Disney’s The Little Mermaid remake has finally hit cinemas and we can totally see what all the buzz is about. But have you ever considered why this story is just so timeless? And why The Little Mermaid’s plight, cut so deep? Well this is because the story holds the essence of one of our greatest human struggles: wanting what we can’t have. Read on to find out why this story touches us all on the deepest of levels.
A quick synopsis
Ariel is a little mermaid who lives under the sea. She is deeply curious about the ‘surface’ where humans live but her father, the sea king forbids it. Ariel goes against her father’s wishes and explores human shipwrecks and even peaks her head above water. There she sees Prince Eric, a human, who she instantly falls in love with. Now begins the battle to be with him, and desperate for her wish, Ariel lands us doing a dangerous deal with the Sea Witch where she gives up her voice in order to get three days on land with Eric. He needs to kiss her before sunset on the third day or else she loses her feet forever and belongs to the Sea Witch for eternity. There are lots of wonderful songs and magnificent vistas as we follow the mermaid in pursuit of her prince. The movie is incredibly entertaining, true to the original cartoon, but remade with wonderful songs, live actors and breathtaking cinematography.
So what does it all mean and how can we get to understand Ariel’s dilemma on an even deeper level?
The scene is set: Up above and down below. The movie opens with a ship sailing merrily on the ocean and we see Prince Eric and the sailors taming the ship atop the choppy waters. The sailors warn Eric about the dangers of the mer-people below the ocean. The camera then pans down and we are then taken below to the ocean floor, where we first meet Ariel and all her friends under the sea. Ariel is also exploring, but far deeper. Here the scene is set to help the audience start to think about what is ‘above’ and what is ‘below’. In another way, the story is also starting to help us think about what we have up in the surface of our minds, and what we also have lurking deep down inside our minds, in hard-to-reach, mythical places. Both Ariel and Eric are explorers and throughout the story, there is a great debate about whether or not it is ok to be curious or not. Are we allowed to know things about ourselves, or is this very dangerous? This is a core human struggle. While we battle with this in concrete ways, deep down we are also wondering if we are allowed to be curious about our own wishes and desires, buried deep inside our minds.
So what is so scary about what we really want?
Ariel falls in love with Eric, but Eric is a human and this type of contact is forbidden by her father. Much of the movie follows the twists and turns of this excruciating debate between father and daughter about who she is and isn’t allowed to love. Ariel goes to great lengths to convince her father that it’s ok to be with Eric and even goes behind his back to make a deal with the devil. Now what if I told you that Ariel is actually struggling with something very common to us all: That at the heart of it, Ariel is simply battling with a very old and common struggle that all little kids battle with wanting what they can’t have. At one point we were little and our parents were big. This didn’t feel fair – our parents had all the fun. They could stay up as late as they wanted, they could buy whatever they felt like and they left us out of grown-up fun too many times to count. At one point in our little lives, we all wanted to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than our parents but simply weren’t able to be. Worst of all (at some stage) we also wanted mommy or daddy all to ourselves, but couldn’t. We all battled with this when we were very tiny, and in some or another way had to make sense of it at the time. Some of us still battle with it and it rears its head in surprising ways like when we can’t get the job we worked so hard for, or when that expensive holiday is just out of reach and we have to settle on something more low-key. We feel that disappointment as if it were the hardest thing we’ve ever had to give up. Every day we come into contact with our own limitations and the early frustrations of wanting more but hearing a strong “No” from somewhere invisible. These “No’s” are the quiet echoes of what Sigmund Freud described as the Oedipal Struggle. It’s been popularised as the Greek story of the boy who wanted to get rid of daddy to have mommy all to himself. But what’s really important is the essence of this story which is how painful it is to feel small, powerless and desperately want what isn’t ours for the taking. Ariel as a character embodies this dilemma.
But Ariel gets what she wants in the end?
True to Brand, Disney movies are always filled with wishes that come true and in the end, Ariel manages to become a human and win over Prince Eric. The struggle inherent in this story is negotiating between what we really and truly can’t have, like for example when we’ve lost a loved one and can never ever get them back. Versus something more ordinary, like whether are we allowed to achieve a challenging goal like making the A team or starting a business. When is it that something is hard in an ordinary way, and we just have to persevere, challenge society and ourselves and then overcome our obstacles in order to achieve it? And when is it that we have to grapple with our own ordinariness and mourn what isn’t possible, and never will be? This is probably Ariel’s dilemma too, and the fact that in the end, it’s a little blurry shows just how hard it is to know the difference between these things in real life, and in real time. The best thing about fairytales is they allow us to marinate in these complex issues, without being too confrontational. This is why I reckon it’s ok for Ariel to have her prince and for all of us to leave the movie feeling uplifted, relieved and satisfied.
The bottom line
Throughout the story, there are nods to the human struggle of wanting what we can’t have and taking it anyway. This is seen throughout the story between father and daughter, human and mermaid and even touched on in the colonial encounters of a British Prince Eric ruling over a foreign land. But this is the beauty of a well-told story. Even though it is based on fantasy, it can also touch on something very deep and alive inside us all: a twisty tale with a wishful ending. Allowing young and old, to really grapple with something complex, but in a non-confrontational, useful and entertaining way.