It is not uncommon to have films follow a certain pattern. The hero’s journey is a tried-and-true way to take a character through a certain plotline, showing up everywhere from “The Lion King” to “Star Wars.” Occasionally, thought, there are more specific moments in the story that echo a story that had come before. Today’s exhibition is Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” versus Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman.” You’ve probably seen the memes already drawing direct visual comparisons to the two movies. Now, obviously, most of these are a bit of a stretch or just straight-up coincidence, but they were compelling enough for us to have a deeper look at the two films. As a result, it’s actually interesting just how much the two have in common, and not just that they are both really great movies!
This list will look at specific character and writing choices and scene direction in “Wonder Woman” that bears an eerie resemblance to “The Little Mermaid,” at least aside from the fact they both have inexplicably gorgeous hair in every situation. Intentional or not, let’s count them down!
SPOILER WARNING: Huge spoilers for “The Little Mermaid” and “Wonder Woman.”
15. SEARCH AND RESCUE
Steve Trevor made quite a splash as Diana’s introduction to the human world and her future role as a superhero. Somehow Steve was able to fly his planes past the magic shield that kept Themyscira hidden and crash landed in the water. It looked like all would be lost until Diana was able to pull him out of the wreckage and to the relative (for him) safety of Themyscira’s beaches. The scene is a cute introduction to Steve and Diana’s dynamic throughout the film, and allows for admiration for both sides.
The vehicle of Prince Eric’s crash is different, but other than that the scene is almost the same. Instead of the Kaiser’s shooting airplanes, it’s a storm and Eric’s ship was caught between towering waves. Ariel was able to watch the entire thing and, like Diana, rescue her prince in order to truly see him for the first time.
14. UNCONSCIOUS ON A BEACH
Due to a case of missing identity, Prince Eric and Ariel technically meet for the first time twice, but for this list, we’ll focus on that true first meeting. After Ariel’s rescue, she’s able to look at a human up close for the very first time. She’s already infatuated with him at this point, but this is where the connection for him really begins. Ariel sings to him, and Eric is never able to get her song out of his head, even after she swims away.
In “Wonder Woman,” almost exactly the same scene plays out minus the singing. There’s a long moment of Diana just looking at Steve with wonderment, since this is the first human she’s seen after hearing stories about them all her life. In the same way, when Steve wakes up in a stupor, Diana is bathed in a warm light and rendering him dumbstruck. Needless to say, they remain fascinated by each other for the rest of the film.
13. REBELLIOUS PHASE
As we’ve already covered, Hippolyta and Triton have a lot in common in their relationships with their daughters. Both are incredibly protective and as with almost all parent-child relationships, this strained the relationship almost to the point of snapping. In “The Little Mermaid,” this happens when King Triton finds Ariel’s secret stash of human objects, with her newest acquirement of a Prince Eric statue standing front and center. King Triton has always forbidden Ariel from interacting with humans, but for the first time Ariel openly defies him. In a totally reasonable response, Triton destroys everything Ariel owns, yells at her and basically all but signed her name on that contract with Ursula.
Things go a little bit smoother with Hippolyta, but she still forbids Diana from going with Steve to find Ares and the heart of the Great War. In the end, she finds Diana as she sneaks off into the night and lets her go, but there’s a sense that all isn’t right between them.
12. PART OF THE PANTHEON
Arguably one of the best scenes in “Wonder Woman” was the exchanges between Steve and Diana in their sailboat on the way to England. There, the audience gets to laugh at Steve’s reaction to Diana’s origin story: that she was made out of the clay by her mother and received life from the breath of Zeus. This turned out not to be true, instead being the actual daughter of Zeus himself, which is totally different.
Fans might not know this, but Ariel is descended from the Greek gods, too. Triton of the Greek pantheon was the son of Poseidon who worked as his father’s herald and sometimes messenger. Sure, Triton in “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t seem to send messengers but he definitely could have inherited Poseidon’s iconic trident after Poseidon abdicated or possibly died. Triton also lives in a golden palace under the sea just like the stories about his mythological counterpart.
11. FASHION CHALLENGED
Most of the humor in “The Little Mermaid” comes from the brilliant choice to have Ariel misunderstand pretty much everything about humans, and build jokes and sight gags from that premise. One of these was when Ariel meets Eric for the second time and must improvise a dress out of a ripped sail and rope she found lying on a beach. She totally misunderstands what is and isn’t appropriate attire, and eventually she’s convinced to put on a real dress when she goes to the palace with Eric.
When this same sequence happens in “Wonder Woman,” Diana is all business. Initially she has no plans to change out of her Amazonian armor, but Steve convinces her to go into a dress shop to become less conspicuous. There Diana learns just how immobilizing and inconvenient traditional female clothing always has been, but manages to find something after a classic changing-clothes montage.
10. ROMANTIC BOAT RIDE
For those who haven’t watched “The Little Mermaid” in a while, this particular boat ride is the setting for the iconic “Kiss the Girl” song that’s currently in your head right now. As a suspiciously non-suspicious Eric tries to get to know this mystery girl while local fauna sing, the audience gets to really root for these kids. Up until this point, it seems more like infatuation between the two of them. But when Eric guesses Ariel’s name correctly (because she can’t speak), they are able to build an emotional connection that feels really genuine.
A similar boat ride accomplishes the same thing between Diana and Steve. In all their interactions prior to the boat, it’s more about learning about each other’s cultures and trying to gain allies — diplomacy more than anything else. But on the boat ride, Diana and Steve get to know each other as people and laying the foundation for an epic romance.
9. SINGLE PARENT HOUSEHOLD
Disney has a reputation for having a slew of protagonists with dead moms, and Ariel is no exception. She lives with her father King Triton, after her mother died under undisclosed circumstances (direct-to-video sequels notwithstanding). This lends to the feeling of stability that Ariel must feel at the beginning of the story, before the revelation of her dissatisfaction is revealed to the audience. It’s this feeling of stability that “Wonder Woman” decided to mimic.
Diana’s home is an absolute monarchy just like Ariel’s but with the other parent. Queen Hippolyta is the only mother on Themyscira, and this makes her even more protective of Diana than even King Triton is revealed to be. Queen Hippolyta and the rest of the Amazons can be presumed to be immortal, or at least exceptionally long-lived since they barely age after centuries on Themyscira. The lack of change gives stability, but makes Diana long for more.
8. FEMALE COMPANIONSHIP
Diana was hidden from the world for centuries on an island entirely populated by ageless, warrior women, and presumably Ariel was as well. Something fans might not remember is that Ariel actually has six sisters, despite not really being characters in their own right. They only appear during one of the first musical sequences in the film, where they sing about how they love being the daughters of Triton.
It’s also important to remember that King Triton is incredibly overprotective of Ariel in particular, and the audience never sees Ariel interact with merpeople outside of her family or Ursula. It is then reasonable to conclude that Triton would have limited Ariel’s interaction with non-royal merpeople, which made her fascination with Eric more intense. “Wonder Woman” went a similar route. Male Amazons are an impossibility, so Diana was kept completely away from all men, god or not, out of Hippolyta’s need to protect her.
7. STRONG ROLE MODELS
In a world that has always been dominated by male protagonists, superpowered or not, it’s good to recognize when studios got female characters right. “The Little Mermaid” certainly wasn’t the first female protagonist for Disney, but she was the strongest. Ariel had defined goals, motivations, and desires that went beyond finding a thing in a place or being handed off from her father to a husband. Ariel had memorable lines and any audience member could relate to her.
You can find “Wonder Woman” in this same condition. Diana has distinct desires and motivations just like any other male character, but they are unique to her among her peers in DC Comics movies and frankly the genre in general. She’s badass, but isn’t a manipulator like other female heroes before her. In fact, her sincerity, like Ariel’s, is one of the things that makes her so dear to the hearts of viewers.
6. SAVED THE STUDIO
Let’s be completely honest, the DCEU needed saving. “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” did fine financially — neither especially bombed at the box office — but boy did they get panned by critics and fans. Both of those previous films had good and bad moments, but their financial success is probably more about novelty than anything else. It was the first time Batman and Superman were in a live-action movie together, or the first time viewers saw the Suicide Squad together. A major studio adapting familiar characters can’t bank on that novelty altogether, and word of mouth from critics could have killed their run-up to “Justice League.”
Luckily, “Wonder Woman” changed all that due to measures taken by Warner Bros. It’s loved by critics and fans alike, rating 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and looks to be nearing $550 million worldwide. Similarly, “The Little Mermaid” was borne out of a studio desperate to save itself after “The Black Cauldron” was panned by critics and only made back half its budget. Ariel’s debut saved the studio and heralded the beginning of the Disney Renaissance.
5. FASCINATED BY HUMANS
One of the characterizations that makes Diana stand out among superheroes is her genuine fascination with humans. This sets her apart from Superman, who lived among them as a hidden alien; or Batman, whose heroism often stems from his disillusionment with humans. Instead, Diana can see them entirely as “other” because she was separated from them the majority of her life. Because of that, her main accomplishment in the film is to learn how to love humans even when they fail her.
This was taken straight out of the “The Little Mermaid” playbook. Ariel’s fascination with humans is her primary motivation to begin the plot of the movie. Long before she meets Prince Eric, she engages in small acts of rebellion to learn about the world on land by collecting objects from shipwrecks and trying to understand their purpose. Then, after she falls in love with Prince Eric, she must learn to forgive him for almost marrying a disguised Ursula.
4. FAMILY SACRIFICE
Even when families fight, they’ll do absolutely anything for each other. The one of interest here is when King Triton, in a stunning change of character, forgives Ariel’s rebelliousness and takes her place in Ursula’s bargain. Earlier in the film, Ariel got legs in exchange for her voice. However, when she was unable to convince Prince Eric to kiss her within three days, Ariel was transformed back into a mermaid and would be forced to become one of the ugly sea creatures Ursula traps in her cave. King Triton offers himself to be transformed instead, giving Ursula the keys to his kingdom, which was her real goal all along.
A similar incident happens in “Wonder Woman,” albeit a bit quicker. Diana’s aunt General Antiope made quick work of the invading Kaiser forces on Themyscira, but it wasn’t quite enough. When it looked like her beloved niece would be shot by German soldiers, Antiope used herself as a shield in order to protect her.
3. PUPPETEER VILLAIN
The villain of “Wonder Woman,” if there is one is probably Ares, the god of war. Diana goes on a personal mission to find Ares where the fighting is most intense, and kill him with the Godkiller sword. Consequently, Diana and the audience are led to believe General Ludendorff is Ares hiding in plain sight due to his involvement with Dr. Poison, and make plans to foil his. However, it’s revealed that Ares was actually masquerading as Sir Patrick Morgan, the one cabinet member that gave the team support on their mission.
As a result Ares becomes a true puppeteer, not starting wars because of aggression or violence but by subtle manipulation and an utter disregard for humanity in general. Ursula is a villain much in the same strain. She also manipulates Ariel into entering into a bargain with her, setting her up for failure, and then using Triton’s favorite daughter as a weakness to gain the crown. She and Ares are always five steps ahead of their opponents.
2. HEROIC LOVE INTEREST
To be complete honest, Prince Eric isn’t one of the best remembered Disney princes for a reason. He’s pretty much the boringly nice guy for much of the movie, but luckily mostly unproblematic. However, where he really shines is his ability to risk his life for others when battling Ursula. Even coming off of hypnosis and watching his girlfriend turn into a fish, Eric’s got his priorities straight. He dives in to harpoon Ursula herself and even lands the killing blow by stabbing Ursula with the bow of his ship.
Steve is the same. He never stops trying to save the day, and is the only person who he’ll allow to pilot the airplane in order to divert Dr. Poison’s planned attack on opposing troops. Even when Steve knows it’ll take him away from Diana, he takes over this part of the fight. The only difference is that Eric survives.
1. LESSONS LEARNED
At the heart of both these films, there’s one major aspect which these characters share that sets them apart from their peers: curiosity. The genuine desire to know more about things that are different from you is shown when Ariel collects artifacts of a world she’s only heard stories about. This desire is shown when Diana takes time she doesn’t have to understand the banalities of human life as well as it’s tragedies.
Then, both Ariel and Diana transform that curiosity into empathy with the people who are so different from them. “Wonder Woman” uses this as an opportunity for Diana to fall in love with humanity, even when they betray her trust in them. She decides humanity might be worth saving after all. “The Little Mermaid” on the other hand, goes for the more relatable ending. Ariel’s desire to fall in love and be with her human prince may seem like a small desire in the grand scheme of things, but it’s no less important.
What do you think? Are Wonder Woman and The Little Mermaid too close for comfort, or just amazing movies with a lot in common? Or both!? Let us know in the comments!