Flipping its fins doesn’t get The Little Mermaid too far, but it’s one of the least surface-level Disney live-action remakes in a while.
Let’s just get this out of the way. A live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, one of the prolific animation studio’s most consequential films since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, has absolutely no business looking this shoddy and unremarkable when underwater. This is the same behemoth entertainment conglomerate that has presided over the likes of Finding Nemo, Avatar: The Way of Water, and yes, the original The Little Mermaid in 1989, which kickstarted the entire Disney Renaissance. So in 2023, this is what we get? A movie about mermaids that doesn’t start to be passable until the majority of the scenes rise to the surface?
If it seems like I’m in my feelings about this, I’ll just point out that the cavalcade of soulless, wretched live-action remakes from the studio have brought many of us to similar breaking points when it comes to the tiresome obligation of actually reviewing these movies as if they have some sort of analytical value painting their purpose. But this is, to be fair, the first one of these in a while to go after the iconic Disney Princess brand, which has so far been 1-for-3 when you factor in Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan. In other words, these remakes have been floundering since 2015 if not sooner with few bright spots to speak of.
“This obsession with humans has to stop.”
Like Pinocchio (2022) and The Lion King (2019) before it, The Little Mermaid (2023) mostly settles on being a play-by-play repeat of the source material’s script and general aesthetic, with only the most sparing exceptions. Very little of consequence has changed in terms of the writing, design, and overall structure of the plot, except to re-imagine the most gorgeous grandeur of the animated original into a bland, badly-lit CGI water world through fish-eye lens. The reveal of the mer-people’s kingdom, for instance, is built up with the same orchestral flair as before, only to reveal a bunch of mossy-looking rocks instead of, you know, a kingdom?
The rest of the underwater scenes don’t get much less disappointing. The titular mermaid herself, Ariel, is played by singer-songwriter Halle Bailey, whose wide-eyed wonder at the world above water is more understandable than ever, considering how tedious and plain her underwater life is. She sings the iconic soundtrack with grace and youthful stature, belting out a few key lines with personal flair to differentiate from Jodi Benson, though to varying results. The music being so close only leaves room for jarring comparison, but at least she’s trying something. There has been much made by a loud minority of “anti-woke” (so “pro-racist”) whiners about Ariel being played by a Black actress, but it really is the most irrelevant complaint imaginable and one of the few changes that comes across as a breath of fresh air.
You know the story, already. Ariel wants to visit the world above, but her protective father King Triton (Javier Bardem in a casting choice that equally astounds and confounds) absolutely forbids it. He entrusts Ariel’s well-being with Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), whose only real flaw is looking like a realistic crab — at least Joseph Gordon Levitt’s similarly-written Jiminy Cricket had the good sense to maintain a more cartoonish design. Ariel eventually saves the life of a drowning sailor heartthrob, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who is really an adopted royal? Sure? He doesn’t see her face, but he does hear her voice, re-contextualized in this film as a magical siren song.
Small, subtle changes.
And herein is where The Little Mermaid actually starts to find some footing. The motivations and lore logic of her deal with her aunt, the Sea Witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, unfortunately) make a little more sense this time, at least within the narrative itself. It’s heavily implied that Ariel’s voice is magically capable of seducing Eric, so the plotline where she has to silently win his heart glides past some of the more glaring clumsiness of the animated original.
To be clear, the original still works because the love story at the center is really about how Ariel and Eric get together because their personalities click more than anything else. It’s not her looks or voice that appeals her to Eric, it’s the genuine chemistry borne from them simply having fun and hanging out. This has been ringed as problematic by some over the last decade or so, insisting that the movie is really about a young woman giving up everything she loves for a man, which has always been wildly overstated and quite honestly missing the point. At the very least, the remake doesn’t get too desperate about lampshading these old criticisms and becoming a modern “response” movie, but it does make small, subtle changes that communicate the thematic intention a bit clearer and more elegantly.
Yes, Ariel has a crush on a guy and is willing to make a huge gamble for his heart. But in this movie and in the original, her affection isn’t just for “a man” it’s for a whole other world she wants to experience and come of age in. It’s the classic story of leaving the nest and finding love in both places and people, and watching Ariel go through this on dry land, with no memory of the deal she struck with Ursula, is the movie at its most whimsical and enticing. She can’t speak aside from a few mental narration sequences, but Bailey’s physical acting in these scenes evokes a romantic, wistful call back to silent movies of the 1920s, leaving room for characters actually doing things instead of constantly talking to each other about doing things. It’s refreshing!
Somewhat charted waters.
The world’s Euro-Caribbean flavor is certainly weird in how it isn’t really all that weird. It’s no Pirates of the Caribbean where setting is king, though director Rob Marshall did previously direct On Stranger Tides, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much. The Little Mermaid has that Disney resort feeling that the target audience will soak in, all the same. The new additions to the plot, like increased motivation for Prince Eric and his family’s kingdom, Ursula’s sibling rivalry with Triton, and Ariel’s sisters actually having lines aren’t the most seamless inclusions. But like the movie itself, they’re good enough for most. Sure, it’s odd that Ariel’s sisters all being of different ethnicities seems to imply that King Triton had numerous wives, but it’s not like kids will really notice that. Right?
There are also one or two new songs, and you’ll know Lin-Manuel Miranda worked on them before you even look it up yourself, and honestly, they’re not bad. Awkwafina’s take on Scuttle isn’t bad, either, and it might even make some people laugh once. Jacob Tremblay voices Flounder in this, but he pretty much swims into the background for most of the movie, and considering that design, it’s probably for the best.
The bottom line.
Once Disney fully dries out the well on these remakes, what’s next? Live-action remakes of the sequels? If so, we’ll really have come full circle on what sank the Disney Renaissance slowly but surely in the late 90s, when technical limitations and astronomical expectations pushed Disney into pumping out retreads and backdoor animated cartoon pilots as brand-eroding “films” with that dreaded direct-to-video label. But so far, these live-action remakes have had that same direct-to-video energy for quite some time, to the point where we now get most of these direct-to-Disney+. Maybe that’s why this movie is so obviously designed for the smallest screen possible to hide the little effects budget.
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters on May 26. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
THE LITTLE MERMAID - 6/10