Minutes into Disney’s “live-action” remake of The Little Mermaid and it becomes impossible to not compare this overlong, overbaked version to the 1989 original animated classic that set off the Disney Animation Renaissance of the late 1980s after years of mediocrity and failures, restoring the Mouse House to its former glory before going on to dominate the entertainment world. Unlike most of Disney’s recent remakes, knowledge of John Musker and Ron Clements’s film feels like a necessary requirement, almost as if they’re counting on your love of these songs and characters to help distract you from what a poor unfortunate imitation it is.
I watched, slack jawed and puzzled why such a movie so clearly and obviously inferior to what inspired it exists at all, except to make money. Which it likely will, as most of Disney’s modern retreads like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King have done. Make all the money and disappear, never to be spoken of again.
The plot generally follows the original feel beat for beat, often line for line. Ariel (Halle Bailey), a free-spirited and rebellious young mermaid, longs for more out of life. Sebastian the crab (Daveed Davis) no longer conducts musicals but is instead charged with watching over King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) wayward daughter. Speaking of which, Triton’s all-female spawn now appear to sit on some council of mermaid ambassadorship, each representing some different region or culture within their kingdom. None of this is explained, of course. Is this the mermaid kingdom’s equivalent of the UN? Given his daughters all come from different mothers does King Triton run…a harem?
Ariel, of course, isn’t content to live under the sea and longs to be among humans. She obsesses over them, despite a backstory suggesting humans killed her mother. Things get interesting when hunky Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is tossed overboard on his birthday, only to be rescued by Ariel. She’s immediately smitten but dare not risk her crush discovering they’re from different worlds. Desperate for more, and to escape her father’s iron clad rules, Ariel makes a Faustian bargain with the tentacled sea witch (who’s also her estranged aunt) Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), costing her a scale and her voice for a pair of human legs and chance at freedom from the sea.
I won’t mince words; this new version of The Little Mermaid is a bad film, though much of the blame must go to director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), once again crafting an ugly, incoherent production that’s less a remake of the original film and more a bastardization of it. Scenes have either been edited (to be less offensive, they say) or elongated for God knows why. The tinkering not only ruins the *ahem* flow of the story, but also creates narrative blunders that didn’t exist in the original film (see if you can spot a big mistake during the “Under the Sea” number).
The scene where Triton castigates Ariel for going to the shipwrecks? Check. But a few minutes later we see the daughters cleaning up the mess left by the shipwrecks, with Triton A-OK with everything. At 135 minutes it’s nearly an hour (!) longer than the original, exacerbating the feeling we’re watching a dead fish that’s washed ashore, a bloated carcass rotting before our eyes.
It cannot be overstated how bad this film looks, how dark and often repulsive the new character designs and animation appears. We’ve come to expect shoddy CGI animation from Disney in their Marvel films, but nothing prepared me for how cheap and janky everything looks here. The melding of live actors with phony computer-generated mermaid tails looks laughably, interminably bad, only made worse by the fact you can almost see the green screen outlines of their bodies as they “float” around the currents. How embarrassing that a “live-action” film of a 34 year-old animated film looks so much worse.
More appalling than just the visual assault, Marshall’s direction robs every scene of the magic and wonder they once possessed. In the original film characters winked, gave knowing glances, celebrated the freedom and utter joy that comes with being an animated crab or slug cutting a rug. There was so much personality and exuberance in their performances, painstakingly animated by artists who gave a damn and cared. Here, that’s all gone, their lifeforce gutted like cheap fillets. Why is it that Disney insists today’s audiences be treated to inferior products? Don’t kids deserve creatively joyful films?
So much of The Little Mermaid’s pre-release hype centered around the controversy of casting a black actress to portray a character that has always been white. Forgetting that mermaids aren’t real, Disney only muddied the waters further with specific changes that saddle the film with the unenviable task of answering *why* the supposed racial colorblind casting isn’t colorblind at all. King Triton’s multiracial daughters could be explained as his siring daughters with different, um, ethnicities of Mermaid women?
A throwaway line suggests the mermaid daughters have a single mother, but how would that be possible, even in a cartoon kingdom? It makes more sense that mermaids are polygamous. But Prince Eric has been given a new backstory where he was adopted after washing up on shore after a shipwreck to explain why his mother (a fantastic Noma Dumezweni) is black and he is clearly white. A fantasy fish movie should not be struggling this much under its own logic.
This becomes more irksome when you realize how much of a lost opportunity that filmmakers had to flesh out the original’s non-existent backstory by exploring the intensely beautiful Caribbean settings. The seeds of a more engrossing and (yes) culturally respectful story are present yet go utterly wasted in favor of “updating” elements that didn’t need updating and “fixing” what didn’t need fixed. It’s not often we see a big-budget film make all the wrong choices, all the time, but that’s what we have here.
What should have been the film’s highlight, the music, instead becomes, ironically, both the best and worst aspects of the show. Classics like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are here and retain some of the magic of their original versions (the OST credits both original composer Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, though it’s clear whose influence won out). None have survived intact, however, with modified lyrics and bizarre new arrangements that sound like karaoke imitations (or American Idol auditions).
When matched to Rob Marshall’s graceless style and shoddy camerawork the onscreen visuals almost never match their lyrical content, the cleverness of the original performances erased entirely by drab, ugly animation and lifeless choreography. It’s like watching old friends debase themselves on a street corner for change. You feel bad and embarrassed at what’s become of them.
The two new marquee songs, both credited to Miranda, are forgettable at best and offensively bad at worst. Prince Eric’s operatically overblown “Wild Uncharted Waters” nearly plagiarizes the Miranda’s own (and far superior) “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. “The Scuttlebutt”, a cacophonously embarrassing rap (yup) squawked by Awkwafina’s Scuttle and Diggs’ Sebastian, only continues to provide evidence the Hamilton creator may be out of tricks. They cut the magnificent “Les Poissons” for this? Sacre bleu…
Worse, the movie cheats on its own premise; Ariel may not have a voice but that won’t keep her from “singing” a new song (“For the First Time”, also by Miranda) inside her head, which is so mediocre it should’ve stayed there.
As the titular mermaid Halle Bailey’s Ariel is…well, not great. Her performance (which may come from bad direction) is all over the place, her character often staring blankly or over-mugging with unnatural creepiness. Make no mistake, Bailey is an extraordinarily talented singer, but her over-vocalizations and note-extending interpretations of these songs rob them of the sincerity Jodi Benson achieved with less theatrics. Songs are often best when tailored for a performer’s gifts, and here Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s compositions fit her like melodic hand-me-downs.
The rest of the cast is all over the place. Javier Bardem makes a fine King Triton, though as the crab Sebastian Daveed Diggs gives some of the flattest, most monotone line readings I’ve ever heard. Jacob Tremblay’s Flounder is as forgettable as his realistic fish redesign, Jonah Hauer-King’s Eric is an earnest non-entity, his role both expanded yet somehow reduced at the same time, and Awkwafina’s gravelly-voiced Scuttle is less a homage and more a bastardization of Buddy Hackett’s joyful original. She’s horrible.
Melissa McCartney’s Ursula is mostly fine, though saddled with unnecessary (and tedious) exposition that adds nothing and only distracts from what made her drag-inspired sea witch so delightfully evil. Though she’s clearly having fun with the role and giving everything she has, McCartney’s version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” suffers the same misguided treatment as the rest of the soundtrack, neutering perhaps the original movie’s most delicious song of its visual power (and Pat Carroll’s pitch-perfect vamping).
This new version of The Little Mermaid is a spoiled, stinky product, a joyless exercise in Frankenstein filmmaking, an assemblage of parts stolen from a better film and reassembled by lesser talent. It’s also the worst of all the Disney remakes. Not a moment on screen demonstrates that anyone involved knows or cares about what makes animation such a remarkable artform. The 1989 original was hardly flawless, but its heart was always in the right place and the musical numbers were practically perfect. Time will be cruel to this soulless remake in that, in time, it will be totally forgotten. Toss this one back, the tuna’s gone bad.