Principal Cast : Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem. Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina.
Synopsis: A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
Creatively bereft of all that legendary 20th Century animator and businessman Walt Disney stood for, the global behemoth known as The Walt Disney Company will stop at nothing from strip-mining its own IP in search of a dollar, much to my chagrin at this obvious nostalgia hit in remaking a 80’s animated classic. The law of diminishing returns may have escaped The Little Mermaid’s box-office haul, but the conceptual revision of the studio’s Oscar-winning animated film from 1989 into a showcase of dreary visual effects, nonsensical musical additions and vacuous “comedy”, as Rob Marshall’s attempt to capture the same magic as before runs aground quickly, no thanks to tortured tunes by an ill-placed Lin-Manuel Miranda and some risible repurposing of beloved sidekick characters.
Beneath the surface of the Ocean, the Sea King, Neptune (Javier Barden) rules over his kingdom. His recalcitrant daughter Ariel (Halle Baily) is a young mermaid who dreams of going up to the human world, despite the protestations of the King’s valet Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs) and the erroneous information provided by seabird Scuttle (voice of Akwafina), and her eye is caught by the suddenly shipwrecked Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), whom she rescues from a watery grave. Soaking up the background is resident villainess Ursula (Melissa McCathy), a vindictive sister to Triton with designs of her own for the young mermaid and for whom no deal is too devious to stoop.
If you remove my obvious disdain for the existence of this film at all, The Little Mermaid is a tremendously expensive film in search of a purpose and reason for being. Stretching the story of the original animated film – a film, mind you, that barely ticked in at 90 minutes – into a two-and-a-half-hour half-assed showcase of gormless visual effects, Disney’s latest live-action attempt is a slavish stickler for the original animated film without understanding what made it work. Similarly to Jon Favreau’s ponderous and anti-magical attempt to “live action” The Lion King (again, it made a billion dollars….), The Little Mermaid doesn’t seem to understand what made the animated classic so beloved and that’s why this version will likely fade from the collective pop culture zeitgeist as quickly as all the other nonsense remakes the studio has embarked upon. Rob Marshall is an Oscar-winning director with legitimate pedigree, having delivered a Best Picture winner in 2002’s Chicago, one of the least-worst Pirates of the Caribbean films, and musical triumphs in Into The Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, leaving Disney understandably excited at the prospect of yet another musical venture with this story. Yet I find myself wondering exactly why a man of such visual talent would take on such a mindless photocopier role with this movie: the plot is almost a beat-for-beat, element by element retooling of the animated classic with very minimal difference other than it’s “live action” (a spurious claim indeed, given half the film is augmented by CG of questionable quality), and almost without exception there’s a singular lack of freshness to what transpires on the screen.
With Marshall aping the brilliant directorial work of John Musker and Ron Clements and almost entirely failing to bring anything new to the Disney-fied version presented herein, The Little Mermaid travels as predictably as anyone who’s seen the animated film would assume it might. Which again makes me wonder why they bothered making it in the first place? I mean, every remake or retooling of a piece of classic literary fiction, from Snow White to Peter Pan to James fucking Bond, is different from the other despite using essentially the same story, but the point of all of those is that each new filmmaker brings their own take to a property, a new viewpoint or clever twist on a well known aspect. Here, Marshall doesn’t bother with anything new other than a couple of cringeworthy new melodic additions (Lin-Manuel, you’re really wearing out your welcome my dude) and instead takes well known animated sequences and clumsily tries to transpose them onto the screen intact, and fails because it loses the one thing the animated film has in spades that this one does not. A reason for being.
The Little Mermaid is a lifeless husk of nostalgia-bait, but one that’s confused as to its intended audience. I assume the film was made to please die-hard Disney fans who grew up with the animated classic now wanting to see how clever the filmmakers are in turning Flounder, one of the original film’s more endearing characters, into an expressionless digital tropical fish incapable of any anthropomorphosis, resulting in poor Jacob Tremblay, who voices the character, absolutely incapable of giving the role any real pizazz. It’s that weird moment where the energy of the vocal performance never matches the physical (or rather CG) performance on the screen; uncanny valley is real, and it is The Little Mermaid. The world’s feistiest crab, Sebastian, finds us with Daveed Diggs doing a half-decent riff on Samuel E Wright’s Jamaican accent but without motivation for the character’s grumpiness. In the animated film, he is a musical virtuoso hoping to conduct the King’s orchestra, but here he’s just… a sulky crab who looks down upon Ariel with a level of disdain that.. doesn’t work. Huh. Why was this decision made? Was it easier for the story, or harder for the animators? And the less said about Awkwafina’s Scuttle, the better; her voice suits the dimwitted and clumsy nature of the character, I guess, but the dialogue written for her and the animation of her character – like Sebastian and Flounder before – are a jarring mismatch of creative ideas and execution.
Nearly salvaging the film on her own is Halle Bailey, who fits into the role of Ariel quite well it must be said. Although the girl can sing, the film doesn’t explore this aspect often enough or well enough for my liking – if you have a lead with such a solid singing voice you write a new song for her, right? Not Prince Eric, right? Guys? Is this thing on? Dumbass writing aside, Ariel is poorly serviced by the idiotic dialogue and terribly convoluted motivations for her actions – in the animated film we really feel her yearning to explore the surface world and finds magic and mystery in the humans she spies on Eric’s ship at the film’s opening, but in this version you don’t innately sense this dynamism. The “Part of Your World” number that Ariel delivers is played so flat, so lacking in emotion (again, not the actress’s fault as much as the directorial choices and decisions with writing) it somehow manages to make itself feel out of place within the movie. Why does Ariel yearn for surface world exploration? What is her backstory to this arc, and given how strongly she apparently feels about it you’d think the filmmakers would attempt to give us something emotional to graft our sympathies onto – instead, as if they don’t understand why the animated film works so well, they just present flip dialogue and the same musical number as if the viewer will pick up on something intangible and make their own connections. The film refuses to do any work in giving us something – nay, anything – new to say in this remake. If the film has a tsunami of weak links and creative flaws, casting Halle Baily isn’t one of them.
Suffering a fate of indignity is poor Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, a character so one-dimensional in the animated film you can forgive the filmmakers attempting to bulk up and flesh out his role. It turns out he’s actually the adopted son of the King and Queen (Noma Dumezweni plays his mother), and wants to somehow expose his country to the wider world where it seems they’ve been cloistered up in isolation for generations; honestly I kinda gave up, not because Hauer-King isn’t a good Prince Eric but because the writers a) couldn’t think of a decent story arc to give him that satisfied the audience and b) a Handsome Prince doesn’t need an arc because the story isn’t about him. Woefully written, Prince Eric has his own feelings and emotions and attitudes, but at no point does the film bring them into direct conflict with Ariel (or if it does, mishandles them severely) and makes no attempt to weave them organically into the ongoing mermaid/human dichotomy. Heck, even the link between Triton – a miscast Javier Bardem – and the bloated Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, is tenuously executed at best. Why get an actress like McCarthy and have her basically do a shitty Pat Carroll impersonation (complete with the animated film’s more memorable lines of dialogue blasted into this movie with sledgehammer subtlety for no discernible reason other than to nod to the older, better film) and not give her a license to try her own thing with the role, I will never understand. McCarthy might be an actress I personally find annoying and ill-suited to many roles, but had she had the chance to stretch as Ursula, instead of bastardise another actress’s iconic performance, it… might have worked? We’ll never know.
I didn’t know Howard Ashman personally. I didn’t even realise his abilities until I saw the Disney+ documentary bearing his name only a year or so ago. I cannot possibly begin to think I could ever speak for him, but I would suggest strongly that he’d be rolling over in his grave if he saw what Disney, Marshall and Alan Menken have done to his songs and lyrics. I know, I know, Menken was the original score composer on the animated film, which makes the shit reprisal of all the film’s famous melodies to uncomfortably “I’m here for the money” in creepiness, but Howard Ashman would have left “The Scuttlebutt” on the cutting room floor and he certainly would have devised a better tune for poor Prince Eric. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken rework some of the included classic songs lyrics a touch, in order to minimise problematic themes or outdated ideas from the 90’s, which is fine enough because they blend in a lot easier, but the new songs are all absolutely ghastly.
And woe betide anyone who ever suggests this “live action” version of “Under The Sea” is a winner in any way, shape or form. The classic underwater showstopper sung by Sebastian once boasted animated representations of all the fish listed in the lyrics, all cartoonishly bounding and floating around as a giant piscine orchestra. In Rob Marshall’s version, nobody plays a random fish-based instrument and the on-screen visuals never once match the lyrics or energy of the song, no matter how hard Daveed Diggs crushes his Sebastian accent. It is, without doubt, one of the most egregious creative choices committed by one of these live action remakes, and I include an expressionless CG Simba spotting the wildebeest heading his way for The Lion King in this statement as well. There’s no energy, no sense of playful fun, no real zest or zeal in delivering audience escapism in what should be the film’s centrepiece show-tune melody, and rather we’re left with the limp-wristed visuals of a bunch of aquarium fish swimming mildly in time with the tune but not really showing why it’s so fucking amazing under the sea. I mean, if you’re saying it you better bloody show me something as well. You don’t just drive a Ferrari 20mph under the speed limit and then brag about how fucking fast it goes. What an absolute waste of everyone’s time and energy.
Honestly, this movie is total garbage. Sure, it made a squillion dollars and gave Disney stockholders something to smile about but the cultural relevance of this movie can be measured in weeks, not years. People still talk about the animated Little Mermaid movie, some thirty years after it came out, because it was fun, engaging and memorable. The 2023 Disney Mermaid is as fun as gonorrhoea, as engaging as debate between Elon Musk and a semen-soaked tissue, and as memorable as a Netflix original movie. I suspect that this time a year from now, nobody will even remember this movie exists.
De-anthropomorphising the non-human characters was a huge mistake Disney failed to learn from the Lion King remake, because all the comedy relief is thrust upon creatures who lack the contortive ability to be comedic, and stretching this paper-thin story out to a bladder-testing two hours won’t win you any favours with the younger female demographic to whom this is so obviously skewed. If the answer to “why was this film made at all?” is just to keep the IP alive and make a quick buck, I get it from a capitalism perspective, just don’t ask me to enjoy or appreciate your soulless, mean-spirited and wholly unremarkable cash-grab for the creative vacuum it is. I get it, female empowerment and all that, but this Little Mermaid is undersized, underweight, and should probably have been thrown back. Skip it and watch the far superior animated classic instead. Or literally any one of the three dozen or so other versions of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story told by filmmakers with an actual vision to do so.