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The Little Mermaid: 10 Biggest Changes Disney Made To The Original Fairy Tale

In case you’ve been living under a rock lately, Disney currently has a live action remake of The Little Mermaid in the works – and it’s already making waves (sorry, we couldn’t resist). But seriously: the news that the studio’s forthcoming reimagining of the 1989 animated classic would star black actress and singer Halle Bailey as protagonist Ariel – a character previously depicted as Caucasian – has sadly led to backlash from some online commentators.

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Let’s be blunt for a second: this whole controversy stupid. Aside from the obvious reasons why arguments against Bailey’s casting don’t really hold water (ok, we’ll stop), we’d like to point out that these supposed purists have completely ignored the alterations Disney already made to The Little Mermaid the first time around. Indeed, as this list amply illustrates, the changes the original movie made to Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th Century fairy tale were far from skin-deep.

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10 The Little Mermaid Actually Has A Name

Flip through a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and the first thing you’ll notice is that its titular diminutive ocean-dweller goes unnamed throughout. Instead, she’s simply referred to as (surprise, surprise) “the Little Mermaid” – which makes sense, given the story’s folklore trappings.

However, what works on the page doesn’t always translate well to the big screen, and a nameless heroine clearly wouldn’t fly in a mainstream animated flick. That’s why directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements christened their lead character Ariel – a name that was subsequently bestowed upon the blue-green hue specifically created to color her tail, as well.

9 Bye Bye, Grandma

King Triton from The Little Mermaid

In The Little Mermaid fairy tale, Ariel’s grandmother is a key secondary player – in fact, Ariel’s later misfortunes are indirectly her fault. After all, she’s the one who breaks the news to her granddaughter that her dreams of romance on the surface world are doomed, unwittingly setting in motion Ariel’s ill-advised plan to become human.

Fast forward to the Disney adaptation, and Ariel’s Grandma is nowhere to be seen. On the face of it, this might seem a little crazy, given the pivotal role she plays in the book. But it was ultimately the right call, as excising the grandmother character simultaneously streamlines The Little Mermaid’s narrative and already sizeable supporting cast.

8 Ariel’s Wilful Streak

The Little Mermaid, Ariel

If we’re being entirely candid, the Little Mermaid as envisioned by Hans Christian Anderson is a bit of a drag. Besides spending the vast majority of the story in a moody funk, she’s also disappointingly submissive – when her father forbids her from venturing to the surface until she turns 15, she obeys without thinking twice.

Fortunately, the same can’t be said for her animated counterpart in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Not only does Ariel display a far more upbeat disposition (even when faced with decidedly trying circumstances), but she’s been breaking King Triton’s golden rule for years!

7 Mermaids Have Souls

As will become increasingly apparent the further down this list you read, The Little Mermaid is darker than the average fairy tale – which is quite a high bar, when you think about it. For proof of this, look no further than the bleak revelation that mermaids are born without souls, which is pretty heavy for a story aimed at children.

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Admittedly, the merpeoples’ ability to earn a soul is also a core concept in Han’s Christian Anderson’s original yarn – yet next to none of them ever do, leaving them locked out of the afterlife when they perish. That’s…kinda bleak, so it’s little wonder the Disney version makes no mention of this aspect of Anderson’s mythos, leading us to conclude that Ariel and her family aren’t soulless sea monstrosities in the film.

6 Prince Eric Loves Ariel

The Little Mermaid, Ariel and Eric

Disney has come under fire over the years for perpetuating the trope of the fair maiden and the dashing prince falling in love at first sight, and The Little Mermaid does nothing to derail this trend. On the contrary – despite ushering in the so-called “Disney Renaissance”, this flick still boils down to Ariel and Prince Eric becoming infatuated with each other from the moment they meet.

Intriguingly, the film’s source material paints an arguably more realistic picture of young romance, although it’s as unforgivingly grim as you’d expect by now. For starters, the Prince doesn’t reciprocate the Little Mermaid’s affections – she’s his number one gal pal, nothing more – but he also happens to be betrothed to (and very much in love with) someone else, too!

5 Ariel’s Gore-Free Transformation

The Little Mermaid, Ariel signs contract

Ariel gaining her legs and losing her voice is a key moment in both the prose and animated incarnation of The Little Mermaid. Where the two differ is in the execution: unlike the bloodless, largely symbolic mystical rite depicted by Disney, Hans Christian Anderson describes a nightmarish, graphic ritual, instead.

First, there’s the matter of Ariel’s tail: here, it violently and painfully splits apart to form her legs – and all the steps she takes subsequently causes her unspeakable agony (because of course they do). Then there’s our heroine’s voice, which isn’t stolen through magical chicanery, but rather vanishes as a by-product of her tongue being hacked off with a knife!

4 Enter: The Sidekicks

We’ve mentioned already that The Little Mermaid’s Ariel has a radically different personality than the character in the original fairy tale, and this extends to the company she keeps. In the source material, Ariel socializes predominantly with her family – in particular, her sisters and her grandmother – and the Prince, but otherwise, she’s a remote figure, prone to lengthy bouts of silent contemplation.

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Not so in the Disney film, though; instead, Ariel has vibrant social life to match her revamped temperament. Chief among her new friends are panicky tropical fish Flounder and crab composer Sebastian – the former serves as her confidante, the latter her (mostly ignored) mentor, with both also stepping in to provide comic relief as required.

3 Ariel’s Sisters Take A Backseat

The Little Mermaid sisters

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, King Triton is the only member of Ariel’s family to play a prominent part in the narrative, and it’s him that comes to her aid during the climax. Nobody else rates much of a mention – including Ariel’s sisters, who’ve been relegated to the sidelines!

This is a huge demotion in plot significance from that previously enjoyed by the sextet of siblings in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale. In that iteration of the story, Ariel’s sisters – who (as alluded to above) number only six, not seven as in the movie – serve as a vital support network for their younger sis. They’re the ones who encourage her to pursue a relationship with the Prince, and it’s them (not their pops) who try to rescue Ariel at the end.

2 Ursula’s Slide To The Dark Side

Deep sea sorceress Ursula is one of Disney’s most iconic villains, thanks to her memorable visual design – an inspired mash-up of drag queen Divine and an octopus – and Pat Carroll’s deliciously wicked vocal performance. So it’s interesting to note that in the original Little Mermaid, she’s not a baddie at all!

She’s quite the reverse, actually; in the fairy tale, the unnamed sea witch character even warns the Little Mermaid of the full consequences (and folly) of the ritual required to make her human. Aside from being completely up front about the terms and conditions of the deal, the sea witch also doesn’t harbour any desire to dominate Atlantica, either. Hardly a candidate for the supervillain hall of fame…

1 Ariel Survives

Disney’s animated features are (in)famous for their happy endings, and The Little Mermaid delivers in spades on this score. Ursula is defeated, Ariel regains her voice, and she and Prince Eric are wed – with the blessing of King Triton, no less. Seriously: there is literally zero way things could have panned out better for our girl.

Would that we could say the same for the Little Mermaid’s fate in Hans Christian Anderson’s original fable. Faced with the choice of saving either the Prince’s life or her own, Ariel selflessly sacrifices herself, with her body dispersing to become the very foam of the seawater itself. Now, there is a silver lining – her heroism earns her an immortal soul, which is always nice – but the finale is still a major bummer.

NEXT: The Little Mermaid’s Ridiculous Casting Backlash Explained

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