This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ The Little Mermaid is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
The Little Mermaid (1989): A parent-child discussion guide
by Rebecca Hains, Ph.D.
Common Sense Media recommends The Little Mermaid for children ages 5 and up, due to some scary moments (e.g., when King Triton angrily destroys Ariel’s collection of human objects, or when Ursula the Sea Witch becomes gigantic) and the French chef’s bloodthirsty attempts to kill Sebastian the crab; but their review notes that the film may be okay for some 4-year-olds, too, depending on the child.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is the tale of Ariel, a mermaid princess who is fascinated by human beings. As the film opens, she misses an important musical performance with her sisters because she and her friend Flounder are scavenging human objects from a shipwreck. Her father, King Triton, is irate when he learns that she had visited the surface of the ocean that day: doing so is dangerous because humans eat fish. He assigns Sebastian the crab to follow her around wherever she goes.
Soon after, Ariel goes to the surface again and rescues a human prince from drowning. Sebastian reveals this to King Triton, and the King is beyond furious. When he confronts Ariel, she declares that she actually loves the prince. To try to get through to Ariel, he destroys her extensive collection of human objects. Devastated, Ariel accepts an invitation to visit Ursula the Sea Witch for help. Ursula’s ulterior motive is to use Ariel to get to King Triton and take over his powers.
Ursula convinces Ariel to trade her voice in exchange for a pair of legs, per the following terms: If Eric kisses her with “the kiss of true love” before the sun sets in three days’ time, she’ll become a human being forever. If he does not, she’ll turn back into a mermaid—and belong to Ursula for all eternity.
Due to Ursula’s machinations, Eric does not kiss Ariel in time. Ursula drags Ariel into the ocean and convinces King Triton to cede his powers to her in exchange for Ariel’s freedom. In the end, however, Eric saves the day: He kills Ursula, freeing Ariel, King Triton, and everyone else Ursula has ensnared. When King Triton sees how much Ariel wants to be with Eric, he uses his magic to turn Ariel human; she weds Eric, and they live happily ever after.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
As the first Disney Princess in over thirty years, Ariel has some striking differences from her predecessors. She’s active and spunky—a modern take on a princess. But just as the physical appearances of Snow White, Cinderella an Sleeping Beauty were central to their stories, so too is Ariel’s: Once Ariel trades her voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for human legs, she is supposed to capture Eric’s heart without speaking a word.
When Ursula proposes this to Ariel, Ariel is at first perplexed and doesn’t understand how she could possibly do so. So, Ursula spells it out for her: “You’ll have your looks, your pretty face. And don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” Ursula demonstrates this for Ariel by putting on lipstick, styling her hair, and dancing seductively to show Ariel how she can appeal to Eric. Ursula then explains that men don’t really like it when women talk: “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets the man.”
The storyline of The Little Mermaid makes it clear that Ariel would have succeeded in winning Eric’s heart in only three days’ time if Ursula hadn’t interfered—giving legitimacy to Ursula’s statement that men like women who are silent and pretty. The overall effect is that it is easy to see Ursula as the kind of villain who speaks unvarnished truths; but this is a horrible “truth” for young children to take away from an animated film.
With children ages 4 and 5, co-view the movie and talk back to the screen to model critical viewing in the scenes that focus on Ariel’s physical appearance. Your child will listen to what you say. Consider comments such as the following:
- “What Ursula is telling Ariel isn’t right. Men like it when women are interesting to talk with! A man who only likes quiet women is not a very good person. I think Prince Eric is a better person than that.”
- “It’s too bad that Ariel would change her body to try to win a human prince. She is fine the way she is! I would never change my body for someone else.”
- “What a big mistake it is to give up your voice! Ariel should never have made a bargain with the Sea Witch.”
- When Ariel is succeeding at winning Eric’s heart, Ursula calls her a “little tramp.” You can call this out and say, “I don’t like it when Ursula calls Ariel a tramp. That’s not appropriate. It’s never okay to call girls names like that.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these points while co-viewing, but later—perhaps over dinner or while in the car running errands—you can expand upon them and work towards a dialogue. Try something along these lines—questions that call for answers more robust than only “yes” or “no”:
“I was thinking about The Little Mermaid and how Ariel has to win Eric’s heart without speaking. That’s an awful thing for her to have to do, because there are so many loveable things about her besides the way she looks. What are some of the great things about Ariel?”
Make it real: “When Ursula calls Ariel a tramp, that’s really inappropriate. Sometimes, girls who are jealous of other girls’ relationships with boys will say inappropriate things like that about the other girls, or even spread rumors about them. When that happens, it’s a type of bullying, and it’s never okay.” You might then give your daughter tips on what to do if she ever witnesses that kind of bullying, like replying, “Hey, that’s not an okay thing to say,” or talking with a trusted adult about it. With older girls, you might add, “Have you ever seen anything like that happen at school? If you ever do, or if anyone should ever say things like that about you, I want you to know it’s okay to talk with me about it.”
- The Gender Stereotypes
As a modern Disney Princess, Ariel defies several stereotypes regarding feminine behavior. She’s not a passive damsel in distress; she’s smart, active, and courageous. Bring out these positive traits when talking with your children to show that you value them.
With children ages 4 and 5, praise Ariel’s positive behavior as it happens on screen. Be as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- “Ariel is a very talented singer. People work hard to become good singers. I bet she practiced a lot to become so good at singing.”
- “Ariel is so strong. Did you see the way she rescued Prince Eric? That would take a lot of strength. I’m glad she could do that.”
- “Ariel has a great imagination and is so curious about human beings. I like that she wants to understand people who are different than her.”
Feel free to call out the moments when her defiance of stereotypes is problematic, too. For example:
- “Ariel was very brave to go explore the wrecked ship knowing there are sharks around, but maybe a little too brave. She should listen to her friend Flounder. He’s scared for a reason, and we should always respect our friends’ feelings.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these same points while you’re co-viewing, but come back to them later and elaborate on them further. For example:
“I was thinking about The Little Mermaid and how brave and strong she is in the beginning of the movie—searching the shipwreck near the sharks, and later rescuing Prince Eric from drowning. This makes her so different from the earlier Disney Princesses. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all waited for things to happen to them, but Ariel went out and caused things to happen in her life. Can you see the difference, too?” Listen to what your child says; be open to a range of responses. You can also make it clear that you value Ariel’s agency and autonomy by saying: “I’m glad Ariel had more control over her life than those earlier princess characters did.”
There’s also the problem of the negative stereotypes embodied by Ursula the Sea Witch. Her villainous actions can be interpreted as a cautionary tale against women having power. Note that towards the end of the film, when she becomes giant and declares, “Now I am the ruler of all the ocean,” her voice is deep and masculine: she looks ugly and sounds ugly. The message is that women with power are dangerous and threatening. You might explain to your child:
“It’s too bad that in the old Disney movies, prior to Tangled and Brave and Frozen, we don’t really see Queens and other powerful women who use their power to help or protect people. Instead, the people who made those movies always make powerful women seem dangerous and out to get someone, like Ursula is, or like the Queen in Snow White and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. But did you know there have been many good queens in the world who rule their nations? In fact, England has a queen right now, called Queen Elizabeth; and in Jordan, Queen Noor—who used to be an American—is respected for the great work she does on behalf of women and children in the Middle East. She makes a real difference in the world.”
Read more: Queen Noor of Jordan Biography
- Discussing Healthy Parent-Child Relationships
The relationship between Ariel and her father is at times difficult to watch on screen. They have trouble communicating with one another. Ariel is defiant and stubborn, and King Triton has a terrible problem with his temper. These are not the kinds of behavioral patterns parents would want modeled for their children, as they are unhealthy. You can use them to discuss healthier patterns of behaviors communicate your own values to your children.
With younger children:
- “I’m glad Ariel is so brave, but she isn’t being very respectful of her father. He’s right that human beings eat fish and that going to the surface would be very dangerous for a mermaid. She should listen to him more.”
- “It’s too bad King Triton has such a bad temper. You can tell he really loves Ariel, but his temper is scary, and it wasn’t okay for him to destroy all of Ariel’s things that way. That’s mean.”
- “It was nice of King Triton to change Ariel into a human being at the end of the movie, but I wish he had talked with her about it first and helped her think through what it would mean to be human and never see her family and friends again, to make sure it was really, truly what she wanted to do. Instead, he just did it without asking.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can bring these things up as they happen, but you could also connect these dots in a later conversation. Try something like this:
“It made me feel sad that Ariel doesn’t trust her father. She says at one point that ‘he would never understand.’ Maybe Ariel has a hard time hearing what her father is saying to her about how dangerous the surface of the ocean is because he sounds so angry all the time, and he has such a terrible temper. They don’t seem to talk to each other enough in respectful ways. If she could listen more, and if he could speak more calmly and listen to her too, maybe they would have had a healthier relationship.”
You can also point out to your child that even though Ariel believes her father would never understand how she feels, at the end of the movie, he does; that’s why he uses his magic to make her into a human being… though, again, in a healthy relationship, they would have talked about this decision together.
Opportunity: Let your child know: “You can always talk with me about anything. I will always try to understand your feelings.”
Make it real: You may want to talk with your child about King Triton’s temper, as many parents report that their children find the scene in which he destroys Ariel’s collection of human objects quite traumatic. Let your child know that it’s important for family members to listen to each other, to be patient, and to try not to lose our tempers with one another—but that nobody is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes. You might even want to share a story of a time you lost your temper and felt badly afterwards.
You could also talk about a time when you were a teenager that you didn’t listen to your parents and realized afterwards what a mistake it had been, to remind your child that even though children don’t always understand, their parents usually have the kids’ best interests at heart.
- The Romance Narrative: Love at First Sight and Sound
Ariel falls in love with Eric at first sight, sighing, “He’s so beautiful”; while Eric falls in love with Ariel upon hearing her; he declares, “She had the most beautiful voice!” It only takes three days for them to decide to marry one another, even though their attraction to one another is pretty superficial—and even though that relationship will require Ariel to give up her family and friends under the sea.
With children ages 4 to 5, offer concrete points of criticism to let them know what you think. For example:
- “It’s kind of funny that after Ariel has rescued Eric, she thinks ‘something’s starting right now.’ She doesn’t know anything about him.”
- “Why would Prince Eric want to marry someone he saw and heard singing for only a few moments? Marriage is a lifetime. It’s great that Ariel has such a beautiful singing voice, but a lifetime is a long time to plan to spend with someone you don’t know anything else about.”
With children ages 6 to 8, feel free to make these same observations while co-viewing, but plan a conversation about healthy relationships later on, when you’re not in front of the screen. For example, you might say:
“It makes for a fun movie when two people fall in love as fast as Ariel and Eric do, but in real life, falling in love so quickly doesn’t usually work out.”
“When Ariel realizes that if she becomes human, she’ll never be with her father or sisters again, Ursula convinces her she’ll be happy because she’ll have Prince Eric. But giving up your whole family—everyone who has loved you your whole life—is a really big deal. That’s not a healthy thing to do at all. If anyone ever wants you to give up your friendships or ignore your family to be with them—whether it’s a friend or a boyfriend or whatever—I want you to know that’s not okay.”
- Discussing Diversity
The Little Mermaid is a rare example of a Disney film in which what we might characterize as cross-cultural exploration occurs. Ariel is a mermaid and wants to learn more about human beings, who are very different from her and her people—a whole different culture.
You could point this out to your child by saying something like this: “In wanting to learn more about human beings, Ariel really wants to see another culture—people from another part of the world than where she lives. Have you ever wanted to meet people from another part of the world or wondered what they are like?”
If you have ever traveled, you could use this as a launching pad to share some stories about your experiences. Where did you go? What did you see? What surprised you? Did you experience any culture shock? Take out some of your own snapshots or find photos online to share.
In these ways, you can use The Little Mermaid as an opportunity to emphasize the message that diversity and differences are good.
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
As our children’s pop culture coaches, we can help them become media literate by always reminding them that media are created by other people—people who are making choices about what to depict on screen.
With The Little Mermaid, you might let your child know that the woman who voiced Ariel is an actress and singer named Jodi Benson. In interviews with the media, Jodi Benson has said that Howard Ashman, the lyricist for the film’s songs, asked her to think of “Part of Your World” as a monologue in which she was telling a story, rather than a song. This was tricky for her, as she has a beautiful voice and was used to trying to make the songs she sang as pretty as possible. Speaking about the final version of the song that’s featured in the movie, Benson recently told an interviewer:
“The passes and the selects they chose are not perfectly sung — some of them are not sung at all, some of them are spoken words, some of them are not held out, there’s no vibrato, some of them are not the right note. The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not a perfect musical selection.’ And they’re like, ‘No, that’s what we did not want. We just wanted it to be real.'”
It’s also noteworthy that Jodi Benson has been working for Disney for many years (she describes Ariel as her “full-time job,” given all her opportunities to voice Ariel across media including Little Mermaid sequels and video games); and she has more recently been heard as the voice of Barbie in the last two Toy Story movies. By talking about Jodi Benson’s work in The Little Mermaid and Toy Story 2 and 3, you can help your child understand that actors and actresses are some of the many people who have jobs helping to make movies.
“The Little Mermaid voice Jodi Benson sings at the Disneyland Resort” on YouTube