There’s been much discussion surrounding The Little Mermaid since Disney first announced their newest remake. This is just going to be the case. Not only is the story (at least as Disney tells it) an important piece of millennial nostalgia, but it’s also another live-action remake. Will the House of Mouse make this film “Part of Your World”? Or are we just “Poor Unfortunate Souls”? Read on.
The Little Mermaid follows Ariel (Halle Bailey), the “Little Mermaid” of the title. She’s spent her life yearning to see what exists on land. However, her father (Javier Bardem) doesn’t trust humans. When Ariel falls head over heels in love at first sight with the adorably dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she works with Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy) to finally experience life on land. The only problem is there is no winning with the Sea Witch. Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina and Art Malik co-star in the movie. Rob Marshall directs The Little Mermaid from a script by David Magee.
As they currently exist, Disney live-action remakes are a loaded topic. In the last decade, we’ve seen a number of these movies ranging in quality from “Perfectly fine” to “I want my money back” or even “Those are three hours of my life I’ll never get back.” It seems Disney still struggles to understand one thing. These truly aren’t live-action remakes.
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Animation allows more leeway in the creation of fantasy. Mermaids aren’t real. Animals don’t present full-scale music numbers. Many problems in The Little Mermaid revolve around this complicated fact. In attempting to bring this fantastical tale into reality, rather than creating something beautiful and wonderous, viewers are instead trapped in an awkward “uncanny valley.”
We see this in two places. The first is (like The Lion King) in the visual crafting of the animals. “Real” animals cannot emote as they are required to in a Disney movie. Hence the animation. Sebastian the Crab does a lot of heavy lifting in both versions of The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, Daveed Diggs struggles to make the character stand out thanks to an unforgiving character design. At the same time, the movie seems stumped as to how exactly to use the character.
This is seen most predominately in “Under the Sea.” Director Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith seem at a loss as they struggle to showcase the iconic musical number. The sequence is cut at a manic pace as the camera does everything it can to move around the clunky, computer-generated crab. The shots end up showcasing the effervescent Ariel while Sebastian (who is the primary vocalist) is shown from the back, side and just off camera.
At the same time, in a movie called The Little Mermaid, the film struggles to create the story’s undersea setting. While moments without humans are stunning, everything changes when characters populate the frame, especially in static, dialogue-based scenes. Javier Bardem spends much of his screen time looking like he’s in a rough video game cut scene. These scenes are jarring, visually fuzzy and ultimately detract from the narrative’s emotional power. There’s been ground-breaking work in undersea “location” work in a number of recent films, so it is unfortunate that The Little Mermaid struggles to find its footing until it comes up on land.
That said, though, Halle Baily comes on the scene in The Little Mermaid and thoroughly (and rightly) dominates the picture. All one must watch is her version of “Part of Your World” to realize this young woman is a force we’ll see a lot of in the near future. Not only does she have vocal pipes that stand alongside the most dynamic Disney princesses, but her charisma shines through even in the film’s silent sequences. Bailey is by far and away the film’s MVP, and here’s to seeing where she goes in the future.
Throughout the picture, Bailey finds sweet chemistry with Hauer-King as Prince Eric. Their relationship is simple and ripe with innocent nostalgia. In that as well, I couldn’t shake the feeling that teenage me would have loved this one. Both team up to carry the movie through an easygoing second act which is by far and away the movie’s strength.
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With that, there is a likable equality injected into the narrative between Ariel and Eric this time around. Bailey brings more strength to the part, while there’s a distinct effort to de-age Eric. Hauer-King feels much younger than the animated character. He feels like a boy. This wasn’t the case in the 1989 animated film. They’re both adventurous kids who want something more than what they have. He wants to explore the sea, while she wants to live on land. It’s easy to like these star-struck, wide-eyed kids and hope they make it work.
Meanwhile, The Little Mermaid is ultimately a king-sized version of the 1989 animated film with almost 50 extra minutes added. Much of this happens due to the inclusion of new music penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Unfortunately, though, it’s difficult to say many of the songs are truly needed. “The Scuttlebutt” (sung by Awkwafina) may appeal to the kids, but few others. “Wild Uncharted Waters” gives Hauer-King a chance to shine. However, it is, in the end, a Disney prince song that struggles to stand out. Finally, “For the First Time” is certainly the strongest (thanks to Bailey). However, rather than feeling like a needed inclusion, it exists solely to ease the transition after Ariel loses her voice.
All in all, I had a tough time diving into The Little Mermaid. Nostalgia is a heck of a powerful force. In their newest live-action remake, Disney is all at once trying to bask in millennial nostalgia while creating something beyond it. This is hardly a perfect film. Questionable stylistic and world-building choices weigh it down. At the same time, though, the movie is elevated by likable performances, particularly Halle Bailey. It’s easy to see how in her hands, Ariel will capture children’s love and affection for generations to come. It’s just a pity she wasn’t given a better movie.
The Little Mermaid debuts in theaters nationwide on May 26, 2023.
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