Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Contract Law and Disney's "The Little Mermaid"

I recently had the opportunity of watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” after having not seen it for years. Although it was still a touching coming-of-age story with a great soundtrack and a host of memorable supporting characters, I noticed that there were some glaring plot holes that anyone with a contract law background would have noticed.

For those who have yet to see the movie, I will give you a brief synopsis. King Triton is King of the Sea with several daughters, the youngest of which is a precocious sixteen-year old who has a penchant for getting into difficult situations. Her name is Ariel. Her partner in crime is a flounder aptly named Flounder. After showing a complete disregard for her father’s rules (and missing her musical debut), her father assigns Sebastian, the royal composer, to keep an eye on her. Sebastian ends up being completely hopeless at the task and before long Ariel is back at the surface where she becomes enamored with a human prince named Eric.

Her father discovers her infatuation with the human prince and his daughter’s love for ‘surface’ things and in his anger destroys her collection of artifacts from dry land. Not surprisingly, this act, rather than endearing her to her father, drives her to seek help from Ursula, the Sea Witch. While there she signs a contract trading her voice for her legs. To make the trade permanent, Ariel has to have Eric fall in love with her and give her the “kiss of true love.” If she fails to do so, she will belong to Ursula. And thus begins a legal plot hole so large you could drive a truck through it.

Ursula and her henchmen (hench eels?) do whatever they can to stop Ariel from kissing the prince. The eels knock over a rowboat when Ariel and Eric are about to kiss and Ursula disguises her self as a princess and bewitches Eric. Right before Ariel and Eric attempt a second kiss, Ariel transforms back into a mermaid and Ursula grabs her and dives back into the ocean in a bid to take Ariel back to her lair.

En route, they meet Triton. Ursula pulls out the contract and Triton tries to destroy it with his trident. He is unable to do so and Ursula taunts him by saying that the contract is binding and legal. Triton sacrifices himself by agreeing to shoulder Ariel’s legal obligations.


First of all, Ariel is a minor and all contracts, as I’m sure that several video rental stores have eventually found out to their chagrin, signed by minors are voidable. All Ariel had to do was repudiate the contract. There is no way that Ursula could have enforced that contract. On turning eighteen, I’m sure that Ariel could have ratified the contract and been liable under it, but there is nothing in the movie to indicate that in the three days from when she signed the contract to when its legality was challenged that she turned eighteen. Part of the reason that contracts with minors are voidable is because teenagers make foolish decisions like Ariel did and sign away their freedom in the proverbial deal with the devil.

Second, Ursula had a duty of good faith and fair dealing, something that is implicit in every contract. Even an evil villain is not exempt from it. Ursula had an obligation to allow Ariel to act unimpeded in her quest to win over Prince Eric. Ursula failed to do this because she and her agents set up obstacles precluding Ariel from fulfilling the terms of the contract. It was her eels that tipped over the row boat right before Eric and Ariel were about to kiss. And Ursula herself bewitched the Prince to stop Ariel from kissing him. I’m just surprised that she took off after Eric and Ursula instead of looking for a competent legal adviser to help her examine her legal options at that point. The movie wouldn’t have been quite as endearing, but it would have a lot more education to the vast hordes of American children who watch it. But I digress; in any case, Ariel would have been released from fulfilling her obligations because Ursula significantly breached her duty of good faith under the contract. Furthermore, even if Ariel was in breach of her contract, Ursula would not have been able to get specific performance of her contract. It is a legal maxim that he who seeks equity must seek to do equity. Ursula had unclean hands and therefore she would have only been entitled to monetary damages.

Lastly, as King of the Sea, Triton could have declared the contract void ab initio because it was contrary to public policy. In the same way that courts hesitate to enforce contracts between criminals, Triton could have decided that it was bad public policy to allow penalty clauses in contracts that require the defaulting party to be turned into a diminutive sea creature and become a possession. I certainly can’t see any value in allowing such provisions to be enforceable, but then again, I’m not a merperson, and I don’t necessary understand the Law of the Sea.