The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules
Ariel, the little mermaid
Character Description of Princess Ariel from "The Little Mermaid" (1989)
Tawny-haired Ariel was one of the most immediately popular animated heroines to emerge from the Disney stable for a very long time - indeed, it's hard to remember any at all that might match her in this respect. It is easy enough to explain away this phenomenal success in terms of sexual allure, of which she has plenty, yet that doesn't really get to the heart of the matter, for in many ways she is also a very childlike character.
Ariel is a girl who is in the process of becoming a sexually attractive woman; thus our responses to her, while linked to her sexuality, are nostalgic rather than prurient. This is particularly evident in the scenes when Ariel has just come ashore in human form and has discovered that she's got legs. Despite the obvious sexual overtones in the fact that she is now biifurcate, where she really appeals to us is in her wonder at finding these marvellous new appendages joined onto her. We're already smiling in resonance with her when she tries to stand up on these odd limbs; when they wibble-wobble uncontrollably beneath her, like the legs of a child trying roller skates for the first time, our smiles turn to laughter - but it's empathetic laughter.
Ariel was voiced for both speech and song by Jodi Benson, an actress whose previous credits had been largely on the stage. The movie's codirector, Ron Clements, remarked:
"Because the songs are structured almost as
extensions of the dialouge, we felt it was really important to have the same person doing the singing and speaking voice. Jodi had a sweetness and purity to her singing voice and a youthfulness to her speaking voice that was very unique. We felt she best captured the innocent and vulnerable quality we were looking for."
The latter part of that remark is confusing, because Ariel's innocence is that of a teenager, and, except in her moments of greatest distress, we don't hear much by way of vulnerability from her: one of her great attractions is that she is for the most part - except when expressing her foolish besorttedness with the lacklustre Eric - very definite about what she is doing and very confident in her own ability to successfully accomplish exactly what she plans. Of course, a good deal of that confidence is ill placed - that is surely the hallmark of the teenager - but, whatever its origins or its wisdom, it can hardly be described as vulnerability. Nevertheless, Ms. Benson voices the part captivatingly enough aside from her irritatin' habit when singin' of self-consciously missin' out the letter g
An interesting technical point concerned Ariel's coloration. For all of the characters great care had to be taken to compensate skin tones and hair colours in changing environments and light sources, some of which were in the water and some outside it. For Ariel alone the animators ud no fewer than thirty-two colour models - and then of course there were the costume changes, from mermaid fin to rag improvisation to bridal dress. The blue-green of her fin was a hue specially mixed by the experts in the Disney paint lab: as you might expect, they called this "new" colour Ariel in the mermaid's honour.
Ariel, whose independence and modernity marked her as the first of a new breed of Disney-feature heroines.