Lately, though, it has seemed to me that it's become more than just a true-love-over-bad-odds story that it appears to be. Ruminating on the lyrics of the first major song, "Part of Your World", in particular that she sings it in a cavern full of sunken human treasures, Ariel the mermaid seems to have a greater motivation than simply marrying a prince (at this point in the story, she hasn't even seen him). She sings about all the neat things she's collected, of which there are many (leading some to believe Ariel is a compulsive hoarder), but she also sings that all of it is "no big deal", and that she wants more. It's then I realized that what she really wants out of the human world is too abstract to put on a shelf.
She sings about wanting to walk, dance, even just to feel the warmth of the sun, actions that are denied to someone with fins that don't get her too far. She laments her physical limitations, and then sings about "bright young women, sick of swimmin'" and about wanting to ask questions to humankind, and get some answers (which she sings about while flipping through a book). She wants to ask what a fire is, a fire long being the symbol of human knowledge when Prometheus brought it down from Mt. Olympus. What Prometheus can bring down a fire to somewhere that it will simply be doused?
A key point of this song, however, is that the titular lyric is not "part of your world", but "part of THAT world". A barrier exists between her world and their's, so she regards it as something she can only look at, and never touch and experience. Later, when she sees the prince and saves him from drowning, it changes to "part of YOUR world". She has touched a part of humanity, and believes this has broken the barrier between her and them. She's made a connection to the human world, and will work to strengthen it such that she can at last become part of it. Up until this point, her biggest connection was a dopey seagull that tells her ridiculous things about what she finds, and she simply believes him because at least he's on the human's side of the barrier.
For her part, it's understandable that she wants to leave this place behind her. From what the movie depicts about mermaid society, it's quite utopian, but also pretty dull. The opening scene consists of a group (school?) of merpeople gathered to see this ceremony about how great the king's daughters are, while Ariel's off exploring a shipwreck; one of the human artefacts that has crossed her barrier. Her father, King Triton, warns that humans are dangerous because they catch and eat fish (is that what happened to her mother? His warnings seem pretty uninformed), but from what I've noticed, mermaid society seems to have no arts, no sciences, none of the merpeople even seem to be educated. Hell, "Under the Sea" seems to say that all they have to do is swim and frolic, and that all people do on the surface is eat fish, hollowly echoing Triton's warnings. Ariel already doesn't believe this, as she believes "I just don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad." To someone who thinks this kind of thing, it's not much comfort to be told to just forget about it and dance and sing all damn day.
Later it could be argued that Ariel, being the lovestruck 16-year-old girl that she is, attaches too much of her interest in humans to Eric, and this could be construed as falling for someone she barely knows; a classic Disney foible, especially with how boring Eric is in general. However, it's because of this dullness that I think she still sees him as a way to join her to humanity. She swiftly agrees to Ursala to give up her soul–erm, voice, since now she knows a human that can connect her to that world. This lets her cross the mermaid/human barrier, but reduces her ability to interact with it. She can't talk, and she can't write anything down, because again, merpeople seem to be uneducated. She can only communicate through clumsy gestures, and Eric remains her best shot at being part of a society that will enrich her curious mind. But she's only got three days to seal the deal, so naturally she has to be pretty focused on it.
Ariel has frequently been dismissed as a passive part of her own story, one of those princesses that simply smiles and bats her eyes while characters around her do all the work. I don't think that's the case; she's done everything within her means to accomplish what she wants, particularly as she's the only one that has any understanding of what she wants to do. She's got very little to work with, as you could well imagine, and no doubt if she could talk during her three-day wooing, she might not come off as quite so "passive".
Still, with all that said, The Little Mermaid is still a pretty clumsy movie. Between its slightly juvenile humour, the lapses in artistic judgment (intentional or not) that took place, and its generally crimped length, it lacked the intensity and strength of later Disney pictures. It wasn't as dated as, say, Oliver & Company, or as much of a tonal misfire as The Black Cauldron, and even though I discovered a lot about this movie after revisiting it, I think I'll need another viewing of Fantasia to cleanse the palette.