters, it’d be an easy story to mess up. Given the mixed results of Disney’s live-action remake efforts recently, the Mouse House needed to swim carefully.
But this version works. Mostly.
The 2023 version of The Little Mermaid feels more like an homage to the original as it does a remake. Lines of dialogue and whole scenes feel like they were plucked straight from the animated film and redone, shot-for-shot. The film is still about a headstrong mermaid and her love for the land. The story still hinges, remarkably, on true love’s kiss. For the most part, this still feels like the comfortably old-fashioned fairy tale that the world fell in love with 35 years ago.
Oh, yes, we see some changes. Most of the media has focused on the diverse cast in play, but that’s a strength, not a weakness. The film also seeks to move Ariel out of damsel-in-distress territory and turn her into a hero in her own right; those choices can feel a little false in the context of the film, but I get the impulse. The new version unveils a couple of new, powerhouse songs that I’m assuming we’ll hear again come Oscar season.
Ironically, the family-friendly problems this film has, in fact, are more often than not drawn straight from the original rather than being shiny new additions. The skin we see is more problematic because it’s real; the scary, violent climax—jarring for a Disney animated film back in the day—is still pretty intense. The willful disobedience we see from Ariel and others shouldn’t be ignored, but those issues were certainly in full force from 1989, too. If anything, Disney’s dialed back the content, not dialed it up.
The movie doesn’t just take its forerunner and turn it into something new. It embraces it—and gives us something rather familiar.
And maybe the biggest question the movie leaves us with is a simple one: Why remake it at all?
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.