A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Kids can try to name all the sea creatures -- crabs, oysters, dolphins, etc. -- when Sebastian sings "Under the Sea." They can also look up the original (much darker) story by Hans Christian Andersen and decide which version they like better.
This movie places high value on romance and the concept of true love: Ariel is so enamored with Prince Eric that she sacrifices everything, from her family to her voice, in order to be part of his world. Many think this storyline is problematic because it reinforces the idea that a woman should give up her pursuits and opinions in deference to a man. But others can put this concept aside to enjoy the sweetness of the central character and the universal challenges of love. Other themes include curiosity and perseverance.
Positive Role Models
Ariel is adventuresome, rebellious, and brave. She also gives up everything -- her family, her home, her voice -- for love, even though her trust in the sea witch puts everyone she loves in danger. Eric doesn't show much of a personality. Sebastian is loyal and tries hard to help Ariel even though he doesn't agree with what she's doing. Ariel's father is protective and will do anything to help save his daughter.
On the positive side, Sebastian is voiced by a Black American actor (Samuel E. Wright) and is Trinidadian, at least according to his accent. Viewers also follow main characters who are women, like Ariel and Ursula, but they're pitted against each other, and Ariel's story is centered around romance. She's also fairly passive, needing to be kissed by Eric in order to break her curse. The film also dabbles in fatphobia and queerphobia: Ariel is extremely thin, while the villain is fat and queer-coded (Ursula is based on the drag queen Divine). Louis falls into French stereotypes of being a chef who has a thick accent (used for humor) and says phrases like "sacré bleu" and "zut alors."
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Violence & Scariness
Ariel's father is imprisoned by the sea witch, Ursula, who, in the climactic scenes, grows larger than a ship and tries to crush it wielding a giant trident. Ursula brags about all the merpeople she's imprisoned, and those "poor unfortunate souls" are shown shrunken down and sad. A French chef runs around the kitchen after Sebastian the crab with a cleaver and merrily chops up other fish. Eric almost drowns when his ship sinks in stormy waters, and there's a frantic scene in which Ariel is chased by a great white shark. Arguments, destruction of beloved possessions, and tension. Spoiler alert! Ursula dies rather dramatically in the end.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
The entire movie revolves around Ariel's crush on Prince Eric and her desire to be with him. One sweet-natured song is all about getting two characters to kiss. Mermen swim topless; mermaids wear shell bras. When Ariel transforms into a human, she's briefly naked from the waist down (sensitive areas are shadowed and/or underwater).
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Name-calling includes "idiot" and "tramp."
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Products & Purchases
Ariel is a very popular Disney princess, whose brand reaches far and wide, with princess branding on consumer merchandise, food products, etc. as well as in books, websites, and other media.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters handle a pipe.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Little Mermaid is based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen story and has some scary moments. In a tense climactic scene, Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll) grows into a giant and wields a trident with deadly intent. A bloodthirsty French chef (Rene Auberjonois) merrily chases after Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright) with a cleaver, hoping to make him the main course. There are also scenes with storms, arguments, destruction of beloved possessions, and tension. Romance is central to the story, with Ariel (Jodi Benson) sacrificing everything, from her family to her voice, to (hopefully) be with the man she falls in love with at first glance. That aspect has long troubled some viewers, as has the film's fatphobia (main characters are extremely thin and/or muscled; villain Ursula is fat). Ariel is a very popular Disney princess with a brand that reaches far and wide. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
After some lackluster years, Disney came back into the top rank of animated features with this superbly entertaining musical. Based loosely on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (but with a much happier ending), The Little Mermaid's princess was refreshingly plucky when the movie came out in 1989. Though Ariel still must wait for a prince's kiss for her dreams to come true, she shows spirit and curiosity, taking action in order to meet him.
The wonderful voice cast includes Buddy Hackett (The Music Man) as Scuttle the scavenging seagull and Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, the calypso-singing crab. The first-class musical score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who also worked together on the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors) ranks with the best of Broadway and won Oscars for Best Score and Best Song ("Under the Sea"). While The Little Mermaid does provide yet another wasp-waisted Disney princess whose whole world revolves around a man, Ariel is adventuresome, rebellious, and brave. And the fact that she makes the mistake of giving up her voice to the sea witch (a very strong female character, to say the least), provides a good opportunity for family discussion.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.