I recently wrote this expository essay for a class and thought it was something that might interest you all. Hope you enjoy! It was lots of fun to write.
“Glen Keane was leaving Disney.” The news that one of Disney’s greatest animators was choosing to leave the company was all over the internet. When I saw this, I wondered what it would mean for the future of Disney princesses. He was one of many artists, writers, composers, directors, and producers that changed the meaning of “Disney princess” forever. After my emotions settled down and I was able to look at this loss objectively, I realized that although the exit of Glen Keane from Disney’s toolbox was devastating, it was not nearly as devastating as it would have been if Disney had lost the rights to the first princess he designed: the little mermaid, Ariel.
Ariel was Disney’s game changer. She inspired every hero and heroine that has come after her. There isn’t one specific characteristic of her film, The Little Mermaid, that defines its significance. The piece as a whole reflects the expectations we hold our family entertainment to today.
The first thing you notice about Ariel is her exotic look. Glen Keane, her lead animator, spent a lot of time researching what made people beautiful and focused on two main concepts: a unique appearance and perfect eyes. Other characters he designed later, such as Pocahontas and Rapunzel, reflect this ideology. The key to real beauty, however, is not just found in appearances. Disney explored Ariel as a character and made sure her personality was defined and realistic. Ariel’s father, King Triton, says she is “careless and reckless,” and she acts more like a real teenager than the other young princesses that came before her. Because she does not speak for half of the film, her visual design and personality were vital to its overall success.
Those characteristics were not enough, however. Ariel also needed to be relatable, but at first glance, she has a few things going against her: she is a mermaid, a princess, and desires to become a human. The three most important things about her are things that no one can directly relate to. Yet somehow, Ariel’s dreams speak to us. It doesn’t matter what her dream is. What matters is why she wants it. Ariel longs for something more, for freedom, for a chance to live her own life. This is something every child and, more specifically, every teenager can relate to. Her motives are not limited to a specific desire like love, knowledge, wealth, or fame. She simply wants to feel alive and has enough nerve to make this dream come true. Ursula, the sea witch that turns her into a human the first time, tells her, “Life’s full of tough choices.” Ariel understands this, but is never afraid to make the right choice to turn her dreams into reality.
When you compare her aforementioned traits and decisions to those of the princesses that came before her- Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty- you can see the difference, but the line is still blurry. There is, however, a significant choice Ariel makes that separates her from her predecessors and becomes a tradition carried on by many of her successors. Princess Ariel saves Prince Eric. She rescues him from drowning. This single scene from The Little Mermaid created a pattern easily seen in Disney’s succeeding princess films. Belle brings the Beast back to life when she admits, “I love you.” Pocahontas puts herself in front of her own father’s weapon right before he tries to carry out John Smith’s death sentence. Rapunzel heals Flynn Rider with her magical tears after Mother Goethel stabs him. Still, Ariel was the original to do this, making her a true role model for Disney princesses and young girls alike.
Although The Little Mermaid’s title suggests that the story revolves only around Ariel, this film introduced some of the most memorable supporting characters in Disney film history. Sebastian, the royal composer and Ariel’s guardian, is the most vivid example from the film. Although he is just a tiny crab, he has a strong voice and a huge heart. He sings the most in the film, having two feature songs (one of which won an Academy Award), and delivers some of the film’s most powerful dialogue. He even directly states one of the film’s themes: “Children got to be free to live their own lives.” Other supporting roles have their turns in the spotlight as well. Ursula was the first villain in a Disney princess film to have her own full-length song, and Prince Eric was given his own distinct personality and motives.
Another part of the film’s success must be attributed to the thing that won the movie two Oscars: the music. The score was composed by Alan Menken, who changed the sound and musical caliber for all Disney films since his debut with the company. His compositions can also he heard in later films: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tangled. Alan Menken and the lyricist for The Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman, did more than simply add music. They gave characters real voices and drove the story with smooth transitions and passion.
Every person from the animators to the composers that worked on The Little Mermaid put their hearts and souls into the film. These collaborators turned fairytales into more than just love stories. Ever since The Little Mermaid, Disney films have stood for family, friendship, duty, and faith. Princess films are no longer just for girls anymore, with heroes like The Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric that boys can look up to. In the past, Disney was criticized for not making their princesses and leading ladies strong enough, but after The Little Mermaid, that argument has been permanently defeated. Ariel says it herself: “Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand.” Entertainment fans all over the world owe it to Ariel and her creators for taking a risk and being ready to stand for what the future of princesses deserved to be.