"Disney are retelling these timeless stories for a whole new generation and if they’re captured by the magic - like we were all those years ago - then how can we complain?"
BY ALEX GILSTON MAY 29, 2023
The Disney Live-Action remake conveyor belt continues to chug on with the release of the reimagining of the film that started the Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid. A film four years in the making, and one littered with lots of unnecessary controversy. Unlike the recent Peter Pan and Wendy there was a lot riding on the quality of this film simply because it is one of THE Disney classics.
The Little Mermaid is the remake of the 1989 Walt Disney Animation of the same name. You know the story; Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of the sea god King Triton (Javier Bardem). She’s adventurous and hates the confines of underwater life. One day, in a case of the right time and the right place, she saves the dashing Prince Eric from a shipwreck; this only increases her longing to explore the surface world but her father won’t have it. After an argument the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) takes advantage of Ariel and forces her into a deal which swaps her mermaid tail for legs which gives her the opportunity to explore the world up above. As to not make it too easy on her, Ursula steals away Ariel’s voice and locks it into a necklace.
The narrative in The Little Mermaid is, more or less, the same as the original despite the runtime clocking in almost 40 minutes longer. The surface world is expanded upon more in this version; we get to see Prince Eric’s adopted mother, and their relationship mirrors Ariel and Tritons with both parents holding their respective child back from what they want to do. This is one of the better creative changes as it develops further reasoning for Ariel and Eric’s bond beyond her saving his life.
We also see more of the world Eric inhabits as he takes Ariel to a seaside market. As well as showing off further how Eric ticks, it also gives Ariel another playground to dance around in. It also re-contextualises one of the original films' funnier moments - involving a dinglehopper - including a lovely surprise for super fans.
Rob Marshall gets the majority of things right with The Little Mermaid. It’s a pair of safe hands coming off the back of one of the best live-action Disney films; Cinderella. The musical sequences are integral to The Little Mermaid and they’re directed with the grandeur they deserve. There is also a lot here that doesn’t work as well. The visuals are murky a lot of the time - especially after seeing how underwater scenes can look in James Cameron’s Avatar sequel - and it just isn’t befitting of a film that in 2D has a visual splendour. The underwater CGI is choppy at times as well which leaves it looking a bit cheap. Disney’s endeavour to reimagine designs from the original films to make them look realistic has never hit such a terrible brick wall as it has here. Flounder and Sebastian are hard to look at, they lack any kind of life. It’s a shame, especially in the case of Sebastian because there is so much life in Daveed Diggs’ vocal performance but when matched with the visual it falls flat.
Halle Bailey’s central performance as Ariel lifts this film up to great heights. Not only is her vocal work exemplary - taking one of the most iconic and beautifully sung Disney songs ever, making it her own and then surpassing it in every way is such an achievement - but her physicality when she doesn’t have her voice is brilliant too. Melissa McCarthy does her damndest to make Ursula work and Poor Unfortunate Souls is still a highlight amongst everything else.
Howard Ashman’s (if you get the chance please watch the documentary about his life and work at Disney before they decide they want to unceremoniously rip it from their streaming service again) iconic lyrics are tampered with a bit to modernise certain things and - even though some people would have you believe it’s the end of the world - the changes work. New additions to the songbook by Lin Manuel-Miranda are hit and miss. Prince Eric’s song Wild Uncharted Waters is okay, but The Scuttlebutt is incredibly ill-fitting.
As Disney live-action films go, The Little Mermaid is one of the better ones. However the bar is so low with these films that unfortunately that doesn’t mean much. My sentiments from my review of Peter Pan and Wendy continue to hark true; from my perspective I just don’t see the point in these films.
I don’t usually add personal tidbits into my reviews here on Film Focus Online, but please allow me to indulge, just this once, to wrap things up. I went to a fairly late screening of the film at my local cineplex so the screening wasn’t filled with children, but there were the odd parent and child and a couple of families dotted about the screen. That included a child behind me with their parents. They seemed fairly excited in the lead up to the film, commenting on trailers passing by, and who knows it could have been their very first cinema experience.
This particular child sticks in my memory because at the end of Halle Bailey’s rendition of Part of Your World they exclaimed “That was amazing”. I silently agreed - it is one of the most incredible parts of the film after all - and watched the rest of the film. At the end of the day that child’s reaction is the whole point of these films. Of course from an older, cynical, point of view we might see it as a shameless cash grab or Disney running out of ideas. Ultimately though, Disney are retelling these timeless stories for a whole new generation and if they’re captured by the magic - like we were all those years ago - then how can we complain?