Can Disney's Little Mermaid Become a Big Role Model?

July 3, 2022, 1:01 AM · When I headed to Port Canaveral to board the Disney Wish for its media preview Christening Cruise, I had all but given up hope of seeing the two new live musical theater productions that Disney had promoted for its new cruise ship. Neither were included on the schedule of events provided to participating reporters, and neither appeared on the Disney Wish entertainment schedule in the Disney Cruise Line's Navigator app.

Then "Disney Seas the Adventure" popped up as the second night's entertainment. [Disney Wishes for Cruise Fans to 'Seas the Adventure'] That gave me hope that the second production, "Disney The Little Mermaid" might appear for the cruise's final night. As dinner approached that day with no word that the show would play, I resigned myself to not getting to see Disney's new take on the story that revived The Walt Disney Company and its animation studio in 1989.

But as Disney reps kept saying while we were aboard, Wishes do come true. Just a couple of hours before its first showtime, The Little Mermaid appeared on the Navigation app, with the promise of a sneak peek of select scenes from the upcoming production.

It would not be fair to review a show that's not yet complete, but the peek that Disney provided of its new Little Mermaid production left me jealous of those Maiden Voyage passengers who should get to see a completed production later this month. While we did not get to watch enough to answer some of the questions that I and others have had about the fresh direction that Disney has promised for this production, I saw enough to be convinced that the show lies in the good hands of its performers and creative leaders.

Back in the 1980s, whenever Disney had a new animated movie coming out, Walt Disney World routinely created a preshow float for the Magic Kingdom's afternoon parade to promote that new film. The day that the float for "The Little Mermaid" first appeared in the park remains seared in my memory. The colorful decoration, engaging characters and - above all - infectious music of "Under the Sea" immediately captured the attention of everyone within earshot - even of the jaded Magic Kingdom Parade Audience Control cast members (like me) who had seen plenty of these preshow floats come and go before.

This was something else, though. At first sight, from the first note, everyone could tell from this float that this new movie would be something different.

When adoring reviews appeared in newspapers and on television, accompanied by the news that Disney had hired the composer and lyricist of the theater kid cult favorite "Little Shop of Horrors" to create the songs for the show, buying a ticket to see "The Little Mermaid" stormed to the top of every Disney fan's to-do list. The movie became a hit, even sparking talk of a Best Picture nomination - the elusive honor for an animated film that its successor, "Beauty and the Beast," would capture in two years. The 20-plus year journey through the zeitgeist wilderness since Walt's death was over. The Disney Renaissance had begun.

By reviving Disney Animation as a cultural force, "The Little Mermaid" became Disney's most important movie since "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" established Disney as a feature film studio. All this is to say... woe be unto anyone at Disney who screws up "The Little Mermaid."

And yet.

The flip side of making history is that you endure long enough to be judged by it. Nobody but the most esoteric Disney fan is thinking about "Oliver & Company" or "The Rescuers Down Under" anymore. But "The Little Mermaid" continues to affect people. And now, not always in the ways that its Disney creators may have intended.

In their desire to create a typically-Disney happy ending for the story, "The Little Mermaid"'s creators twisted Hans Christen Andersen's fairy tale to instead reward Ariel's should-have-been-tragic decision to give up her voice. Sure, she suffers along the way, but ultimately, it is Prince Eric who fights for her rescue, reaffirming the trope of a helpless young woman needing a strong man.

Yes, Disney has turned and has been pushing back against that trope for years now. (To be fair, DreamWorks' "Shrek" deserved some credit for shaking up Disney's view of fairy tales.) But Disney also remains fiercely protective of its legacy. When Disney makes a change going forward, it often imposes that change upon its past. "Song of the South" goes into the bin, so Splash Mountain must become Tiana's Bayou Adventure. Pandora - The World of Avatar put Disney in the position of advocating for indigenous people, so Jungle Cruise's Trader Sam transitioned from a caricatured headhunter to an unseen entrepreneur. Snow White's Scary Adventure at Disneyland became Snow White's Enchanted Wish, to emphasize that Snow White wished for the kiss she received while comatose, giving her agency for what otherwise might be considered a nonconsensual act.

Eventually, the time would come for The Little Mermaid to change, too. But as Disney Cruise Line entertainment leaders said in a press event this week, the challenge when trying to say something fresh is to not damage what made so many people fall in love with The Little Mermaid as a result.

The Disney Wish's The Little Mermaid opens with its actors pulling costume pieces and props from a giant treasure chest, suggesting that this production is leaning into story theater. But the press preview of Disney Wish's "The Little Mermaid" did not use a narrator to move its story, unlike the new "Tale of the Lion King" production at Disneyland, whose creators openly credited story theater as an inspiration.

That's just a reframing of the 1989 film, however, not an alteration of its story. The Disney Wish production changes the lyric "Out in the sun they slave away" to "they sweat away," but that was the only substantial change that anyone in my family caught. We saw nothing beyond "Under the Sea" in the storyline, however, so I have no idea how, or if, the Disney Wish production will address Ariel's agency in her fall and rise.

I hope that they find a way to make Ariel more of a hero in her story. While the preview we saw included a few technical hiccups, it also displayed imaginative staging, strong choreography, impressive singing, and a deft use of puppetry that helped bring Triton's undersea kingdom to life on stage. (The plaice does play the bass, and the blowfish does blow.) The actress playing Ursula especially impressed, leaving me eager to witness Ursula's visual "magic" to come, that the show's director promised from the stage during an interlude at the preview.

I was eager to see this new Little Mermaid before sailing on Disney Wish, and the preview has left me even more eager to see a complete production of the show. "The Little Mermaid" is one of Disney's crown jewels. But even the most valuable jewel needs a bit of care and polishing from time to time.

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Replies (8)

July 3, 2022 at 9:12 AM

TPI's coverage of The Wish has been exceptional. It looks like DCL will continue to provide extraordinary experiences -- keeping the company at the top of the vacation industry.

July 3, 2022 at 10:14 AM

Sounds good. I'm hoping that the newer interpretations can restore some of the original fairy tale's message of self sacrifice while still giving us a happy ending. I would also love it if they could fix the gaping plot hole (she can't talk as a human, but why can't she write?).

July 3, 2022 at 10:47 AM

First time ever at MGM Studios was January of 1990 when"Mermaid" was stunning everyone by taking in an insane box office for an animated film. Even Disney appeared a bit thrown yet striking to see some presence, especially Animation Building which also was showing off preview stuff for a project called "Beauty and the Beast" with some thinking maybe "Mermaid" was a one-off fluke.

Some good work here on the character and how it can help and still marvel at how it kick-started the Second Golden Age of feature animation.

July 3, 2022 at 12:17 PM

Great piece, Robert. Really enjoyed your coverage of the Wish even though I’m not rushing to book a cruise.

July 3, 2022 at 12:54 PM

Many would argue that Ariel is a good female role model in the sense that she is very different from the typical Disney Princess fodder. She isn't waiting for a prince to come and rescue her, she isn't twiddling her thumbs until she can be queen and she isn't desperate to get married. regards: [url][/url].
She's out of her element, but doesn't try to blend in, or minimize her personality. Ariel is wholly herself, on both sea and land, and I think her self-confidence makes her a great role model for girls.

July 3, 2022 at 2:13 PM

Right, except that Ariel's recklessness and naïveté put her in position that required her to be saved by a man. She doesn't save herself, that's the gripe. It would be very easy to flip the script and have Ariel deliver the kill blow to Ursula at the end.

July 3, 2022 at 2:46 PM

the writer(s) are more interested in the villain than the protagonist (might sound familiar if you've seen a marvel movie recently), and it shows!

July 3, 2022 at 10:07 PM

“Pandora - The World of Avatar put Disney in the position of advocating for indigenous people…”

Not sure this is a good example to the point you are trying to make, Robert. The Na’vi are lead and saved by a white male in the film’s climactic finale like many Disney animated films prior, and while it may be unfair to judge the upcoming sequel by its teasers and fan magazine articles, it seems as if that theme will continue (even if Jake is contained in his avatar body).

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