If looking back at the very first reviews of The Little Mermaid reveals anything, it’s how pop culture’s loose, collective definition of “heroine,” changes over time, sometimes dramatically. What makes a good animated female role model? Should she be opinionated? Bookish? Suspicious of authority? Loyal? Irreverent or even hostile toward traditional gender roles? The nebulous and never-stagnant answer is determined in part by cultural critics and media-makers on one side, and by parents and children themselves on the other.
Before The Little Mermaid, Disney had a short roster of titular female leads, many of whom spent a good chunk of the film asleep—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice, and Snow White. So what if Ariel spends most of the film without a voice? At least she's awake.
As Willa Paskin noted at Vulture, The Little Mermaid is "a kids' movie ... from a time before studios were even aware that parents would have to watch these things too." It was among the last of a generation of such films, too, though decades away from all-age-pleasing critical successes like The Lego Movie. Perhaps because of the absence of age-appropriate narrative thrills, adult-aged (and male) film critics converged with surprising like-mindedness upon the sentiment that Ariel was above all hot and likable.
In his review, Ebert said audiences have "sympathy for Ariel's scheming," because she's "smart and thinks for herself." The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington instead remarked on Ariel’s good looks:
“Mermaid's” saucy heroine, Ariel, isn't much like Andersen's sad, noble sea-maid. She's a sexy little honey-bunch with a double-scallop-shell bra and a mane of red hair tossed in tumble-out-of-bed Southern California salon style. She has no gills, but, when she smiles, she shows an acre of Farrah Fawcett teeth.
In 1997, the Boston Phoenix's Jeffrey Gantz noted that "Ariel is sexy as well as sympathetic," and for the film’s 10th anniversary in 1999, Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel noted that "Ariel (Jodi Benson) is sympathetic and, in her little bikini top, rather sexy." Similar (arguably tongue-in-cheek) descriptions of the relentlessly sexualized Disney princesses remained a mainstay in film criticism for years. While animated film's female protagonists today still tend toward the disproportionately buxom or svelte or impossibly beautiful, critics dwell on those physical characteristics far less.
More than a dim-witted, love-drunk nymphet or fierce paragon of girlish ambition, Ariel was a necessary stepping stone to the better-developed, animated female protagonists of the future. Ariel defies her father's authority, but Mulan defies her father's authority in order to save all of China from the Huns. Ariel seeks life beyond the borders of her conventional world, but so does Merida, who doesn't get distracted by a pretty, potential lover's face.