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Monday, October 7, 2013

Contracts and "The Little Mermaid"

One of my students, Maison Haines (pictured) gave herself a practice exam by writing up a summary of the contracts issues in Disney's film, The Little Mermaid.  Indeed, there is much of value to be learned from the exercise, some of which relates to defenses and so was beyond Maison's contracts education at this point.  Still, I have used her essay as a point of departure for this post.  

Maison summarizes the plot as follows:

    Ariel, a hopeless romantic mermaid, defies her father by constantly going to the . She dreams of living on land and how wonderful it would be. . . . One night, she notices bright lights in the sky, so she once again wanders to the surface to investigate. She swims upon a ship with none other than Prince Eric aboard it. She notices the dapper prince right away because he is handsome and is playing the snarfflak [flute]. She falls in love immediately. . . .  Meanwhile, the wicked witch Ursula is keeping a close eye on King Triton’s youngest daughter. Ursula is looking to get revenge on King Triton, and what better way than through his curious, love-struck daughter. Ursula proposes an offer to Ariel, which is really where our story begins.

    The wicked witch offers to turn Ariel into a human for three days. Ursula tells Ariel about how she can be with her prince, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Ursula tells Ariel she can remain a human forever if she makes Eric fall in love with her. He has to prove his true love for her by kissing her before “the sun sets on the third day.” The only thing Ursula wants in payment is Ariel’s voice. . . . Next, Ariel signs on the dotted line, loses her voice to the sea witch, and makes her way to the surface of the water where she will live for the next three days.

Now, as it turns out, our blog is not the first blawg to consider the contractual issues in Disney's The Little Princess.  Findlaw's Legal Grounds blog posted on the subject back in August and The Utter Meaninglessness of Everything (Meaninglessness) blog did so back in 2008.  There is considerable overlap among the posts.

All noticed, for example that Ariel's contract with Ursula should have been voidable, because Ariel was an infant (under 18) when she signed it.  Maison expressed outrage that the whole plot of the movie is now implausible to her because the infancy doctrine precludes most of it.  Never fear!  We don't actually know whether the infancy rule applies under the sea.  

In addition, Ariel also has a strong argument that Ursula did not act in good faith.  She interfers in various ways with Ariel's attempts to get Eric to kiss her, sending her eels to interrupt a kiss and ultimately seducing Eric herself with the help of Ariel's purloined voice and a bit of magic.  Once again thought,  it may be asking a bit too much to apply these concepts to the watery realms inhabited by the parties to this agreement.  After all, can one really make a straight-faced claim that Ursula the Sea Witch did not perform her contract in good faith?  She's a sea witch.  If you want a fair deal, try Glinda. 

Legal Grounds thinks the contract may be void for vagueness, as the key term "true love's kiss" is unclear.  I'm not sure I buy that one, as the parties do not seem to be in any doubt.  It's a Disney movie, after all, so the ingredients for true love's kiss are: prince, two-legs, pulse (functioning neurons optional).  

Little MermaidMeaninglesness suggests that Ariel's father, King Triton, could have declared the contract void as contrary to public policy, which seems about right, except that I'm not entirely comfortable with empowering the executive with authority to avoid commercial contracts involving family members.  I think, under the sea, an Article Trident judge ought to make that call.

But getting back to Maison's take on all this, she points out that, after Triton's failed attempt to avoid the contract by blowing it up with his Trident, the contract was effectively modified.  Triton offers himself up in Ariel's place in Ursula's collection of unfortunate souls.  His agreement with Ursula is made in consideration of Ursula's promise to free Ariel.  But Ursula is now no mere sea witch, she is the ruler of the seas, and things don't look so great for Ariel and Eric.  Fortunately, the happy couple is able to impale Ursula, disembowel her and then ride the stream of entrails into calmer and more familiar seas.  Or that's how I remember it.  I haven't watched the movie in a while.

The Hans Christian Anderson story on which the movie is based is similar but much, much stranger.  In Anderson's version (memorialized in the statute above right), the sea witch is even more grotesque than in the movie, and here is what she offers the little mermaid:

 I will mix you a potion. Drink it tomorrow morning before the sun rises, while you are sitting on the beach. Your tail will divide and shrink, until it becomes what human beings call 'pretty legs.' It will hurt; it will feel as if a sword were going through your body. All who see you will say that you are the most beautiful human child they have ever seen. You will walk more gracefully than any dancer; but every time your foot touches the ground it will feel as though you were walking on knives so sharp that your blood must flow. If you are willing to suffer all this, then I can help you.

Some deal!  The little mermaid takes the deal because she is after an immortal soul.  If she fails to make the prince so love her "that he forgets both his father and mother, because his every thought concerns only you, and he orders the priest to take his right hand and place it in yours, so that you become man and wife" (less ambiguity about the promise here!), she will immediately become foam on the ocean.

In Anderson's version, the little mermaid fails to fulfill her end of the bargain, as the prince falls in love with a beautiful princess.  This time, it is the little mermaid's sisters (rather than her father) who offer up a modification of the contract with the sea witch.  They trade their hair for a knife that the little mermaid is to use to kill the prince, but  . . . ah, I don't want to spoil the ending for you.

[JT]

 

 

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Comments

Good food for thought here. With 3 daughters, I can’t believe I have not come back to this one previously looking for good material.

Your comment about the perils of dealing with a sea witch reminded me of another classic clip that illustrates that same premise—an SNL send-up of The People’s Court from the 1980s (which sadly I could not find on YouTube or Hulu to link here). Rosanna Arquette appeared as the plaintiff, Vonda Braithwaite, who had brought suit against The Devil (famously played by Jon Lovitz, of course). She had sold her immortal soul to the Prince of Darkness in exchange for his promise to make her a successful hairstylist, but since her business had tanked, she wanted out of the contract. As the Devil explained it, he thought he had kept his end of the deal: “Her coifs were magical... Once you had one, you never needed another.” Judge Wapner (the late Phil Hartman), of course, had no trouble connecting the dots: “So, there was no repeat business...” Mephistopheles then wryly replies, “Well, yes, that part was a bit of a trick. I do that sort of thing. I’m the Devil.” Raises some interesting questions about the reasonableness of an objective person’s belief that he or she, unlike any other protagonist memorialized in art, literature, or drama, would get a fair deal from Satan.

Hmmm, that makes me wonder if there might ever be any corporal beings, or perhaps corporations, to which an analogy might not be too much of a stretch??? :-)

Posted by: Chris Osborn | Oct 8, 2013 8:03:52 AM

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