30 Movies in 30 Days: The Little Mermaid (OR Why Sebastian Has the Best Disney Sidekick Arc of All Time)

Had I seen it before: Yes. Many times. Because it’s The Little Mermaid.

Year: 1989

Directors: Ron ClementsJohn Musker

Writers: Ron ClementsJohn Musker, based on the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. Additional dialogue credits for Howard Ashman, Gerrit Graham, Sam Graham, and Chris Hubbell.

Where you can stream it now: Disney+

What IMDb says: A mermaid princess makes a Faustian bargain in an attempt to become human and win a prince’s love.

Why I picked it: I was out all day and needed something short, plus I just missed this movie the way you miss a friend you haven’t seen in a while.

What I liked: One of the things that had never hit me before is that while The Little Mermaid is often remembered as a love story, it actually takes quite a bit of time to get into that part of the story. Granted, it doesn’t seem that way because the movie is so short. But all we learn within the first quarter of the film’s runtime is that Ariel is a rebel. We learn this not through telling, but through showing. All her sisters, who seem practically interchangeable, are singing in a concert. Ariel isn’t like them. She has better things to do, like exploring a shipwreck for pieces of the human world.

You know what doesn’t come up AT ALL until the 20 minute mark? Ariel’s desire for a man. Before that, dating or any concept of it simply isn’t part of her world. So after this watch, I got really annoyed that so many people seem to criticize this movie because Ariel “gives up everything just for a boy.” Well… sort of, but also she gives up everything for all the things she explicitly said she wanted even before a boy came into the picture. Her desire to live in the human world exists completely independent of Eric, and ultimately she achieves that for herself. Eric is simply the catalyst to kick that arc into motion. It’s also not like we ever get to see her having a close relationship with her father and sisters either, even if Triton gets a great redemption arc by the end of the story. I’m glad I re-watched, because in a case like The Little Mermaid, a story we all know well but perhaps haven’t actually watched the whole thing since childhood, it’s easy for the rhetoric surrounding a movie to replace any actual memory of the film. And in this case the lukewarm take of “umm, that movie teaches young girls that they’re supposed to give up everything for a man” is an overly simplistic take.

I also love Sebastian’s arc. Not just his awesome musical numbers and charming accent, which of course we already knew were spectacular. I’m talking about his actual character arc. After this watch, I would argue it’s even stronger than Ariel’s. One great screenwriting strategy that can work in virtually any genre is setting up two characters to butt heads with each other, and then force them to work together. Through the first half of the movie, Sebastian is constantly complaining about Ariel. She skips rehearsals, she doesn’t listen to her father, and is just a general handful to deal with. At the halfway mark, these two characters suddenly have a common goal: get Eric to kiss Ariel. And because Sebastian is a crab, he has the unique ability to go back and forth between land and sea as he pleases in a way no other character can. He can help her in ways that Ariel’s actual friends, Flounder and Scuttle, can’t.

Think about it though. It would’ve been just as easy to make Ariel’s best friend a crab who could follow her onto land and help her win over the prince. But they didn’t do that, because that wouldn’t have been as interesting. Watching characters help Ariel when they’ve been her friends all along is not as much fun as watching a character who initially hated Ariel learn to love her. One of my new favorite moments of this movie that I’d previously never noticed is right after Ariel gets her legs. Sebastian initially insists on going back to Triton and tattling on her, the way a sniveling brat like Zazu would have.

But no. He looks into her eyes, and for the first time, he really understands how sad she is living under the sea, how much she wants to pursue Prince Eric, and he chooses to disregard Triton’s wishes. And mind you, his primary character trait for the entire first part of the movie is doing Triton’s bidding. It’s a moment of transformation that I don’t think any other Disney sidekick has ever had, at least to my knowledge. And that transformation is also symbolized with two musical numbers that both SLAP. The first is an attempt to convince Ariel to shut up and be happy under water so that Triton gets what he wants and Sebastian’s life can be less complicated. The second is an attempt to help Ariel win over her prince so she can live on land forever, even though Sebastian knows this is in direct opposition to what Triton wants. The more I think about Sebastian’s arc the more impressed I am.

But while we’re stanning Sebastian, can we also take a second to recognize Scuttle? The idea of a seagull as a self-appointed expert on all things human despite getting everything wrong all the time is a brilliant idea. I never realized how necessary he was for some well-timed comedic relief, and the choice to make him a seagull also gives Ariel a reason to go to the surface. Through Scuttle, the movie is able to set up pins and knock them down over and over again. Sometimes it’s with Ariel’s references to Scuttle’s silly names for human objects, other times it’s Ariel incorrectly using human objects thanks to Scuttle’s so-called “expertise.” He also is able to serve as a messenger for Flounder, who can’t see what Ariel and Eric are up to on land, and that’s nice.

I also didn’t realize until fairly recently just how much work goes into hand-drawn animation, but documentaries such as Waking Sleeping Beauty and Stan & Ollie (both on Disney+) have given me a greater appreciation for the art form. For roughly half of this movie, Ariel can’t talk. That means it is ENTIRELY up to skilled animators to draw her every action and expression in such a way that we still identify with the character, and man those animators don’t let us down. Even when Ariel can’t talk, we’re never unsure what she’s thinking or feeling. I never understood the artistry and skill it takes to accomplish that when I was younger.

What I didn’t like; I never realized this as a kid, but Flounder is actually a pretty underwhelming sidekick/best friend. Both Sebastian and Scuttle have 10x the comedic value and overall personality. And did I mention Sebastian’s musical numbers SLAP? Because they slap.

Will I watch it again: Of course I will. It’s The Little Mermaid for crying out loud.

Who would enjoy it: Anyone who loves animated, family friendly movies.

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