The Little Mermaid isn’t exactly one of my favorite movies. It has great music, but the story and characters are really lacking in a lot of places. It was only during a recent rewatch of the movie that I realized that the magic in the movie is really unclear and ultimately ends up making the whole movie confusing.
When our movie begins, the first thing we see is a ship carrying Prince Eric and a large group of sailors. One of the sailors tells Eric about mermaids and says that King Triton must be in a good mood, since they have good weather. Eric asks who Triton is and the sailor explains that he is king of the merpeople. This largely expositional scene sets the audience up for when we, not long after, are actually introduced to Triton and the merpeople. But it also points to the particular powers of Triton. The sailors, at least, believe that Triton controls the weather. But we only actually see Triton control the weather once, when he makes a rainbow at Ariel’s wedding. Other than this moment, we never see him actively control the weather. Since we don’t, we’re left to wonder if Triton is controlling the weather during the whole movie or if it’s just that he can control the weather but usually doesn’t. Did Triton make the storm that ultimately caused Eric and Ariel to meet? Or was that random? We never understand what the full extent of his powers are. It’s also unclear if Triton even has any natural powers or if his powers all come from his trident.
The merpeople do not seem to be magical themselves—simply another species. Only Ursula and Triton use magic throughout the movie. And while Ursula uses magical contracts, various ingredients for potions, the magic Nautilus shell (her cauldron), her shell necklace, and even seems to have some of her own natural magic, we rarely see Triton not using his trident. He creates some sparks when he comes in for the concert, he uses it to destroy Ariel’s collection of human items, and later uses it to make Ariel human and give her a fancy dress. Unlike Ursula, Triton never uses magic without his trident. How Triton’s powers work becomes even more confusing when Ursula steals his powers.
Ursula uses Ariel’s contract with her as a way to blackmail Triton into trading his life for Ariel’s. Ursula is then able to use his trident and rule the oceans. She uses the trident to create a violent storm and to grow herself into a giant. Is this a combination of her powers working with the trident, or does it all come from the trident, or does it come simply from being the new ruler of the seas? We don’t know.
Ursula’s whole plan in the movie is to steal Triton’s powers and become the new ruler of the seas, but the stakes are never really set, because we are unclear what kind of magic or powers Ursula is attempting to steal. We know she wants to take Triton’s throne, but she also wants his powers and nothing about what that would entail is really made clear. The actual conflict of the movie is really about this relationship between Ursula and Triton, but the movie decides to ignore this in order to give us a love story between Ariel and Eric. Because of that, we lose the real conflict of the movie and those elements, including the magical ones, seem to have just been dropped.
At the beginning of the movie, when we first meet Ursula, she narrates what she is thinking and tells us that she used to live in the palace and have lavish parties, but that was stolen from her. We never hear anything else about this later on. What happened? Why was Ursula in the palace? Was she a mermaid? Why is she an octopus person then? What happened that got her kicked out of the palace and essentially thrown into exile? This is a huge plot point that we never learn about. As a kid, I was always told witches are evil, and I remember assuming that Ursula was kicked out because she was a witch, but Triton uses magic too. Is there a difference between their magic? Does he use good magic and hers is bad? What is going on here?
Apparently there is a lot more going on here than we are allowed to see. In The Little Mermaid musical, Ursula is King Triton’s sister. This was the original plan for Ursula’s character, but for whatever reason this character background was dropped from the movie. According to the Wikipedia article on Ursula:
When Ursula and Triton’s father died, the pair were given equal share of the sea plus two magical items. Triton received the trident while Ursula received the magic Nautilus shell. Though the two were to rule the seas together, Ursula’s greed and use of dark magic to usurp Triton led to her being banished. The desire for revenge and power is her motivation for the show.
Why was this not in the movie!? This doesn’t explain much about what either of Ursula’s or Triton’s magical items were other than that they were inherited, but it does explain why Triton seems to only use his trident to perform magic, and it explains that Ursula was using the magic Nautilus shell and dark magic. While this doesn’t explain all of the inconsistency with the magic and the plot in the movie, it does explain at least half of it.
When you have magic intimately connected into the world and the plot of the story, you can’t afford to not explain it. The Little Mermaid may have good music and a love story, but the real story was actually happening between a magic-using brother and sister. And because this conflict was ignored, we ended up with a subpar story with confusingly vague magic and character arcs.