As the father of two daughters under age 7, I watch a lot of Disney movies. As great as these movies are, they are not without their flaws. (Don’t get me started on how we are asked in Sleeping Beauty to believe that Aurora’s fairy godmothers have raised her alone in the woods for 15.997 years – clothed and fed – without learning to bake a cake or sew.) But this post is devoted to exploring legal flaws in movies and television shows. In that regard, as much as I love the movie, I have always been troubled by something in The Little Mermaid.
In the movie, Ariel, a mermaid, enters into a contract with Ursula, the sea witch, to give up her voice in exchange for a chance to live on land for three days in the hopes of making her true love, Prince Eric, fall in love with her. Under the contract, if Ariel fails to land a “True Love’s Kiss,” she will turn back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula forever. Long story short, Ariel fails due to Ursula’s machinations, Ursula enforces her contract (which is accepted in the film as impenetrable), but Ariel still gets her fairytale ending.
My issues involve the supposedly “binding” contract. While I’m no expert on mer-law, here on dry land, that contract does not hold water. First of all, Ariel was 16 years old when she agreed to be bound. As a minor, she was not capable of contracting under California law. Cal. Family Code § 6500; Cal. Civ. Code § 1556. While she could enter into the agreement, she could disaffirm it at any time before majority or within a reasonable time thereafter. Cal. Family Code §§ 6701, 6710. And, as much as Ariel thought she needed Prince Eric, he was not “necessary” as contemplated by section 6712 of the California Family Code, which codifies the primary exception to the rule that minors may disaffirm contracts entered into during minority.
Second, in order to prevent Ariel from succeeding, Ursula sabotages Ariel’s attempts to win Eric’s love, thereby frustrating the purpose of the contract and/or providing Ariel with a gift-wrapped fraud defense. Once she realizes that Ariel seems poised to win Eric’s love, Ursula first dispatches her agents, sea eels Flotsam and Jetsam, to tip over a boat to prevent Eric from delivering a “True Love’s Kiss.” Later, Ursula uses Ariel’s voice, takes the form of an attractive woman named “Vanessa,” and casts a spell on Eric making him fall in love with Vanessa instead of Ariel. Ursula obviously never intended to honor her bargain with Ariel.
Ursula’s deceptive acts make her a fantastic antagonist. What chance could Ariel have of winning Eric’s love in the face of a devious villain who refuses to play fair? About the same chance of her contract with Ursula being enforced.