I explained to my girlfriend’s oldest daughter (soon to be 13) that Disney changes a lot of things when they adapt a particular story. “The Little Mermaid,” which comes to us from Hans Christian Andersen in the 1830s, actually ends with the mermaid failing to get her prince and dying (though there’s some bunk about her noble sacrifice meaning she gets to go to heaven after three more centuries of servitude to mankind). It would never be like that in a Disney movie; the soon-to-be-13-year-old agreed.
“They would say, ‘You go for that prince!!’” she insisted.
She’s right of course, and this is how totally on-brand the Disney label has been since I was younger than her. The movies speak to a very specific kind of want: Be yourself, follow your dreams, love can’t be wrong.
As Disney swallows up every intellectual property under the sun, it’s worth it to look at the musical that put them back at the top of the box office in 1989, and how the company keeps its finger on the pulse of America’s families today.
It’s understandable that, when their backs were against a wall in the late ’80s, the company essentially went back to formula, dusting off an idea that had languished in a drawer somewhere since it was abandoned while Walt Disney was still alive and overseeing creative content. More than 20 years on from Disney’s death, the company was facing down diminished returns from the animated film wing of the company and had suffered the ignominy of losing at the box office to Don Bluth—himself a former animator who had led a mass exodus of animators right in the middle of production of The Fox and the Hound.
There’s no comparison between Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and Bluth’s An American Tail, the competing films from the two studios in 1986. The latter was Bluth’s story of an immigrant family of anthropomorphic mice and their travails fleeing the pogroms of late 19th century Russia to settle in the New World, one of the most unique and beautiful children’s films of the past couple decades. The Great Mouse Detective is kind of cute at times, maybe, but it hasn’t proven particularly memorable. Audiences agreed, giving Tail about twice the box office take.
Bluth’s company would go on to stumble over the years, while Disney would recover and become the most powerful entertainment company on the planet. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the first step in that comeback in 1988, but the first true return to the form was 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which set the template for almost every traditionally animated film the Mouse House released afterward.
So, what is a “Disney Princess?” If we look at the most prominent examples—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine—we find female protagonists who are at the center of the story, have a clear goal and serve as a role model little girls are going to want to be for Halloween. Importantly, a Disney Princess need not be of explicitly royal blood to qualify for the title; Mulan and Belle are peasants and only a fool would argue they don’t make the cut.
In Disney animated features before The Little Mermaid, there are only three “princesses” between 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and 1985’s very poorly received The Black Cauldron (if you count Maid Marian in Robin Hood, and I say you are a jerk if you don’t). Crucially, The Little Mermaid serves as the exact inflection point in which Disney Princesses’ goals changed from wanting a cute guy…
…to wanting to be her own person…
…even though a woman who wants that is viewed as somehow deficient.
It’s all right there in Mermaid, in a way it absolutely was not in Sleeping Beauty, whose Princess Aurora didn’t have much agency in her own narrative. Besides the story of the mermaid princess Ariel actually being about Ariel and what she wants, it doesn’t hurt that The Little Mermaid is uplifted by some of the best musical numbers the studio had produced in at least a decade.
Disney hired composer Alan Menken and playwright Howard Ashman off the back of the success of the Little Shop of Horrors film in 1986, based on their 1982 musical. How on Earth they thought guys who wrote a black comedy about a man-eating plant would be the perfect duo to revive the most kid-friendly of studios is puzzling, but it seems to have worked. As Paste has pointed out, 1989 was an incredible year at the movies, and The Little Mermaid still came away as the number 8 box office earner behind competition that included Batman, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Menken has said he tries to keep his compositions “hummable” and composes them with an eye toward advancing the story and expressing the emotion of the characters, which is probably why you’d be hard pressed to find a song from Disney’s late ’80s, up through Hercules in 1997, that doesn’t somehow move its film forward. If you want a contrast to this: Remember in Frozen when Kristoff meets his troll family and they sing “Fixer Upper?” I had to google it.
Those memorable melodies were backed up by Ashman’s lyrics, which chiseled themselves directly into the brain stems of every child who heard them. We can’t know how Disney’s films would have been different had Ashman continued there. He succumbed to AIDS mere months before Beauty and the Beast came out, and received a posthumous Oscar nomination for the Aladdin song “Friend Like Me,” one of Disney’s all-time barnburners.
Mermaid also had a great vocalist in Jodi Benson, who provided the speaking and singing voice of Ariel and has cheerily inhabited the character in basically every appearance since, freaking Kingdom Hearts included. Character actor and comedian Pat Carroll lent her unmistakable voice to the sea-witch Ursula, probably the most charismatic and menacing female Disney villain since Maleficent. Incidentally, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” might be the studio’s best villain ballad (probably its horniest).
In a way, Disney is still using its Disney Princess formula to lure families into the cineplex (and sell them every conceivable type of merch off the back of it), nowhere more literally than in properties like Tangled and Frozen. But an adapted form of it has been in play since the acquisition of the Star Wars and Marvel canons as well. No parents of a little girl in 1989 were going to feel good about a movie where a young girl moons over a boy and gets passed between hero and villain like a football, so they decreed that the princess should have agency.
In 2019, no parents of a little girl or a minority child are going to feel good about a movie that gives the entire plot over exclusively to a white male character. (And remember, recent studies show minority moviegoers are more likely to buy theater tickets than Caucasians in the United States.) It’s clear Disney is aiming for more inclusivity: We’re now rooting for Rey and Finn to complete their hero’s journeys and for T’Challa and Captain Marvel to lead the Avengers.
Detractors grouse about the supposed box-checking and cynicism of this kind of approach, and that’s fair. It’s impossible not to have it floating in the back of your mind if you care about the things that influence the stories being told to your children. That these boxes are being checked—that “make a movie about characters who are like our audience” is now a major directive of the world’s biggest entertainment company—also implies the audience has exerted some control.
In the The Little Mermaid, Ariel is indeed mooning over a cute boy. But she made the first move and she had to defy a controlling father and literally win back her voice and her damn legs too. Lots of heroines have followed in those footsteps.
Kenneth Lowe dreams about going up there. He has also written for The Escapist, Colombia Reports and Illinois Issues Magazine, and you can follow him on Twitter.