After a pair of mild artistic successes in Mulan and Cruella, Disney retreats to the tried-and-true live-action remake formula that’s made them billions in the worldwide box office with The Little Mermaid.
The latest entry from the Disney Renaissance period that now belongs in the current Disney Retread-issance era, like Aladdin or The Lion King before it, exists only to remind us of the original. There are bare minimum efforts to distinguish it from its source material or, heaven forbid, improve on it; there are a few new songs, some new subplots, and a new character or two.
But unlike the Dumbo or Cinderella remakes, the latter of which remains a shining example of what these “updates” should do, not enough time has passed for the 1989 original Mermaid to need refreshing.
We’re reintroduced to the young mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) as she spends her days in the underwater kingdom of Atlantica while quietly longing for life above the ocean’s surface. Thanks to her friends Scuttle (Awkwafina) and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), she’s developed quite a collection of human trinkets that she must hide from her human-hating father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). After a shipwreck allows Ariel the opportunity to rescue seafaring prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she becomes infatuated and even more determined to make her above-land dreams come true. In crawls Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a devious sea witch who offers to transform Ariel’s tail into human legs to chase after Eric but demands her voice as payment.
Bailey obviously has big fins to fill in the title role and she certainly does all she can with the opportunity. She’s a fantastic singer and unlike, say, Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast, she doesn’t have to rely on vocal processing to enhance her timbre. But there’s something about the underwater scenes that limit the expressiveness of her face, which Bardem falls victim to in almost all of his scenes as well. I would assume it’s whatever computer-generated effects they render atop the faces of the actors to make it look like they’re underwater, but they really hinder the emotive facial qualities that make dramatic scenes work. Once Ariel makes it above water, Bailey’s performance feels more alive, even though her songs are performed in voiceover since the character isn’t able to actually sing along at that point.
Most of the fan favorite songs return, including the most-cherished of the Disney “I Want” ballads “Part of Your World” and the dastardly show-stopper “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The respective performers do a commendable job replicating the magic of the original tunes, even though there isn’t really much that can be added to them. “Under the Sea” gets the live-action “Be Our Guest” treatment of whipping a bunch of blurry CG effects across the screen and calling it fun. Lin-Manuel Miranda contributes new numbers “Wild Uncharted Waters” and “For the First Time,” which fit in lyrically and thematically with the existing songs but don’t best any of the classic original tunes. Hamilton fans will delight at the rap-sung Awkwafina-Daveed Diggs collaboration “The Scuttlebutt,” while Hamilton detractors will likely groan and roll their eyes.
The Little Mermaid suffers from the same problem as the rest of these Disney remakes when it comes to how the animals are designed. Even though we’re dealing with talking crabs and seabirds that can somehow hang out for minutes underwater to converse, director Rob Marshall and his team still attempt to make these creatures look realistic as opposed to the cartoonish liberties that the animated original took. The fish Flounder suffers the most from this treatment; his bulging eyes and agape mouth make him more fit for a Mediterranean plate than as an active participant in this story.
Of course, none of this looks better with 3-D presentation, and for a movie that already has a lack of defined color and visual sharpness, I can’t understand why this is even playing in 3-D anywhere.
Please stay out of the water and watch the far superior animated The Little Mermaid in hopes it will inspire Disney to get out of the shallow end and get back to producing new stories instead of rehashing existing IP.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing in theaters is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, an animated superhero sequel starring Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld continuing the story of Miles Morales as he joins Gwen Stacy to complete a mission to save every universe of Spider-People.
Also coming to theaters is The Boogeyman, a supernatural horror movie starring Sophie Thatcher and Chris Messina about a pair of sisters who are still reeling from the recent death of their mother when their therapist father takes in a desperate patient who unexpectedly shows up at their house seeking help.
Streaming on Peacock is Shooting Stars, a sports biopic starring Marquis Cook and Wood Harris depicting a young Lebron James and his three best friends as they become the No. 1 high school basketball team in the country.