The Little Mermaid 2023 trailer Kiss The Girl scene

Walt Disney Studios/YouTube

The new ‘Little Mermaid’ song rewrites are facing criticism from Disney fans

The ‘Little Mermaid’ remake changed certain lyrics to create a more feminist tone. But fans argue this misinterpreted the original.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Disney‘s live-action remakes offer a chance to embrace nostalgia while correcting some dated or offensive elements of the original films. For instance, the 2019 Aladdin removed racist lyrics from a key song, and the live-action Dumbo deleted the racist crow characters.

However, The Little Mermaid‘s song rewrites are more questionable, with some Disney fans saying the new lyrics misinterpret the original meaning of the songs, “solving” problems that don’t actually exist.

Released in 1989, the animated Little Mermaid featured music by composer Alan Menken and songs co-written by Howard Ashman. Menken and Ashman’s creative partnership kickstarted the formula for Disney movies being structured like Broadway musicals, and although Ashman died young in 1991, Menken collaborated with composer/songwriter Lin Manuel Miranda for the live-action Little Mermaid.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Menken discussed lyrical changes to two iconic songs. For “Kiss the Girl,” he said that “people have gotten very sensitive about the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel].” So it sounds like the song was updated to make Ariel’s consent more explicit.

Meanwhile, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”—where the villain Ursula manipulates Ariel into giving up her voice—has been revised to change “lines that might make young girls somehow feel that they shouldn’t speak out of turn.”

While audiences haven’t actually heard these songs yet, there’s pushback against the mindset that the lyrics needed changing in the first place—especially when coupled with the response to an earlier interview with actress Halle Bailey.

She positioned the live-action remake as a more feminist, empowering update, saying it “changed that perspective of just [Ariel] wanting to leave the ocean for a boy.” But this view attracted criticism because while The Little Mermaid is a romantic fairytale, Ariel doesn’t leave the ocean for a boy. In fact, her motives are defined in the classic “I Want” song “Part of Your World,” where she talks about her desire for freedom and independence on land.

@magicbymikaila me on a first date: hey did you hear about how Howard Ashman brought about the disney renaissance with his lyrics?? #disney #thelittlemermaid ♬ The Little Mermaid (Marimba Remix) – Harry Goes Boom!

The underlying argument against these rewrites is that they assume the worst of the audience, troubleshooting a scenario where viewers take every single word at face value.

As many people pointed out in response to this Alan Menken interview, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is literally a villain song where an evil witch manipulates a naive girl. It may include lyrics like “On land it’s much preferred/For ladies not to say a word,” but the song is clearly not endorsing that viewpoint. Only a completely bad-faith interpretation would accuse The Little Mermaid of encouraging girls to shut up and be passive.

@kellykeegs #greenscreen I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS #littlemermaid ♬ original sound – Kelly Keegs

And while plenty of older romantic movies (including some Disney cartoons!) have creepy and/or sexist undertones to modern audiences, “Kiss the Girl” isn’t really seen that way. Although Ariel can’t verbally consent, the purpose of this song is for Sebastian the crab to set a romantic mood so she and Prince Eric can kiss… which is something she explicitly wants to do.

If you read the lyrics with zero other context, then some lines might seem like they’re pressuring a guy to kiss a girl. But everything we see onscreen makes it clear that Ariel wants to kiss Eric, depicting her as visibly frustrated when Eric fails to kiss her.

As quotes from this Menken interview spread on Twitter, the reactions were resoundingly derisive, highlighting the double-edged sword of Disney nostalgia. Disney’s live-action remakes are designed to capitalize on people’s affection for the original films, so they can’t make drastic alterations. But the studio also needs to advertise some kind of modern update or improvement on the source material, otherwise, there’s no point in releasing a remake.

In some cases, those updates are positive, for instance casting Black and Latina actresses as fairytale heroines to diversify the Disney Princess franchise. But in order to promote the Little Mermaid as a feminist update, these promo interviews misinterpret the original film, making it sound more problematic than it actually was.

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