The Little Mermaid’s ‘Part of Your World’ Remains Disney’s Definitive Dreaming Song

With the recent release of Disney’s live-action 2023 remake of The Little Mermaid, attention has been drawn back to a film that, in 1989, was already a landmark for the studio. The Little Mermaid was a complete game-changer, bringing Disney back from the brink after a decade of management and location changes, box-office failures, and competition from rivals. The Little Mermaid‘s success ushered in an era often referred to as the Disney Renaissance, one that includes classics such as Beauty and the Beast; Aladdin; The Lion King; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and Hercules

And while there is plenty to love about The Little Mermaid – and, surprisingly, its remake – is central moment in the film has retained a cult following over the years. It’s memorable enough that generations of young people project their hopes and dreams upon it. Animator Glen Keane called this scene and its song “the heart of the movie”; when faced with its potential cut, Disney had its lyricists threatening its studio executives. It’s also the scene that this writer misspent their youth trying to learn word for word. I’m talking, of course, about Ariel’s iconic ballad, ‘Part of Your World.’ Halle Bailey’s moving rendition now serves as a reminder of the original version’s genius. 

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Halle Bailey as Ariel singing Part of Your World in The Little Mermaid (2023) (COURTESY: Disney)

Broadway Comes to Burbank 

It’s hard to express just how pivotal this song was in changing how Disney soundtracks were produced. Still, its conception certainly shifted something in the relationship between Disney and music, particularly in the increased influence of musical theatre. This was mainly due to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the duo who wrote the numbers for this film, Beauty and the Beast, and a few from Aladdin before Ashman passed away in 1991 from AIDS (and was replaced as a lyricist on Aladdin by Sir Tim Rice). Before making their way to Disney, the pair already had a musical hit on their hands with the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors. Ashman, in particular, was heralded (and feared) as a god when he stepped onto the Disney Animation Lot in Burbank. While straying from the expected Disney mold, Howard’s word was considered gospel by many around him, with Roy E. Disney comparing the writer’s impact to that of his Uncle, Walt Disney himself. His legacy is still tangible even now: It was Ashman who suggested to The Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and John Musker that Sebastian the crab be Jamaican, and these echoes of the Caribbean are something that is expanded upon in the new live-action version. 

In a now-iconic lecture given to the crew of The Little Mermaid, clips of which can be seen in documentaries such as Waking Sleeping Beauty and Howard, Ashman spoke to the animators about musical storytelling and the compatibility of musical theatre and animation as mediums. Animator Mike Gabriel recalled, “[Howard tells us] Your lead character needs a want. They have to have a strong want and then a want song… and we’re going, okay… not even having a clue about that stuff before Howard was around. You would have thought we would have known that.” 

It’s true. You would have assumed Disney animators would have known that, given how interwoven the relationship between Disney Animations and their soundtracks have been since the very first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. That being said, whilst integrated musical numbers were nothing new to Disney Animated features, there was an intentionality in this ‘I Want’ song that hadn’t knowingly existed in Disney films before. There are songs in earlier features, such as ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from Pinocchio, ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ from Snow White, or ‘A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes’ from Cinderella, that also focus on dreams and desires. Still, they don’t establish these desires as plainly as a song like ‘A Part of Your World’ or ‘Belle’ from Beauty and the Beast or ‘Out There’ from Hunchback of Notre Dame.  

In contrast, the idea of an ‘I Want’ song was foundational in many popular Broadway musicals’ structure. As Ashman explains it: “In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of Covent Garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life, and the audience falls in love with her and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”

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Howard Ashman in the recording studio during the production of Beauty and the Beast (COURTESY: Disney)

A Close Call 

However, whilst the intention of getting people to side with the protagonist worked on the cast and crew of The Little Mermaid when it came to the first test screening, it didn’t work with children in the audience. The screening was an unfinished movie cut, with many sequences, including ‘Part of Your World’ still mostly sketches rather than anything already colored in and edited. To Jeffrey Katzenberg, VP of Animation at Disney at the time, the audience seemed bored and lost interest during this scene, in contrast to their engaged interaction during ‘Under the Sea.’ With this in mind, Katzenberg went to the crew and said that he felt the song should be cut. 

Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with the team. Ron Clements and John Musker did their part to convince Katzenberg, but it was met on deaf ears. Ashman said the song would be cut “over his dead body,” and Katzenberg even mentions Howard threatening to strangle him. Eventually, it would be animator Glen Keane who managed to get through to the exec, convincing him that it wasn’t the song itself but things around it that weren’t fully formed yet. Keane, who begged to animate Ariel after being captivated by hearing Jodi Benson sing ‘Part of Your World’, said of cutting the song, “We can’t cut it. It’s the heart of the movie; it’s her whole dream; to cut it would really gut out our emotional involvement with our heroine.”

Katzenberg relented, and the iconic song remained in the final movie. In fact, Katzenberg would come to say, “Ultimately [Glen/Howard] was right. Not only did it stay in the movie, but it’s one of the more memorable moments in the movie.”

‘Bright Young Women, Sick of Swimming’

With all that being said, many won’t know the history surrounding the song and how significant it was in ushering in a new age for Disney animation. Children, especially young girls who have connected with this song, perhaps played it on repeat to the annoyance of their parents, certainly won’t know anything about it. Even without its context, though, the song is something incredibly moving and memorable – it achieves the aims of an ‘I Want’ song just as Ashman laid it out: it makes us love Ariel and root for her dream. 

Something that makes ‘Part of Your World’ as song so easy to connect to is its conversational nature. It flows out of Ariel asking a question and then leads into exploring her thoughts. In particular, her little asides when she forgets the names of things – “What d’ya call em? Oh… feet!”// “What’s that word again? …Street” – add a personal touch that really does make it feel like you’re chatting with a friend as they vocalize a stream of consciousness.

Ariel using her voice to explain her desires is pivotal here, especially when she’ll give it up to possess them in just a few short scenes. While she is the same Ariel with the same mind and heart on land, it is through this song that she is able to fully realize and verbalize her hopes and dreams with the audience. It is in the safety of solitude in her cave, away from adults like Triton, Sebastian, and Ursula, who repress her voice, that she is able to be herself freely and invites the audience to converse with her in that state. As Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in the original 1989 The Little Mermaid, says of the song, really it’s “a monologue that happened to be put to pitch.” Ariel’s greatest desire is to be human, but the irony is that even though she’s still a mermaid, this song is one of the most human in Disney’s repertoire. 

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Howard Ashman offering vocal direction to Jodi Benson while recording Part of Your World (COURTESY: Disney)

Her desire and yearning for life above the sea are deeply felt. When directing Jodi Benson in the recording studio, Ashman repeatedly focuses her on the intensity of the lyrics rather than just performing the song. He said, “Really, it’s about having all that emotion, and not letting it out, but having it here [in your heart]… it’s inner intensity.” That feeling of being trapped is mirrored in the way that Benson sings the song; her restraint captures that tension between the life she knows and the life she longs for. There is a desperation in the breathy whispers which build into these big musical moments.

By contrast, Halle Bailey’s interpretation feels a lot bigger, something that is a repeated theme in the live-action remakes. Her soulful voice adds in runs and vocal ad-libs that are more complex, and the whole thing does feel more dramatic and performative rather than the original feel of the conversation. However, both versions capture desperation – in Bailey’s mainly, there is an undercurrent of frustration and almost a bubbling anger that explodes in her song. With previous Disney Princesses such as Snow White and Cinderella, there is a passivity in how they are presented. Snow White sings of waiting for her prince to come; while strong in her perseverance, Cinderella is never permitted by her narrative to get angry at her situation. In contrast, Ashman’s lyrics allow Ariel to get annoyed in a way that defies the archetype of a Disney Princess. Ariel has agency that marks an evolution in Disney’s portrayal of women: she showcases a young woman who isn’t just demure and kind but is curious and rebellious and takes charge of her story to attain the desires she lays out here. 

Another thing that is present in all iterations of the song is the earnestness of Ariel. Her dreams are taken seriously by the narrative, by Ashman’s lyrics, and, therefore, by us as an audience. Given that this film was made in the late 1980s, this is actually something that follows a pattern that is seen throughout that decade. In American High School Movies of the ‘80s, particularly the films of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles), there is the sense that these stories give teenagers angst the respect it deserves. Even though for adults these emotions feel distant, artists like Hughes and Ashman treat them as the most significant things in the world because, for teenage protagonists – they are. It taps into something that, more widely, is part of the human condition: we will always yearn and long for something more than we have or are. As Sebastian, the crab, tells Ariel – “the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.” The desire to escape, regardless of our life’s circumstances, is somewhat innate in us. And it’s why, when songs like ‘Part of Your World’ come in a film, we can’t help but understand the protagonist’s desires and frustrations in equal measure. The performances aid this empathy: the large glimmering eyes of the Ariel of Glen Keane’s animation; Halle Bailey’s natural youthful curiosity and authenticity. We understand Ariel because she is us, longing for something more. But we also understand Ariel because while she begs to be part of our world, she invites us into her own. 

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Ariel, voiced by Jodi Benson and animated by Glen Keane, singing Part of Your World in The Little Mermaid (1989) (COURTESY: Disney)

‘I Wanna Be Where the People Are…’

Another thing that makes this song unique, and sets it apart from other ‘I Want’ songs in Disney features, is that a lot of what Ariel longs for is entirely mundane and ordinary to us. Unlike Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Ariel doesn’t long for “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” Instead, she wants to see people dancing, strolling along the street, and lying in the sand on a warm beach. She wants to experience regular, everyday human life, yet there is a palpable wonder in how she expresses this that makes all these things seem so much more magical. 

The concept of an ‘I Want’ song that romanticizes the every day wasn’t a new concept to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken; they’d done something very similar in Little Shop of Horrors with Audrey’s song, ‘Somewhere That’s Green.’ Ashman talked about the number as a sort of parody of the American musical: “The second number, the girl sits on the trash can and sings about what she wants… Women have been doing that in musicals for years. The difference is that our girl, Audrey, is singing about a toaster, a tract house, and a garbage disposal instead of a corner in the sky somewhere.” 

While Audrey and Ariel share very little in common, their everyday dreams are presented to us as the most beautiful thing a person could dream for, and the way they sing it, we thoroughly believe that. 

Ariel’s curiosity for the human world may well be something that has enchanted audiences for decades because it incites in us that same curiosity. When we sing along, we too, for a moment, want to experience people dancing, know why a fire burns, and spend a day in the sun. And we can, in fact, many of these things are accessible to us. The beauty of ‘Part of Your World’ is that it paints each of these experiences with a new brush, inserting freshness and romance into them. It highlights Menken and Ashman’s deft ability to bring magic into the melancholic, to make an age-old formula a brand-new idea that revolutionized a room full of young creatives in Burbank, California. 

Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid is a film and a story that has drawn people in since 1989 and will continue for years and decades. However, its emotive power wouldn’t be nearly as tangible if not for a little ‘I Want’ song called ‘Part of Your World.’ Since then, Disney animations have hinged on these moments and these songs. Try and imagine Hercules without ‘Go The Distance,’ Moana without ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ and The Princess and the Frog without ‘Almost There.’ You can’t, or at least, you’d never want to, because our connections with these protagonists are formed in the midst of songs like these. As Alan Menken said, “These movies launch off the back of these kinds of songs.” 

Little girls will find themselves in Ariel because of a song like this. As Bailey’s version reaches a whole new audience and expands our understanding of who Ariel is, what will remain is the deep understanding that comes from hearing a strong young woman singing about her desire to experience life in its fullness. I’ll forever be grateful to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for putting into words the feeling of yearning that we all experience, even if for different things. 

*All quotes from Waking Sleeping Beauty (dir. Don Hahn, 2010) and Howard (dir. Hahn, 2018) 

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