Disney’s remake of The Little Mermaid swims into theaters this weekend (though some early screenings start tonight). You can check out our review of the new film, of course. But the remake made me think about Disney’s original 1989 classic. And you know what? The original Little Mermaid strikes me—intentionally or no—as surprisingly spiritual.
It’s not an allegory, of course: You’re not going to see an Aslan-like character swimming through the story’s seven seas, or a Pilgrim’s Progress journey from point Alpha to point Omega. But do we find some Christian elements in the story? You bet we do. Are there some problems? Of course. But might these points, both good and bad, be worth discussing with, say, your friends? Your family? Even your kids? Well, I’ll leave that up to you. But let me tell you a few things that I noticed in the original (many of which show up in the new version, too).
Oh, and if you A) haven’t seen the original movie, B) want to, and C) don’t want any spoilers, I’d skip on down to another blog right about now, because I want to talk about this film right up ‘til its end.
And we might as well begin with the little mermaid herself.
Ariel seems like she has a pretty cushy life. She’s the daughter of a king, after all. And the kingdom she lives in seems pretty idyllic. You don’t see any rundown tenements in King Triton’s realm, no farms or factories. In fact, in the song “Under the Sea,” Sebastian the Crab points out just how good they have it down below.
Up on the shore they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away
We, we devotin’
Full time to floatin’
Under the sea.
It sounds a little like … Eden, doesn’t it? And like Eden, it seems like most everyone (except for the occasional shark) gets along. The cowfish and the lionfish apparently lie down with each other in Triton’s realm. It’s all very nice. You’d think Ariel would be satisfied.
But, of course, she’s not.
Despite this whole realm of wonders, the mermaid is attracted to the one place her father has forbidden her to go: topside. She’s fascinated by everything dry; and in secret, she squirrels away “treasures untold.” If you want to stretch the analogy a little farther, we might draw connections between Eden’s Tree of Knowledge and the knowledge that Ariel’s constantly trying to accumulate through those treasures. And perhaps it’s telling that a lot of the stuff she learns is … absolutely wrong. (A dinglehopper? Really?)
While Ariel’s flirtation with the surface world exasperates her father, it seems, to those of us watching, fairly innocent. But a sinister force sees in Ariel’s secret pastime an opportunity.
“I want you to keep an extra close watch on this pretty little daughter of [Triton’s],” the Sea Witch Ursula tells her pet eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. “She may be the key to Triton’s undoing.”
Poor Unfortunate Souls
Ursula is a pretty interesting character. In the new movie, we’re told that she’s Triton’s sister. But in the 1989 film, her relationship with the king is murkier. The only thing we know about her is that she used to live in the palace. She was once a member in good standing in Triton’s court, but then she was banished. Cast out, if you were, where she is “wasting away to practically nothing.”
But she still has plenty of influence in Triton’s realm, and people visit her to buy things they’d never be able to obtain otherwise: Ursula does a good business, the movie suggests, and she’ll happily trade “a little magic” for a price. But the price is steep.
There’s quite a bit of Mephistopheles in Ursula. Mephistopheles, of course, is a demon known from the Faust stories who got Dr. Faust to sign over his soul for a litany of mortal favors. And certainly that’s what Ursula does in her own watery cave. The evidence is all around her in the form of weak-eyed things (a little like bug-eyed seaweed) attached to the floor, the ceiling, the walls. These things, the film makes clear, were once mermen and mermaids, not unlike Ariel herself. But they couldn’t pay Ursula’s steep rates (as Ursula must always make sure they can’t). So now, they belong to her.
Ursula’s infernal connections are made pretty clear in her song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Because that’s the ultimate price for her favors: souls. That’s a deeply spiritual word that comes with connotations of immortality and, in Ursula’s hands, eternal damnation. Her realm indeed looks like a horrible mirror of Hades—a place without light or hope.
And Ursula, like Mephistopheles and Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and, of course, our real adversary, twists and corrupts our own wants and desires to get what she wants: souls. She’s an expert temptress and a truly ruthless salesperson. And when Ariel falls in love with the mortal Prince Eric, Ursula twists that love to get Ariel to rebel against her father.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
One more note before we move away from Ursula for a bit: She lies.
Ursula offers Ariel a pair of human legs in exchange for her voice—perhaps the most beautiful, most remarkable thing that Ariel possesses. That voice not only is the key to communication, but it’s a reflection of Ariel herself—her thoughts and feelings and who she, in fact, is. And when Ariel asks how she can cause Eric to fall in love with her without it, Ursula tells her a whopper of a lie—a lie about her real worth.
“You’ll have your looks!” Ursula tells her. “Your pretty face. And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”
These lines, and some similar lines that follow, were cut in the newest movie, presumably because they’re both sexist and suggestive. And in terms of our review, that was a bit less “problematic content” that we had to record. But losing those lines actually diminishes the spiritual impact of what Ursula’s doing—and what the culture is doing to young women (and young men, too) around the world.
Ursula encourages Ariel to look at herself superficially—as if through the lens of Instagram, if you’re looking for a contemporary parallel. How you look matters far more (Ursula says) than what you think or what you have to say, or sing. Use those filters! Silence your thoughts! You are an object, not a person!
This is the lie that Ursula tells Ariel, and Ariel finds it convincing enough to give up her voice, the beauty she holds on the inside, with a pair of physical legs. And this lie, it seems, seems to be even more relevant today than in 1989.
Now, everything we’ve talked about up to now—Eden, Ariel’s rebellion, Ursula’s infernal designs—suggests that Triton is sort of a stand-in for God. But if you’re familiar with the movie, Triton (despite his divine Michelangelo look) hardly reflects the all-good, all-loving God of Christianity.
In the movie’s context, Triton’s forbiddance of the surface world doesn’t come across as good stewardship. Instead, it seems like short-sighted prejudice. And when Triton discovers Ariel’s hidden treasures, his reaction—while similar to righteous rage we see from the Lord in the Old Testament—is without the leavening of God’s love and grace. We even see him regret his outburst. And that marks Triton as not a stand-in for the Almighty, but a very fallible father.
But when Ariel barters her soul for a pair of human legs and Triton’s made aware of it, the king does something that our own King did for us.
He sacrifices himself.
The scene in which Triton gives his own soul for that of Ariel is explicitly Christlike—as much a mirror of that universe-saving act as Aslan submitting to the White Witch’s “old magic” in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (In the new movie, this act of sacrifice—slightly shifted from the original animated version—is, I think. even more powerful.)
The story that follows this act is not (as I warned) a Christian allegory. Again, The Little Mermaid is not an allegory, and reading too much theology into the rest of the movie is a recipe for some really twisted theology.
But my admittedly cherry-picked symbolism doesn’t necessarily end with Triton’s sacrifice.
Ursula, in dispatching Triton, feels as though she’s claimed final victory. She turns the sea (which, metaphorically, has often been represented in Christianity as a place of chaos and danger) into a churning, raging, destructive miasma (a place without form and void), with her and her claw-like crown rising from the waters like a leviathan.
But what is Ursula’s undoing? A ship, broken and risen from the ocean bottom.
In Christian symbology, ships have often been used as symbols of the Church: vessels that protect us from the churning waters of sin and destruction, and vehicles that ultimately take us to safe harbor.
And for me, the ship we see rise at the end of 1989’s The Little Mermaid takes on even more potent (and surely unintended) symbolism.
That ship, like our Church in some ways, has seen better days. Made by man, it comes with flaws and weaknesses. It’s been battered by the storms of the world. It’s been punctured by scandal, torn by division. And yet the Church—as ungainly and as imperfect as it is—can still be a place of refuge and a mighty weapon, and one that will see us Home yet.