“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” – Hans Christian Andersen
The original story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen is filled with heartbreak, suffering, and an ending that is bittersweet, at best. Walt Disney Animation Studios carved their own path in Hollywood by sanitizing those fairy tales and fables for a family friendly audience in the form of feature length animated films. Disney also loves going back to the well until it runs dry. There was a period where they were churning out direct-to-video sequels to their most beloved pictures. Now, it’s all about live-action remakes.
Some have been pretty good like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and 101 Dalmatians (predating the current trend) was buoyed by the scene-stealing performance of Glenn Close as Cruella DeVil. The best of the bunch has to be David Lowery’s criminally overlooked Pete’s Dragon. The worst would be Robert Zemeckis’s Pinocchio, which will live in infamy for a scene in which the poorly CGI’d protagonist stares at a steaming turd. This new version of The Little Mermaid ranks somewhere in the middle right next to Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the daughter of Triton (Javier Bardem), the king of the seven seas. Unlike her dutiful sisters, Ariel is fascinated with the surface world in spite of her father’s vehement beliefs that humans are barbarians. She keeps a great deal of objects from the world above in her own personal grotto and only her friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) know about it. The few morsels of information Ariel gets about people comes from Scuttle (Awkwafina), a diving bird with a skewed understanding of things (dinglehopper, anyone?).
On a fateful stormy night, Ariel saves the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who nearly drowns after his ship is capsized. Having fallen in love from afar, Ariel falls under the sway of the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who also happens to be King Triton’s estranged sister. In exchange for Ariel’s voice, Ursula transforms the princess into a human who must receive true love’s kiss in order to make the change permanent.
The original animated film ran a scant 83 minutes, but the live-action remake comes in at a bloated 2 hours and 15 minutes. Ariel doesn’t even meet Ursula until about an hour into the movie. The new vision from director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (who previously worked together on Mary Poppins Returns) adds more backstory to the Prince and his island home. Here, Eric is an orphan who was adopted by Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) and her late-husband after his family was killed in a shipwreck. Much like Triton, the Queen is overprotective of her boy and eventually forbids him from even leaving the castle.
While Ariel’s stay on land adds some nice Caribbean flavor to the movie, Eric still comes off as thoroughly bland, despite the best efforts of Hauer-King. Eric even gets his own song in “Wild Uncharted Waters,” penned by returning composer Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, replacing the late Howard Ashman as lyricist. It’s a forgettable tune that received no reaction from the audience at my screening, which was primarily families, who cheered loudly for the old standbys, “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea.” Out of all the newly composed songs, the only memorable one is the Scuttle/Sebastian duet “The Scuttlebutt,” featuring rapid-fire rap lyrics with Miranda’s fingerprints all over them.
Halle Bailey asserts herself admirably in the role of Ariel. She’s especially charming in the scenes in which she’s unable to speak, using only her expressive face and body language. To no surprise, she can also belt a tune on the original songs as well as a new tune, “For the First Time,” about her experiences on land. Melissa McCarthy slips right into the role of the seductive villainess, Ursula, though the character is woefully underutilized. It’s a shame she spends most of her screentime with her CGI tentacles and pet eels.
The CGI itself is fine, just don’t expect Jacques Cousteau. The oceanic life of the mer-people consists of either dark and murky or bright and colorful ala Spongebob Squarepants. The real issue with these live-action remakes comes when you attempt to recreate the cuddly animal sidekicks. As cartoon characters, they are cute and expressive. Both qualities disappear when they become photorealistic creatures. Let’s face it, fish look weird. In particular, Flounder looks creepy with his constant wall-eyed visage. Then, there’s Sebastian whose face never matches the vocal performance of Daveed Diggs since it’s just two eyeballs on stalks and a vertical slit for a mouth.
If you’re a middle-aged white guy complaining about the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, well, newsflash – this movie was not made for you. Not every piece of media was made solely to cater to you. The original Little Mermaid saved Disney’s struggling animation studio and ushered in a renaissance period that also gave us Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Don’t expect the 2023 edition to spark a new golden era. It will appeal to kids, their parents who grew up watching the original, and anyone prone to nostalgia.
Film Rating: 7/10