This ‘plot hole’ in the ‘Little Mermaid’ has everyone worked up for nothing

Disney fans have a long history of reading into Disney films. Especially where The Little Mermaid is concerned, fans have dug deeper, searching for hidden meanings, unexpected visuals, and connections to other Disney stories.

Perhaps that’s why an Facebook user’s unobtrusive fan theory about a plot hole in the Little Mermaid has set the Internet spinning over the past day. But is it really a plot hole? Let’s take a closer look.

Facebook user Mary Falls spent some time on Saturday musing about a plot hole in the classic Disney film about a bubbly redheaded mermaid who trades her voice for a chance to win the heart of the human prince she’s fallen in love with. Mary suddenly realized the entire plot could have been avoided with ease if only Ariel knew how to write:

I found myself thinking, Ariel could have saved herself a lot of trouble if she had just learned to read and write. She could just scrawl out an explanation of her situation for Prince Eric like, “Hey Blue Eyes, I saved your life and then you fell in love with my voice, which I could probably get back if you just used your love to try to suck it out of my throat through my mouth here,” but like nicer and in princess language. 

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But before we handwring too much over poor Ariel’s ignorance, recall, as Mary did, that Ariel is royalty. She’s undoubtedly received a good education, as evidenced by her interest in the world above the surface. 

And she is in fact perfectly capable of reading and writing, which we know because we watch her sign her name to the contract that seals her fate.

But I’ll be damned, she signed that contract with Ursula. So, Ariel is completely flipping literate and, in point of fact, has excellent penmanship! I had to give her the benefit of the doubt and think, well maybe she didn’t want to explain herself cause she was trying to be a cool water fish about the whole deal and take her game to the next level. Except she tried to explain herself on the beach while dressed in a sail and miming like an adorable lunatic. Crushingly, Ariel absolutely could’ve closed from moment one and happens to be a moron. This does not speak well for a critical thinking underwater educational system…

Wait. So did Ariel just conveniently forget that she could communicate with the prince outside of speaking and awkward charades? Is she actually that airheaded?

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, if we’re being honest. After all, this is the same girl who, despite her royal education, tries to use a fork as a comb.

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Interestingly, although the original Facebook post only has 3 shares, it was picked up by Huffington Post, who contacted one of the animators who worked on the film, Tom Sito. He stated that of course Mary wasn’t alone in wondering why Ariel didn’t just write a letter: Many years ago, at least one child had asked the animation team the same thing. At the time, according to Sito, 

The animators smiled to each other and one said, ” … Next question.”

Well? Are we to assume the animators are the airheads? 

Cheer up, Ariel fans: There’s no need to write off our favorite redhead just yet. Asking the question of why Ariel couldn’t have just written a letter is a bit like asking, “why didn’t they just leave?” of every family in a haunted house movie. There are lots of different internal motivations and justifications for why it wouldn’t have happened, but at baseline, the answer is: because then there would be no movie.

When a movie depends upon a fundamental plot point like this one going unanswered, it’s not a plot hole so much as a conceit we’re being asked to accept for the sake of the narrative. This is why couples in rom-coms are always able to have 90 minutes worth of comical misunderstandings without ever just sitting down and talking to each other. The basic misunderstanding is central to the conceit of the film, just as it is here.

Plus, as the denizens of TV Tropes points out in the site’s entry on the subject, it’s possible that taking time to answer the question believably might have been more trouble than it was worth:

Even when it isn’t being deliberately played for laughs, the storytelling and explanations necessary to close a plot hole might serve as a distraction from the main plot; especially for more minor or obscure plot holes, it often makes more sense for a writer or director to invoke the MST3K Mantra [i.e. that “you should really just relax” rather than worrying about glaring plot omissions] and focus on their main story rather than getting bogged down in explaining minutiae.

It seems pretty clear this is the case with The Little Mermaid. After all, while we know that Ariel is able to understand Eric, we don’t know that she has the ability to write in his language. Assuming that “all the characters magically speak English” is another one of the film’s accepted conceits. Maybe Disney just didn’t have time to take us through her journey as a foreigner experiencing culture shock to explain why she wouldn’t have been eager to try to set her hand to paper. 

Plus, we’re guessing that “Hi, Eric, I saved your life and now I’m in love with you and I have three days to get you to kiss me or else I lose my voice forever” wouldn’t have gone over very well in print.

Some things are better left to the imagination.

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Screengrab via Disney

Aja Romano

Aja Romano

Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.