December 10, 2023

How Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Changed the Original Story


The Big Picture

  • Disney’s remake of The Little Mermaid is different from the original 1989 classic, but it is still recognizable and effective in appealing to a larger audience.
  • Disney made significant changes to the story, including new characters and a different storyline, but these alterations improved the film and made it more family-friendly.
  • Despite the dark and tragic aspects of the original fairytale, Disney’s alterations, such as adding magic and rewriting the ending, made The Little Mermaid a better and more satisfying love story.

Disney has been on a long stretch of remaking their animated movies. As the live-action The Little Mermaid arrives on Disney+, fans have noticed differences from the 1989 classic. With some music reworked to better fit modern standards, it’s clear the remake isn’t exactly the same. But it’s easy to forget that the animated The Little Mermaid isn’t the original story. Long before Walt Disney‘s studio became famous, Hans Christian Andersen first wrote about a mermaid who fell in love with a human prince. Published in 1837, along with a collection of other fairytales, this story was called The Little Mermaid. Though Disney’s film is based on Andersen’s tale, they are drastically different. Like most of their fairytale-based films, Disney forged their own path, portraying a “Disney-fied” version of the story. Sanitizing the story for a younger audience meant removing many elements and adding some pieces of their own. Disney also rejected the tragic ending in favor of a happily-ever-after for Ariel (Jodi Benson) and Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Without these significant changes, the story everyone knows today wouldn’t exist, proving that sometimes, changing a story is for the better.

Even with the changes Disney made, the story is recognizable. The youngest daughter of the sea-king longs to see the human world, eventually developing the desire to become human herself. She saves a human prince from drowning and falls in love with him. Desperate to be with her prince, the little mermaid trades her lovely voice to a sea witch for legs. But she still needs the prince to fall in love with her. Yet many elements of the story are unfamiliar to fans of Disney’s film. Though it looks different, Disney’s changes were effective and opened the film up to a larger audience. No parent would take a small child to see an accurate version of Andersen’s story. Disney added talking fish, singing crabs, and other fanciful moments that brought extra charm to their retelling. In doing so, Disney improved upon the fairytale, becoming the story’s more recognizable version for a good reason.

Disney Made Significant Changes for ‘The Little Mermaid’

Image via Disney

Not all the things Disney changed from the original story were with the goal of making the story less dark. They took out characters and added new ones in. In the fairytale, there’s no Flounder (Jason Marin) or Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright). Instead, the mermaid’s friends are her older sisters. And her designated caretaker is her grandmother. Yet making these characters sea creatures rather than mermaids heightened the magic in The Little Mermaid, giving positive examples as well. It’s also worth acknowledging that, in the fairytale, all the sisters are fascinated with the surface world but can only visit after they turn 15. In the film, Ariel alone wants to see the world above, but it’s forbidden by her father. This change makes Ariel unique as the heroine and gives her something to fight for even before meeting Eric.

RELATED: Yes, ‘The Little Mermaid’s Songs Need an Update in the Live-Action Movie

Unlike Disney’s Ariel, her fairytale counterpart is extraordinarily graceful on land. This attribute catches the eye of the prince, but Ariel’s clumsiness brings a layer of humor to the film. Yet perhaps the strangest part that doesn’t appear in the movie is the concept of human souls. The mermaid loves the prince, but she wants to marry him in order to receive a human soul that mermaids don’t have. They live long lives but dissolve into sea foam at the end, rather than having an immortal soul. The film cut this concept, giving Ariel the ultimatum of three days to raise the stakes instead. It’s a major change but makes the goal easier to explain in the limited time.

‘The Little Mermaid’ Needed Changes To Be Family Friendly

Ursula smiling while her tentacles surround her in The Little Mermaid 1989
Image via Disney

Disney is well-known for turning fairytales into family films. After all, no stepsister mutilates her feet to fit into the glass slipper in Disney’s Cinderella. Yet, as one of the darkest fairytales, The Little Mermaid needed extra work. The fairytale makes it a point that the transformation and every step the heroine takes on land is painful, like walking across knives. Knowingly, she agrees to the pain and the condition that she can never return to the sea, whether or not she marries the prince. This mermaid faces the additional stipulation of her own death should her prince marry someone else. Conversely, Disney’s Ariel believes that if she doesn’t get Eric to kiss her, she will return home. The constant pain and threat of death certainly raise the stakes, but they also make the story darker. Removing these elements was an easy choice, yet the fairytale had more problematic sections to deal with.

One of the most recognizable parts of the story, no matter the version, is the mermaid giving up her voice to get legs. In The Little Mermaid, Ursula (Pat Carroll) uses magic to reach into Ariel’s throat and extract it. But the fairytale takes a different route. For payment, the sea witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue, leaving her unable to speak. The slight change makes for a much messier story. But the poor mermaid still has problems to face. She makes it to land and learns that the prince is in love with another, whom he believes saved him from drowning, unaware that it is the mermaid before him. In the end, he ends up marrying said woman instead of the mermaid. Leaving the mermaid requires no interference from the witch, as it does in the film, making this prince much less of a prize than Disney’s Eric.

With the prince married, the mermaid is set to die, as was her deal with the witch. But her sisters, who had discovered where she went, make their own deal with the sea witch to bail her out. If she kills the prince on his wedding night, the mermaid will live, his blood returning her to her original form. But the mermaid cannot do it. She accepts her death rather than hurting the prince, dissolving into sea foam and losing her chance at an immortal soul. However, Andersen’s tale offers a taste of hope. After 300 years of serving as a daughter of the wind, the mermaid can get a soul of her own, making a slightly less bleak ending. Disney rewrites this to allow Ariel and Eric to marry and live a happy life together, making it into a love story and providing a much more satisfying and child-appropriate ending than the tragedy of the fairytale.

Disney’s Alterations Made ‘The Little Mermaid’ Better

Ariel and Flounder smiling and swimming as they look toward the sky in 1989 The Little Mermaid
Image via Disney

Despite the considerable changes they made, Disney improved on the original version. Adding magic through characters like Sebastian and Flounder, rewriting the goal to be more easily accessible, and making the story appropriate for all ages created the film everyone knows today. Disney took what was a tragic, bloody story, and made it into a fantastical musical experience, proving that sometimes, diverging from the source material is for the better.

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