The Little Mermaid and The Wonderful Exchange
A Terrible Message
I took my daughter to see her first ever movie the other day – a screening of the Disney Classic, The Little Mermaid. The songs were lots of fun, the slapstick was silly and the animation was beautiful, just as I remembered back when I last saw it at the cinemas 28 years ago. But the message! Oh boy!
The message of the film to a young girl is absolutely terrible. Ariel is a rebellious, selfish and disobedient teenager who falls for a guy after just seeing his body and then sells a part of her body (her voice) in order to try to use the rest of her body to get the guy to kiss her so she can completely abandon her family forever. In the end, she gets everything she wants with absolutely no consequences for her foolish behavior. She learns nothing. She doesn’t change. She has absolutely no character arch.
The worst line in the whole film comes when Sabastian the crab, who has been charged with protecting Ariel, offers to help her get her voice back and reverse the deal Ariel has made with the Sea Witch. He looks into her immature, tear-filled, 16-year-old eyes, and says to her that if he helped her get out of her deal with the devil then she would “just be miserable for the rest of her life”. Come on! She’s 16! She’ll get over it! And what a way to re-enforce to a girl that her happiness “for the rest of her life” is wrapped up in whether she can be with a guy! When that line happened, my wife and I shook our heads and laughed at how terrible it was.
Now some may say that we shouldn’t have taken our young daughter to see such a film, but hey, we are raising her to critique these sort of messages and every day we pour into her the message that her worth, value and true happiness is found in the God who loves her and made her in His image. I’m not too worried that one movie will counteract all that.
Also (and here’s the real point of this article), there’s another interesting story thread in the movie that I can point out to her. It follows another flawed character who makes mistakes, but unlike Ariel, this character learns a lesson and actually changes. This is the story of King Triton, Ariel’s father.
A Flawed King
King Triton is not a very good king. He rules with an iron fist and when his daughter Ariel disobeys him, he responds with a violent rage that is just as immature as his daughter’s actions. But the one good thing about King Triton is he sees his folly and learns his lesson. Once he discovers that his anger has driven away his daughter, he cries out “Oh, what have I done? What have I done?”
Not only does he learn about parenting, but as I’ll explain, I saw in his story some wonderful parallels to the story of the gospel.
The Gospel According to The Little Mermaid
The first part of seeing the gospel themes in The Little Mermaid is to stop thinking of Ariel as the hero of the story who we should try to emulate. Rather, think of Ariel as a representative of humanity. Like Adam & Eve, she lives as a royal child under the rule of the king and yet she yearns for freedom. As she puts it, “Wouldn’t you think I’m a girl. a girl who has everything”, and yet she sings “I want more!” She is naturally interested in and curious about the human world, which is a good thing, but her stubbornness and arrogance leads her to disobey her father and ignore his warnings not to go to the ocean’s surface.
It is there she sees an attractive human and her immature superficiality leads her to immediately falls in love. All her healthy and natural desire for knowledge about humanity gets replaced with an intense focus on this one human. Like Eve with the apple, the Prince was “pleasing to the eye” (Genesis 3:6) and now she was willing to reject life with her father and his kingdom in order to get what she wanted.
She goes to see Ursula, the Sea Witch, an evil character who Sebastian calls a “demon”. The parallels between Ursula and Satan are interesting. Both used to live with the King but at some point in the past both were “banished and exiled” from the kingdom. The scene between Ariel and Ursula plays out just like Genesis 3:1-7. Like Satan in the garden tempting Eve, Ursula tempts Ariel with false promises of having all her desires fulfilled. Eve bites the apple, Ariel signs the contract, and both are left naked.
The difference between Eve and Ariel is that Ariel has no shame for signing over her life to the Sea Witch. In fact, she really never feels any shame about it. It’s only when it all doesn’t work out and she’s trapped by Ursula’s contact against her that she finally says, “Daddy, sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Yeah right. Of course she meant to. That’s regret she’s feeling, not genuine repentance. Eve on the other hand (and her hubby Adam), get to that emotion much quicker. But either way, for both Eve and Ariel, it is when the King arrives that they realise their foolishness and the fact that they are completely helpless.
They both are left guilty standing before the King with a document that condemns them. A document that, as Ursula declares, is “legal, binding and completely unbreakable.” For Ariel, it is the contract that she made with Ursula. For Eve (and for all humanity), it is the record of our sin as referred to in Revelation 20:12. It’s what Paul describes in Colossians 2:14 as “the charge of our legal indebtedness”. We stand before our King, with no hope, with no appeal, with no chance of saving ourselves. Ariel is not a model for little girls to follow. She is a mirror for the human race.
The Wonderful Exchange
So, if we have no hope of saving ourselves, how then can we be saved? Well, again, The Little Mermaid tells us.
With Ariel trapped and about to sent to Ursula’s “garden”, the Sea Witch says, “The daughter of the great sea king is a very precious commodity. But I might be willing to make an exchange for someone even better.” And with that, King Triton puts his name on the contract in Ariel’s place. And with that, King Triton gives up his glory and his power and substitute’s himself for Ariel. And with that, King Triton, although innocent, bears the consequences for Ariel’s guilt.
What a perfect image of the gospel.
As the bible says, Jesus – though he was equal to God – relinquished his heavenly place to take our place on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). He bore our sin and took the punishment that we deserved (1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
This is what theologians call “substitutionary atonement”. Or to use less academic language, it’s what the Reformer Martin Luther called a “wonderful exchange”:
“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it. And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them.” – Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.
And then, at the end of the story, after King Triton’s “resurrection” and the defeat of the evil Ursula, the King looks upon Ariel with mercy and kindness. Although she in no way deserves it, the King uses his power to restore her to her beloved Prince. And so, Ariel has gone through the entire story of the Bible from start to finish. She rejects the King, sins in rebellion, is trapped by her sin, needs a Saviour, is rescued from condemnation by the King taking her place, and then, just like the Bible, the story ends with a beautiful wedding and they all live happily ever after.
Maybe Not So Terrible a Message After All
In the end, I still think The Little Mermaid has a lot of problems with it. But in a weird way, I sort of do want my daughter to be like Ariel.
Not in Ariel’s stupidity, superficiality and sin. I do hope I raise her to be smarter than that.
But like Ariel did (and like I and my wife have), I want my daughter to experience the undeserved kindness of the King. In the gospel of Jesus, I want her to know the joy of the freedom, salvation and amazing grace bought by his wonderful exchange.