I should be more familiar with the plot intricacies of “The Little Mermaid.”
Ariel is my eldest daughter’s favorite Disney princess. The songs, the swag, the stuff — we have it all, everywhere.
But as it turns out, I’ve not actually seen the whole film in a very long time. So, when we sat down in the theater to watch the new live-action version, I was surprised.
Not by the songs, of course; I did grow up in the 90s. Not by the exchange of Ariel’s voice for a shot at “true love.” We’ve cautioned our daughters more times than I can count why that’s not a great deal.
I had the general outline of the plot down. You probably remember it, too. But the story — this time, it just struck me differently.
Here’s a recap: The movie is about a young mermaid who, infatuated with the human world, finds herself madly in love with the first half-decent human she happens to find. Desperate to break free of the life she currently has, she makes an ill-begotten bargain with a sea witch and gets her shot to win both a prince and a different life, albeit without the use of her voice. Shenanigans ensue, and because this is the Disney telling, everyone more or less winds up happily ever after.
But watching the film this time around, the story struck me less as a search for happiness and more as a cautionary tale about clinging too tightly to the illusion of happiness. To assuming happiness can only be found somewhere other than right where we are. We grow so attached to what we believe will bring us happiness that we fail to embrace the joy present here, now.
As the song says, “The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.”
Every major character in the film struggles with some attachment to the illusion of happiness, to a false belief that they aren’t enough, now.
King Triton believes happiness can only be found by keeping his daughters under his thumb. He’s clearly clinging to some past idea of happiness, unable to move forward, unable to really see the young women his daughters have grown up to be. His intransigence has the inverse effect, pushing Ariel away.
Ursula, the villain, of course clings to happiness in the form of power. She can’t be who she thinks she should be without Triton’s trident. Powerful though she clearly already is, it’s not enough.
Prince Eric — well, he actually has character development in this version! That’s how we know he thinks happiness is just one more adventure away; he wants to take to the high seas and find that-which-he-knows-not but which he assumes will bring happiness and fulfillment.
And the titular little mermaid? She’s so obsessed with everything that is not of her present reality that she sings a whole song about it. Her attachment to human things nearly gets everyone killed.
Ariel wants so badly to be part of someone else’s world. But what we so easily forget is that the world we’ve got — our own unique experiences of self and place — is where we are invited to find happiness, to become who we are meant to be.
Happiness isn’t part of someone else’s world. It’s here, now.
But we’re tempted to assume we’re not good enough as-is. We need something else: adventure, human legs, our loved ones kept where we can see them, power, revenge — whatever it may be.
How does “The Little Mermaid” end? If we’re being honest, the good guys shouldn’t have won. The final battle in the film is ridiculous. Ursula has seemingly infinite power to control the seas, but our heroes are able to commandeer a sunken ship and steer against the magic current to defeat her? She gets the equivalent of a nasty splinter, and that’s it. What is she, a vampire? I don’t buy it.
In short, our heroes’ inability to recognize and accept their inherent “enoughness” — the goodness that was already in them and the happiness it could have provided — should have gotten them all killed. I think there’s a reason the original Hans Christian Anderson version of “The Little Mermaid” ends as it does.
But Disney tells a happier story. That’s the Disney way — but I think it’s the Christian way, too. Because though our frequent inability to accept ourselves just as we are gets us into tragic trouble, our God is one who is constantly delighting in us, reminding us that we are beloved and enough.
And I think it’s that same God who reaches down into the chaotic, tumultuous waters of our lives and gives us the chance to right the ship, to point it true. It’s the same God who invites us to let go of attachments that tempt us to look to greener seaweed and instead sink into the beautiful creatures we already are — and are becoming.
Because there’s still adventure to be had. There are still people to meet and love to find. But the story changes when the adventure, the love, the relationships aren’t sought out as means to find happiness. Instead, we know we are already enough, the joy is already in us.
Now, we go to share that with others and together discover God at work.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.