“Up where they woke”: Fox News and others panic about “Little Mermaid” lyric changes

Only a few months ago, some Disney fans and conservatives alike were angered by the closing and planned revamping of the popular attraction “Splash Mountain.” The ride is being redesigned at both Disneyland and Disney World, incorporating Disney’s Princess Tiana in its theme and doing away with associations with “Song of the South,” the 1946 Disney musical. According to USA Today, Disney CEO Robert Iger described “Song of the South,” set in the post-Civil War plantation era and including harmful racist stereotypes, as “just not appropriate in today’s world.”

Now conservatives have another song to be angry about. Several songs, in fact, as news has emerged that the upcoming live action film of “The Little Mermaid” will include new tunes and changed lyrics for old ones. The lyrics in question include consent and young girls speaking up.

That’s making quite a splash, and in a confusing climate of censorship, book banning and paranoia about so-called wokeness, some viewers are drowning in misplaced outrage.  

In 1989, “The Little Mermaid” changed the future and fortunes of the Walt Disney Company, bringing the animation giant back to its rightful place on top, and bringing in the dough: making over $84 million in box office returns in its initial domestic release. The film has since grossed $235 million worldwide. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid” tells the story of a redheaded mermaid princess named Ariel, who falls for a human prince she spots on land (a place she has always been infatuated with), and makes a dark deal with a sea witch named Ursula to become human and be with him.

Over the past few years, multiple Disney animated films have received the live-action treatment, including “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson. With a planned May 2023 release date, “The Little Mermaid” is the latest. When the project was announced, a racist backlash ensued over the casting of Black actor Halle Bailey as Ariel. Meanwhile, thousands of parents posted reactions of their children rapt at the teaser trailer, as Bailey sings. 

A new, full trailer has been revealed, and so has more information, including the fact that there are brand-new songs in the upcoming film. In an interview Wednesday with Entertainment Weekly, the famed composer of the original “The Little Mermaid,” Alan Menken, spoke of collaborating on the new film with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda wrote the lyrics and Menken has composed a trio of additional songs, including one for Ariel that Menken described as “lilting,” and a “power ballad” for human Prince Eric.

“The little mermaid used to sing ‘up where they walk, up where they run.’ Now she might sing ‘up where they woke!'”

As for the existing songs? They’ve undergone a change too. Speaking with Vanity Fair, Menken was asked if any aspect of the original film was changed. He answered, “There are some lyric changes in ‘Kiss the Girl’ because people have gotten very sensitive about the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel]. We have some revisions in ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ regarding lines that might make young girls somehow feel that they shouldn’t speak out of turn, even though Ursula is clearly manipulating Ariel to give up her voice.”

“The Little Mermaid” 2023 (Disney)

The writer did not press Menken to elaborate, but conservative outlets took the news — a mere paragraph in a much longer article — and ran with it. “‘Little Mermaid’ lyrics get ‘woke’ update,” FOX News reported: “The little mermaid used to sing ‘up where they walk, up where they run.’ Now she might sing ‘up where they woke!'”

Lis Power pointed on Twitter, “It’s not even that song they’re changing!

The original “Kiss the Girl,” where human-turned Ariel and Prince Eric float in a boat and various animals encourage him to kiss her, includes lyrics like “You’re dyin’ to try,” and “Yes, you want her/Look at her, you know you do/Possible she wants you too.”

But the next section is perhaps ripe for some tweaking: “There is one way to ask her. / It don’t take a word./ Not a single word.” Well, it might take two words: Can I? Would inserting that sentence really corrupt the whole song?

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As for “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Ursula has some zingers about being seen and not heard when it comes to being a young girl: “On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word,” and “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.” But the sea witch has a vested interest here, wanting to take Ariel’s voice as payment for giving the mermaid legs. 

Should we return to the original fairy tale, when Ariel has to murder the prince with a dagger or die terribly?

And that’s the problem with this whole hubbub. We don’t know. The film hasn’t been released yet. The songs, new or old and improved, haven’t been heard by the general public. When it came to the outrage over altered parts of Roald Dahl’s books, we already knew what the changes were. And we already knew words like “fat” had been altered with no attention paid to context (and meanwhile, sensitivity readers were blamed).

Context is everything. It’s nuance that places like Fox News struggle with in their rush to criticize everything about Disney (if we want to keep “The Little Mermaid” totally pure, should we return to the original fairy tale, when Ariel has to murder the prince with a dagger or die terribly?). But the world, both above ground and under the sea, is rarely so simple.

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