In the new film, we learn that Eric was adopted by the king and queen of an island nation after a shipwreck, so he’s a little bit of an outsider even in the royal family. He’d rather hang with the sailors. And he’s passionate about exploring and forging ties with other cultures, citing trade and advancements in both medicine and technology that are just one sea voyage away. He wants the island to grow, and not get left behind. These opinions are sparingly deployed throughout the film, but effective.
But I’m not just here to praise The Little Mermaid for making a male character three dimensional. That’s not exactly surface-breaking storytelling. What this does is show us why Ariel is attracted to Eric specifically, not just the first human boy she sees. The two of them have common ground. They’re both curious. They both shirk royal duties. Ariel is convinced that humans can’t be as dangerous as the mermaids think, and Eric doesn’t believe the human stories he’s heard about mermaids luring sailors to their deaths. When Ariel first sees Eric on the ship she overhears Grimsby scolding him on the Queen’s behalf the same way Sebastian scolds her on Titan’s behalf, and she relates to that. Recognizing a part of yourself in a crush, especially as a teenager is so, so real. That feeling of “I just get him” is still somewhat immature, but it’s not all libido.
Related: Halle Bailey: Ariel Taught Me Who I Am “On My Own”
The live-action film even gives Eric a room for trinkets he’s collected on his travels, equivalent to Ariel’s grotto of whosits and whatsits galore. They’re even lit similarly, if you look closely. Ariel’s grotto has a clearing through which a single beam of light escapes. Eric’s has a skylight. Then, in Eric’s “grotto,” they teach each other things. Eric shows her his maps, and Ariel wordlessly teaches him about geodes and conch shells.
I’m very proud of the creative team here, to be frank. Since mansplaining became trendy to talk about, adapting a story in which a female character is 1) genuinely ignorant about the world around her and 2) unable to speak could be intimidating. It would be easy, and in my opinion lazy, to back away entirely from Eric explaining anything to Ariel in the name of feminism. Instead, Eric and Ariel share their knowledge and enthusiasm with a kind of ease that’s fun to watch and honestly very romantic! I think about something Mike Schur said about Ben and Leslie on Parks and Recreation in a Season 3 DVD commentary (seriously) a lot. “There’s lots of different ways you can try to show that people are meant for each other,” he said, “and one of the best ways and most effective ways is to show that they’re both the same kind of dork.”
There are some quotes floating around about how Marshall’s film updates previously problematic aspects of the story, namely that Ariel leaves the ocean and gives up her voice for a man. Bailey told Edition magazine in March that the film’s take is more nuanced. But you don’t need to work hard to convince me that Ariel wants to experience the human world for reasons beyond a single hottie. She’s obsessed with the human world! She has a whole collection of human things! The song “Part of Your World” lays all of that out before she even meets Eric. It’s Ursula who, in the animated film, twists her desire and reframes it into something problematic. She convinces her that Eric, and not anything else, is worth the sacrifice. She encourages her to use “body language” to attract the prince and then calls Ariel a tramp when it actually works. It makes it seem like Ariel was easily taken advantage of because she’s a horny teenager, even though we know that making a deal with the proverbial devil was her choice.