The Little Mermaid remake sparks debate after changing lyrics to teach consent and empower women

Alan Menken (L) and The Little Mermaid (R).

The Little Mermaid composer Alan Menken has confirmed hit songs “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” will have updated lyrics in the live-action film.

The Little Mermaid adaptation, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Melissa McCarthy as high-camp, drag-inspired villain Ursula, hits cinemas next month.

Speaking to Vanity Fair about the musical direction, Menken explained why two of the film’s best-loved tunes would have new lyrics, focusing on consent and female empowerment.

“Kiss the Girl” is a Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) solo while Ariel and Eric are on a boat date, with Ariel unable to speak after Ursula tricked her into giving up her voice. Sebastian encourages Eric to take a chance and kiss Ariel.

“There are some lyric changes in ‘Kiss the Girl’,” Menken explained, “because people have [become] very sensitive about the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel].”

Ariel and Eric during the boat scene in The Little Mermaid. (Disney)

The multi-Oscar-winning composer worked on the original 1989 animated film for which he won two Academy Awards, and a best original song nomination for “Kiss the Girl”. He is returning to the helm alongside Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a host of familiar and new songs.

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Although he doesn’t say exactly which lyrics will be changed, some are speculating he is referring to: “There is one way to ask her/ It don’t take a word/ Not a single word/ Go on and kiss the girl.”

Meanwhile, Ursula’s standout number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sees her make a devious deal with Ariel, giving her legs and enabling her to go on land and pursue Prince Eric, but stealing her voice at the same time.

“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,” Menken added.

This time, it’s believed the lyrics likely to get to the boot are when Ursula tells Ariel that men on land “don’t like a lot of blabber” and prefer “ladies not to say a word”, adding “she who holds her tongue gets a man”.

The lyric changes have already sparked discourse, with Whoopi Goldberg telling The View that she’s pleased by the move.

Goldberg explained: “You’re a songwriter who says, ‘These are not feeling like the songs I want kids singing now. I want to make some adjustments.’

“I’m glad he did it. I wouldn’t want some new person coming in and going, ‘I’m going to fix this.’ He knows what he’s doing.”

Meanwhile, on social media fans are debating whether it’s a good idea, particularly the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” changes since Ursula is meant to be the villain who is lying to Ariel.

The Little Mermaid remake is not the first time Disney have updated lyrics for a live-action version of a film.

Another Menken film, 1992’s Aladdin had words modified for the 2019 remake, removing references to slaves and changing the description of the fictional land of Agrabah. And in 2017, two songs for Beauty and the Beast were changed from the 1991 animated film to bring in rediscovered lyrics from original writer Howard Ashman.

Some fans have decided to trust the process and give the updated songs in The Little Mermaid a chance.

It’s not the only empowering change tipped for the film, with Bailey revealing there will be a much more nuanced approach to Ariel’s decision to leave the ocean.

She told Edition by Modern Luxury: “We’ve definitely changed that perspective of her wanting to leave the ocean just for a boy. It’s way bigger than that. It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life and what she wants.”

 The Little Mermaid is due to open on 26 May.

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