THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023)
PG, 135 mins.
2023, PG, 135 mins.
Halle Bailey as Ariel / Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric / Daveed Diggs as Sebastian (voice) / Awkwafina as Scuttle (voice) / Jacob Tremblay as Flounder (voice) / Noma Dumezweni as Queen Selina / Javier Bardem as King Triton / Melissa McCarthy as Ursula / Art Malik as Sir Grimsby / Jessica Alexander as Vanessa / Emily Coates as Rosa / Lin-Manuel Miranda as Chef LouisDirected by Rob Marshall / Written by David Magee
Disney has come under considerable fire - and very rightfully so - for their cash-grabbing and creatively lazy attempts to milk their iconic animated film catalogue and remake them into live action iterations. It has been a pretty never-ending cycle over the last few years, and one that I find cynical and desperate.
That's not to say that I haven't liked some of these remakes (I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh's opulent CINDERELLA redo and thought that David Lowery's PETE'S DRAGON significantly improved upon the original), but many others - from DUMBO, ALADDIN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and THE LION KING (which, yeah, incredulously strained the idea of a "live action" version) left me shaking my head with indifference. Then came last year's thoroughly awful PINOCCHIO, which proved to be so distractingly garish that the very thought of wanting to see another one of these moving forward was challenging, to say the least.
It only seemed inevitable that the House of Mouse - in their ravenous quest to regurgitate what they once made great in animation into something approximating stale re-heated leftovers in live action form - would set its corporate-minded and money-seeking crosshairs on THE LITTLE MERMAID, which - when released in 1989 - not only proved to be an audience and critical favorite, but a pioneering animated film that was instrumental in putting the company back on the map after a decade-plus of middling box office returns. THE LITTLE MERMAID was Disney's first money-making theatrically released film since 1977's THE RESCUERS and single-handedly led to the new Disney Renaissance in the art form, which also ushered in so many cherished animated classics in the 1990s and 2000s.
I watched it again recently and was still amazed by how wonderfully envisioned and executed it remained.
Sadly, within the first few minutes of viewing its live action doppelganger (directed by Rob Marshall of CHICAGO fame and the quite decent MARY POPPINS RETURNS), I kind of slithered down into my seat. If one excludes a truly star-making vocal performance by the lead star and a few interesting additions to the source material, there's simply nothing here in THE LITTLE MERMAID redux that justifies its existence...outside of pure profit motive.
If you pardon the obvious pun, the fish out of water narrative beats of the first LITTLE MERMAID are slavishly adhered to here, as is the titular character's sinful bargain that she makes to become a flesh-and-blood woman to explore the human world on land and peruse the love of her life. The rebellious nature of Ariel is also preserved here as well. Played rather wonderfully (again, the film's one true saving grace) by Halle Bailey, this little mermaid princess has big dreams of a life beyond the sea, which proves to be in direct contrast to the wishes of her father, King Triton (an uncharacteristically stoic and one note Javier Bardem, who looks more than a tad bored here). Ariel has a few faithful aquatic friends, like Flounder the fish (voiced by Jacob Trembly), Scuttle the seagull (Awkwafina) and Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs), but even they can't stop her from seeking out the uncharted pleasures of a land-based universe. She has a chance encounter with Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), a prince whose ship gets destroyed during a powerful storm. It's love at first sight. Sensing weakness in her niece, Triton's evil sister Ursula (a well cast Melissa McCarthy) coerces Ariel to sign a pact with her to assume human form (albeit with the loss of her voice) and get a true love kiss from Eric...but with only three days to spare.
Anyone that has seen the 1989 film will have no problem whatsoever with predicting what comes next.
THE LITTLE MERMAID is just as blow-for-blow faithful to its far better source material than any of the other aforementioned life action attempts. That's not to say that Marshall's version is void of any changes and/or additions to the lore and story. I'll be the first to give this film credit for at least attempting to make Eric a tad more fleshed out with a backstory and motivations, not to mention that this helps facilitate a bit more genuine interest in his budding romance with Ariel herself. Hell, he even gets his own song number this time (written by the original's Allen Menken and newcomer Lin Manuel Miranda) that gives this once simplistically hunky Disney prince a bit more dramatic weight. The screenplay (penned by David Magee) also tries to modernize Ariel by making her fascination with the human world extend beyond the core craving of scoring a handsome man. If anything, they seem mutually attracted to one another because they're equally fascinated by their respective worlds. These are good alterations, to be sure.
A home run creative choice here, as mentioned earlier, is the casting of Bailey herself, whose vivacious screen presence and angelic singing voice is easily the one justifiable reason to see this remake. I know that to many a loyal Disney-ite, Jodi Benson's stupendous singing voice will forever be identified with THE LITTLE MERMAID, leaving any new actress having to play the role (in live action or not) having an unenviable task. But to her credit, young Bailey more than holds her own and does a bravura job with the many show-stopping songs, like the film's most beloved ballad "Part of Your World," which is just as rousing here as it was thirty-plus years ago (most of us can here Benson's rendition in our collective minds with little fuss, so it's a testament to Bailey herself that's she able to carry the vocals and make them feel both familiar and refreshingly her own as well). Regretably, there was ample online chatter and criticism of casting an African-American in the role, which proved to be both unhealthily regressive and much ado about nothing. The makers here cast the absolute right woman for the role; she's truly sensational here.
I even appreciated some of the other casting too, like McCarthy with her equally thankless task of following-up on what Pat Carrol did so memorably before with the nefarious Ursula. McCarthy is an actress that I've been tough on over the years, but here she's a bit more disciplined and reigned in, which helps make her villain all the more terrifying. Daveed Diggs is also inspired in voicing everyone's favorite eccentric crab from the first film and enthusiastically belts out "Under the Sea." But - yikes! - what a waste of some of the other established A-listers, most notably Bardem as Ariel's prideful and powerful father (it's sad to see a performer with such electrifying charisma and gravitas being reduced here to a one-note bore). Bardem, McCarthy, and others are also not assisted at all by the film's woefully inconsistent VFX work, which struggles to make these characters and their watery surroundings feel tactile and real. THE LITTLE MERMAID - in original form - was a wondrously inventive and visually generous film in deep diving audiences into Ariel's fantastical world of talking sea creatures, but so many of the sequences here lack aesthetic interest and, worst yet, look really, really artificial and hopelessly phony (Marshall, if anything, is not an effects driven filmmaker at all, and it shows here). That, and when one compares this film to other water-themed pictures that have come before it (like AQUAMAN and the very recently released AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER), THE LITTLE MERMAID's imagery looks horribly antiquated and frankly amateurish at times; it truly takes you out of the film.
Equally frustrating are some of the film's other inclusions, like some additional tunes to accentuate the already superlative work of Menken and Ashman. Whereas the one previously referenced that helps establish Eric as a more nurtured character is fine, others are frankly bizarre and forgettable, like the weird hip-hop-styled "The Scuttlebutt" (by Miranda), which, overall, seems too wholly different and lacking in any connective tissue to the smorgasbord of great established songs. Maybe this was done to pad the film's length, which mournfully comes in at a thoroughly bloated 135 minutes (by my Doc Brown calculations, that's 50-plus minutes longer than the animated original!). This LITTLE MERMAID - the longer it progresses - seemed like more of a slog and endurance test than it needed to be, and why anyone thought that there was something to be gained by adding nearly an hour of running time to the perfectly succinct and economical storytelling of the 1989 film is beyond me. This is a constant refrain for me in many of my reviews as of late, but far too many films these days should be shorter than they actually are.
I guess when it boils right down to it, I simply
can't recommend THE LITTLE MERMAID, even though I applaud Bailey's
mesmerizing turn and a few welcome augmentations (she's such a terrific
find that I was left pondering whether her services would have been better
rendered in a better film). Disney's raiding of the animated film
vault (yet again) ultimately rears its ugly head and more than shows why
the very films they're shamelessly adapting worked so well in the first
place (perhaps the biggest irony is that the sumptuous hand drawn
two-dimensional animated world of Ariel has more magic and life to it than
this film's marriage of uninspired computer effects and live action
elements). Some of the very few pleasures to be had here are not
enough to distance audiences away from the film's irksome deficiencies.
Most off-putting of all, this film is a sobering reminder that
Disney is spending way, way too much time looking backwards for
inspiration than they are intrepidly and audaciously paving a path forward
as trailblazing mythmakers. The more they try to recapture the
lightning in a bottle innovation of their greatest hits and prey on fan
nostalgia, the more I simply don't want to be a part of their world.