The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules
It is a recurring theme of this book that Disney's glamorous princes tend on the whole to be cyphers, and Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, then the US national teenage spokesperson for the enviromental organization Greenpeace) is no exeption. The habit of using purely symbolic characters in the princely role is not normally a particularly noticeable one in the other features; it is only later that we realize that, whereas we have the feeling we've met
the other principal characters, the one in the role of the prince has never been more than a sort of blur to us. In the case of The Little Mermaid
, however, probably because Ariel was so much designed to be the movie's dominant character, the fact that Eric dosen't have much going for him, except his rock-jawed good looks, becomes particuarly obvious. Oddly, though, a better excuse can be made for The Little Mermaid
requiring a cypherlike prince than for most of the other Disney features: just as Triton is (in part) a symbol of paternal authority and possessiveness and therefore needs no deep character portrayal, so Eric is not so much any particular man as an embodiment of the type of relationship with males that Ariel so devoutly yearns to explore. In a way, then, one could argue that to give Eric any specific personality would be a mistake, that it is important to the thematic structure of the movie that he has none. Yet these arguments don't wash: Eric's lack of any real presence is a hole at the heart of the movie. What they do mean is that at least the hole is a small one.
As a prince, Eric is simply not bothering to do the job properly. Grimsby serves as the voice of his conscience, but Eric has the habit of brushing off as irrelevant anything that Grimsby says which doesn't happen to fit in with Eric's own selfish inclinations. It is important for the kingdom that Eric find himself a suitable spouse with whom to start breeding heirs, yet Eric still wants to cling onto the irresponsible ways of his youth.
It is thus as an adolescent infatuation that we must regard (as Grimsby does) Eric's quest for the voice of his dreams. Although one might be tempted to depict his idée fixe romantically, in fact it is the exact opposite of romantic: he isn't seeking a human being at all but a self-indulgent fantasy which has much more to do with himself than with anyone else, dream girl or not. Thus, even when Ariel herself is right there in front of him, a real live young woman whom has a vivacious, exceptionally attractive personality and is almost literally begging to be kissed, and even when Eric himself has clearly fallen for her hook, line and sinker, he still
lets his infatuation with the dream voice of his memories get in the way.
In any sensible discussion of Vanessa we come up against the question of why she wants to marry Eric. That's a matter of plot. In terms of character, however, we confront the same question: what on earth has possessed Ariel that she
would want to marry Eric? Of course, he was the first eligible bachelor that she clapped eyes on (his human-ness adding to his charms for her), but other than that it's hard to find a good motive that might drive such an intelligent and independent young woman to prostrate herself humbly before such an essentially uninteresting, egocentric and callow youth.
Until near the end of the movie, that is. Corny it may be, but it seems natural enough that being thrust suddenly out of his warm cocoon of self-regard and into the tumultuous danger of the great sea battle with Ursula forces Eric to allow his personality to take shape. Yes, his newfound expression of determination as he tussles through the waves is something of a caricature, but now at least it is a caricature that rings true.
The beautiful Vanessa has Eric under her Spell
Eric as he is ready to finish off the mighty Ursula!