Theme: Sacrificial Love
Beginning in 1994, Walt Disney Pictures began producing live-action remakes of their vast library of animated films. The incredible advancements in CGI technology made it possible for the Disney “Imagineers” to bring to life the “real” world of such characters as Cinderella, Aladdin, Belle, and Mulan. It was just a matter of time before Disney’s 1989 smash hit, The Little Mermaid, would be remade into a live-action movie.
The reins for the project were handed to Rob Marshall to direct and David Magee to write the new screenplay. Due to the extended length of this latest version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, some significant changes were made. Marshall cast a very talented young African American singer/actress, Halle Bailey, in the part of Ariel, surprising many1. The role of Prince Eric was enlarged by Magee, giving him more depth of character and a solo with one of the new musical numbers which were added to the original Disney score. Perhaps the greatest change from the 1989 film is the profundity of the story, making this Little Mermaid more myth than fairytale2. It does not begin with “Once Upon a Time”, rather it begins with suffering.
The movie starts with dark waters, waves crashing and a quote from Andersen’s tale . . ..
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers much more.”
This opening is followed by the title, The Little Mermaid, and sets the tone for the story which follows. There is a darkness brooding over creation; and while under the sea and up on the land may appear bright and light, there is some element of chaos churning under and over it all.
As the story unfolds it is evident there is a “backstory” shrouded in mystery. The little mermaid’s mother was sadly killed by a human; the why and how of the death is untold. Just where Prince Eric came from is also unexplained. He arrives on the Caribbean Island much like Moses arrived in Pharaoh’s home, washing up out of the sea and then being adopted by the Queen. What is made perfectly clear is both Ariel and Eric have a longing related to this mysterious past which calls to them from the other’s world. Both have dark cave-like personal quarters filled with objects which fascinate them about the part of creation that is forbidden. Each “cave” had a light above calling them up and out to a world they long to explore. Their musical soliloquies, Part of Your World and Wild Uncharted Waters, express this calling and desire.
What prevents them from going is fear of the other and laws laid down. This is a fallen world where two parts of one good creation which were originally intended for each other have been torn apart and now exist in a state of war. The undersea world is ruled by Ariel’s father, King Triton, who having had his wife killed by a human has forbidden any connection or contact with the world above. Queen Selina’s view of the ocean is as dim and forbidding as Triton’s of land. She claims the sea creatures are eroding the very land underneath her island stealing the kingdom. She wants her son confined to land and after his shipwreck to the castle. For both Ariel and Eric, their worlds of privilege as heirs to royalty have become prisons from which they long to escape.
Breaking The Law
When Ariel goes to the surface, she not only crosses a threshold she transgresses her father’s rule. Her anger, curiosity, and sight of fireworks above all conspire to allure her into making the breach. Once above, the presence of a ship with music draws her further into the other world. From there all it takes is one glimpse of Prince Eric being celebrated by the crew on his birthday to capture her heart.
The sea witch Ursula has had her eyes on Triton’s daughters, especially the youngest, Ariel. Now Ursula has the opening she has been looking for. Ariel’s disobedience, breaking her father’s law, meant for her protection, leaves her vulnerable to witchcraft which Ursula is a master of. Making Ariel an offer to become a human herself, she tricks the young mermaid into a blood contract in which Ariel sacrifices one of her scales and her voice, binding herself to the sea witch. The moment she makes this deal with darkness she becomes ensnared; thus, the image of her being hoisted out of the sea naked tangled in a fishnet speaks volumes.
As for Prince Eric, later in the movie he becomes a lawbreaker when he violates his mother Queen Selina’s orders to not leave the castle. His confinement, meant to protect him until he recovers from the shipwreck, is broken when he takes Ariel out for a day in the countryside. While it may appear innocent, this disobedience also opens him up to Ursula’s enchantment and he too becomes bewitched.
What power is greater than Ursula’s evil power? What will it take to set the captives free?
When Ariel fails to get “love’s first kiss” by sunset of the third day, she loses her human legs and becomes a mermaid again, one who now belongs to Ursula. Snatching her from the castle’s terrace, the sea witch drags Ariel under the sea to be confronted by King Triton. Ariel confesses to her father, “It is my fault”, as Ursula informs him of their deal made with blood. Knowing the daughter of the Sea King is a precious commodity she asks the cardinal question, “What is she worth to you”?
His answer is one of action not words. He hands Ursula his trident, and in so doing he surrenders his power, his kingdom, and his life. With his arms outstretched in a cruciform shape, he is grotesquely tortured and turned to dust by Ursula’s eels. Thus, the answer to her question is obvious.…everything.
Having discovered the truth of who Ariel is, Eric risks his life and dives into the sea trying to save her. In the melee which follows, Ursula’s eels are killed and she grows to monstrous size whipping up a storm which fortuitously raises a wrecked ship from the sea’s bottom. One change from the 1989 movie is to have Ariel rather than Eric steer the ship which fatally wounds Ursula. However, Ariel only knows how to do this because she watched Eric fight the first storm by taking the wheel; she is re-imaging his actions.
With the power of evil and chaos destroyed by sacrificial love, the whole creation is set free from its bondage to sin and death. The first sign of the new creation to come is the resurrection of the King from the dead.
After Eric is restored to his mother and Ariel to King Triton, there is only one more sacrifice to make in order to bring land and sea together. The loving father gives his beloved daughter her greatest desire, a new body well suited to life in a world with her Prince.
As they set off together for uncharted waters, the people from both kingdoms come to give them a proper send-off. Their marriage marks a new beginning and a new creation; Land and Sea are forever united together, under one Sun.
1. Ariel means “Lion of God” and is a Biblical nickname for Jerusalem (Isaiah 29:1)
2 “Myths are folkloric stories with a religious basis. There may be some fantastic creatures or deities within the stories, but there is a belief system built around them and they are used to explain the natural world”. So What’s The Difference Between A Myth, A Fairytale, and A Legend by Caitlan Hobbs bookriot.com