I’m guessing many women who grew up in the early ’90s have a complicated relationship with The Little Mermaid. Ariel is an impossibly appealing protagonist, the kind that makes you want to spend hours in the pool practicing your perfect emerging-to-the-surface hair flip. But even from a young age it’s easy to see that she’s stuck in a rather regressive story. Ariel transforms herself into a mute human to woo a man she just met. At one point she yells, “I’m 16 years old. I’m not a child anymore!” and rather than treat that exclamation as an ironic one, the film ends with her marrying a guy she’s known for three days. In other words, she’s the perfect encapsulation of the “Disney princess problem.” As a character, Ariel’s inquisitive, spirited, and independent. But the narrative surrounding her is all kinds of troubling.
Yet in trying to capitalize on the phenomenal success of The Little Mermaid film, Disney inadvertently created the perfect solution to its princess problem. In 1992 Disney launched an animated prequel TV show also dubbed The Little Mermaid, which followed Ariel’s adventures before she ever met Price Eric. Removed from the pressure to focus on romance, The Little Mermaid TV show finally gave Ariel the kind of adventure stories she deserves.
Virtually the entire voice cast returned for the series, including Jodi Benson as Ariel and Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian. If the show never quite lived up to the original film in terms of look or tone, it did better by Ariel in nearly every other way. (And it’s unquestionably superior to either of the direct-to-video follow-up films Disney produced.) The show smartly realizes it’s more fun to watch a protagonist enjoy her super cool underwater world than reject it, and the series downplays Ariel’s dissatisfaction to focus on fleshing out the whimsical kingdom of Atlantica with some clever bits of humor—like the ruler of a neighboring shark kingdom who sounds just like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Throughout the series, Ariel’s an adventurer first and a princess second; there’s no bottomless pit she won’t explore and no treasure map she won’t follow. She’s bold, fearless, and strong, but she’s also an empathetic nurturer who strives to see the best in people, especially society’s rejects. Much like the movie, the series doesn’t write her as an aggressive “strong female character” or a diminutive female stereotype. But unlike the movie, the series has time to explore Ariel’s personality in stories that aren’t driven by love. In fact, the one time Ariel mistakenly thinks she’s been betrothed, she exclaims, “I’m too young to get married!”
Instead, the show’s dominant relationship is the father/daughter one between Ariel and her father King Triton (Kenneth Mars). Many of the series’ best episodes explore the uneasy dynamic that can emerge between rebellious teens and their overprotective parents. But what the show constantly drills home is that even when Ariel and Triton disagree, they’re always operating from a place of love. In “Charmed,” Triton warns Ariel not to bring any more “human things” into their house. So when she gets a human charm bracelet stuck on her wrist, she runs away from home. Once Triton rescues his daughter from danger, he winds up scolding himself, not her. “I made you afraid to come to me with your problems,” he says, ashamed. It’s a nice reminder for the show’s young audience that parents make mistakes too.
Meanwhile, “Red” explores the same idea from the opposite perspective. When a spell transforms Triton into a little kid, he turns out to be every bit as rambunctious as Ariel. She spends the day trying to keep him out of harm’s way, only to gain a newfound appreciation for the fact that parents set rules in order to protect their children, not to punish them. “It’s not easy being a parent,” Ariel notes when the curse is reversed. “The only thing more difficult is being a kid,” Triton adds. The complex Triton/Ariel relationship is a subtle thread in the original movie (Triton’s line, “Well I guess there’s one problem left… how much I’m going to miss her,” is arguably the film’s emotional climax), but it’s given far more room to breath in the animated series.
And while the film missed the irony of Ariel’s declaration of adulthood at 16, the show emphasizes that she’s very much a young, flawed protagonist who’s prone to fits of teen angst and a little too eager to jump into dangerous situations—something her timid sidekick Flounder frequently lampshades. Ariel cries into her pillow when she feels she’s being treated unfairly, squabbles with her sisters, hates taking piano lessons, gets the giggles at school, and is obsessed with horses (or, in this case, giant seahorses). It’s hard to imagine a more relatable character for girls.
Interestingly, however, the creators didn’t quite have confidence in her ability to lead her own series. Sebastian frequently shares co-protagonist duties, taking center stage in a number of episodes. It’s difficult to tell if that’s because the creators were enthralled with Wright’s performance or whether they were hoping to appeal to boys by putting a male character front and center. Sebastian is also tied up with one of the series’ downfalls, which is its tendency to go for long stretches of physical comedy or action sequences, which may appeal to little kids but are something of a burden for older fans to sit through.
But in its best episodes, the series provides Ariel a platform worthy of her compelling personality. If there’s an overall arc to the lightly serialized show, it’s Ariel’s growing interest in the human world. Her initial curiosity about “human stuff” turns into a deep passion over the course of the show’s three seasons, which is a helpful reminder that even in the original film, Ariel’s desire to become human exists long before she meets Eric. In “Metal Fish,” she convinces her father to help save a submarine diver who turns out to be eventual Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen (voiced by Mark Hamill). She argues that mermaids are part human and therefore shouldn’t look down on their two-legged brethren.
And that theme of co-existence runs throughout the series. In “The Evil Manta,” an anthropomorphic mantra ray—impeccably voiced by Tim Curry—attempts to tear Atlantica apart by turning species against each other. It’s up to Ariel to remind her kingdom that diversity should be celebrated, not reviled. Sure there are differences between a swordfish and an octopus, but there’s no reason they can’t embrace those differences and live together in harmony.
Interestingly, the series best episode, “Wish Upon A Starfish” feels like a direct refute of the 1989 film. After finding a ballerina music box that got lost in a storm, Ariel becomes obsessed with the idea of gaining legs in order to dance. So she seeks out a magical giant starfish to grant her wish and along the way befriends Gabriella, a deaf Latina mermaid who wishes she could sing. When the Starfish is revealed to be a fraud, both girls ultimately decide they don’t need to change themselves in order to live their dreams. Ariel reassures Gabriella that she already expresses herself beautifully through sign language. And Gabriella helps Ariel realize there are more ways to dance than just on two feet. “We don’t need magic,” Ariel explains. “We’ll make our own wishes come true.”
There’s certainly a way to read the ending of The Little Mermaid film so that it becomes about Ariel empowering herself and not just changing for a man. But there’s no doubt that “Wish Upon A Starfish” does a much better job driving home that self-empowerment message to even the show’s youngest audience member.
The recent call for a gay Elsa in Frozen 2 has sparked a new wave of discussion about the power and pitfalls of the Disney princess. But as I’ve written about before, to dismiss the entire line because of its problematic aspects is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Disney princess franchise remains the most mainstream female-driven property in American culture and there’s an inherent power in teaching girls that their stories don’t have to be niche. And while there are some questionable lessons to be learned from Disney princess narratives, in isolation, the characters are generally far more independent and driven than they get credit for, none more so than Ariel.
For better or for worse, the Disney princess is inescapable. And for parents who want to teach their children that those compelling female characters can do more than just fall in love, the Little Mermaid TV show—which is currently streaming On Demand via Disney Junior—is a great place to start.