‘The Little Mermaid’: Ariel’s Decision To Give Up Her Voice Was Never About Eric

in Disney, Entertainment

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid (2023) is on the front, and the Characters Ariel and Eric on the background

Credit: Inside the Magic

In anticipation of the release of the live-action Little Mermaid next week, everybody’s been talking about how it compares to the original – and if there’s one element people seem to be concerned about, it’s Ariel’s decision to give up her voice.

There was a bit of a buzz a few years ago, around 2020, where everyone began talking about an issue they had with the plot of the 1989 hit The Little Mermaid. Namely, Ariel trades her voice to Ursula, the sea witch, in the film, for a chance with Prince Eric.

The buzz got so big that big names like Kiera Knightly of Pirates of the Caribbean announced that they would no longer allow the film to be viewed in their home because of the message it might send their children.

Now that the new, live-action Little Mermaid is coming out, everyone wants to know: Is this a plot point that director Rob Marshall decided to change?

“We felt the same way. What makes it a very modern story is that [Ariel] ‘s not giving up her voice for a man, that’s not what’s happening here.”

Except the thing is, that never was what was happening.

Ariel Did NOT Give Up Her Voice For Eric

Ariel (R) and Eric (L) in Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' (2023)
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Related: How Will ‘The Little Mermaid’ Expand on the Love Story Between Ariel and Eric?

Is that the assumption that Ursula makes? Yes. Is it the assumption that Sebastian makes? Yes. Is it the correct assumption?

We don’t think so.

The thing about Ariel is she was always obsessed with human culture. If you’ve seen The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, you know that this obsession goes back to her mother, an avid collector and friendly with all the humans, before she was killed by a pirate ship. Overwhelmed with grief and anger, King Triton closed off all contact with the human world in response.

Ariel, however, clearly takes after her mother – not just in looks, but in interests. While her father and sisters all praise and admire her for her voice, it’s not where her true passion lies. The Ariel introduced at the beginning of the 1989 film is constantly skipping rehearsals to chase her true passion: Anthropology—the study of human culture.

(Alternately, you could call it Archaeology, though you could hardly call the items she collects from artifacts.)

Ariel gives up her voice repeatedly to become an outside observer of humans from the moment the movie starts; she skips a solo at a concert to poke around a shipwreck. She shows us right away where her values lie and outright tells us about them before she meets Eric.

Ariel Wants to Be “Part Of That World” Before She Even Sees Eric

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: Disney

Related: Early Viewers Call ‘The Little Mermaid’ The Best Live-Action Disney Movie Ever Made

The placement of the “I Want” song in The Little Mermaid is important because it establishes that Ariel wanted to be human from the very beginning. She is finally moved to sing in the presence of all her treasures, and she only sings about how much she wants to experience everything human life entails – jumping, dancing, and feeling the warmth of a fire.

Never once in the entire song does she mention a man.

Ariel indeed becomes more determined to make trips to the surface after she rescues Prince Eric, but all this does is raise the alarms of others around her – she is making plans to visit the surface, the same as she always does. Sebastian and Triton are the ones who fly off the handle and start making assumptions.

Ariel is a sixteen-year-old girl, so of course, when her father destroys everything she holds most dear in anger, she wants to run away from home. Ursula may have assumed that Ariel wants to go to the surface world to be with Eric, but if you look only at the journey Ariel took in the film, it’s clear what drives her to strike the deal and give up her voice.

Ariel’s decision to give up her voice has more to do with feeling rejected and misunderstood by her father than it ever had to do with Eric. King Triton destroyed Ariel’s collection, her only connection to the thing she’s most passionate about. So when the sea witch shows up and tells her she can immerse herself in it entirely, she takes her up on it.

Having her exact wish to live on land granted for the low, low price of a voice that everyone else has always seemed to care about more than her? Sold.

It’s ironic: The people who make assumptions about Ariel’s motives are behaving exactly like the people who drove her to make the deal to give up her voice in the first place.

Rob Marshall Only Fixed The Optics

halle bailey and jonah hauer-king as ariel and eric in the little mermaid
Credit: Disney

Related: Disney’s Two Ariels Share Magical Moment During ‘Little Mermaid’ Premiere

Director Rob Marshall’s decision to tweak Ariel’s motives around her decision to give up her voice is not bad. First of all, it fixes the optics around the decision, which will at least help to put this never-ending argument to rest.

Second, the motive he chose to put in its place is beautiful and is honestly more in keeping with what Ariel believes. It’s elevating the old reason – the love of human culture -.

That idea was very modern, to not be afraid of the ‘other’….This is a character who’s reaching through fear. They are building a bridge as opposed to a wall. It was an antidote to what was happening in the world and to the divisions that were and are happening in the world. It is a reminder that we’re all one.

That sounds remarkably similar to something that the Ariel we just described would also say. She may not have done it as verbally. Still, the animated Ariel was constantly pushing back against her father’s attitude that humans were something other, lesser – that Eric hadn’t been worth saving.

In the end, Rob Marshall’s changes are still improvements because they take the quiet part and make Ariel say it out loud – they make it more explicit that Ariel’s choice to give up her voice to Ursula is not about any man but about ALL MEN – that is to say, all humans.

Remember: The 1989 Ariel didn’t give up her voice for Eric either.

What do you think? Has Rob Marshall significantly changed Ariel’s motivations or just made them clearer? Let us know in the comments.

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