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THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023) review

May 31, 2023


written by: David Magee
produced by: Marc Platt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, John DeLuca & Rob Marshall
directed by: Rob Marshall
rated: PG (for action/peril and some scary images)
runtime: 135 min.
U.S. release date: May 26, 2023


Most of Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have ranged from mediocre to awful, save for a select few. Since there’s unfortunately no sign of the studio rethinking this tactic, one has to wonder if there will ever be one of these to come along and make us think otherwise about what a bad idea all of this is. Well, don’t look at “The Little Mermaid” for your answer. You won’t find it in this update of the Ron Clements and John Musker’s musical classic of the same name from 1989, itself based on the Hand Christian Anderson fairy tale. When fans of that beloved classic see director Rob Marshall’s iteration, there’s really no getting around how each shot, song, line of dialogue and story development, will be predicted – so, where’s the draw?

It’s impossible to watch this version without thinking about the original one. To some, that movie made such an indelible mark on their psyche that it became akin to a religion, with every line and song memorized into their subconscious. Whatever reworking is applied here, there’s just no way an attempt at realism will enhance or embellish upon the animated artistry that came before it. If anything, this version of “The Little Mermaid” confirms that there’s certain stories that work best in the animation medium, like so many other Disney live-action remakes that came before it (and will come after).

At first, there’s hope that maybe there will be something different here. Marshall’s feature opens on a wide shot of bursting waves from a tumultuous sea as an epigraph text, “But a mermaid has no tears — and therefore she suffers so much more”, from Anderson’s tale can be read. Maybe this will be a more loyal adaptation of the source material, rather than Disney once again cashing in on their IP (Intellectual Property). Such hope was quickly dashed as we go “under the sea”.



When we meet free-spirited teenage mermaid, Ariel (Halle Bailey), she has completely forgotten to show up alongside her mermaid sisters to the Coral Moon festival to support their father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), who oversees the kingdom of Atlantica. His youngest daughter’s preoccupation with the things of the surface world show in her penchant for collecting what the surface dwellers have lost or discarded (anything from forks and spyglasses, to pocket watches and books), turning them into her own whosits and whatsits to dote over. As she studies these objects, her imagination drifts into a stream of wonderment, pondering the activities of the air breathers she’s been taught to fear and stay away from.

Navigating the violent Caribbean waves above is a colonial ship that inhabits Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and his Old English sheepdog Max, along with a crew of salty sailors and Sir Grimsby, the prime minister in charge of keeping tabs on the free-spirited royal lad. Prince Eric longs to explore other lands and civilizations in hopes of expanding his island kingdom’s economic well being, much to the chagrin of Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), his adoptive mother, who wishes Eric would keep his mind on matters of their kingdom. (But, isn’t that the same thing?) On one particular night, Eric’s ship is destroyed during a powerful storm and when he’s thrown overboard, a love-stricken Ariel comes to his rescue, bringing the semi-conscious prince to his island’s shore with only a song to remember him by.

Such activity is noticed by sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the scorned sister of King Triton, who has been keeping a close eye on Ariel’s activity, in hopes of getting revenge on her brother. She successfully preys on the princess’s dreams and tricks Ariel into giving up her voice in exchange for a human form, allowing her three days to acquire a kiss of true love to complete the transformation. If that doesn’t happen, she’ll revert to mermaid form and will belong to Ursula forever. Sounds like Ursula will get a raw deal if there’s no kiss.



Being an impulsive teen, Ariel agrees, unaware of Ursula’s ulterior motives and surfaces on land as a mysterious mute, hoping to win the heart of Prince Eric, who is searching for whoever belongs to that sweet voice who saved him. Without that voice, Ariel receives help from her three aquatic pals: her best friend, the sergeant major fish, Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), the dimwitted, Scuttle (Awkwafina), a female northern gannet diving bird, and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), the loyal crab who’s tasked by Triton to watch over his daughter. They’ll have their time-sensitive work cut out for them as they scramble to conjure romance between the two lovelorn youngsters.

Right away, two glaring problems standout in this new “Little Mermaid” and neither of them bode well for justifying the movie’s existence. The first being the underwater scenes and how they just don’t work here.

In recent years, there have been a handful of movies that have substantive underwater scenes and they too have had problems portraying convincing aquatic worlds. Instead of a colorful and vibrant environment teaming with activity, what is delivered is often dense, murky, and often conveying something too artificial or looking as if it was filmed on a soundstage. This was a problem evident in last fall’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, when Namor’s hidden civilization felt dark and dull. It’s not always the case though. James Wan was able to incorporate light and color in creative ways for “Aquaman”, providing a fantastic underwater world to discover and discern. Of course, James Cameron delivered some incredibly realized underwater action in his recent “Avatar: The Way of Water”, which, without a doubt, became the highlight of that movie.

Bottom line: when underwater scenes work, it’s because the director, cinematographer, art directors, visual effects artist, and animators all come together to really make these scenes pop by utilizing light and color in ways that vibrantly support the world they are creating in a believable manner. Translation: you can see people and places and it doesn’t look, well, fake. Think about how rich the underwater scenes from the 1989 movie were or how beautiful our first trip to the world of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” was. When it comes to water worlds, you just can’t beat animation.



The other problem with this iteration of “Little Mermaid” is the talking animals in live-action form. It didn’t work in the two Jon Favreau directed live-action adaptations, “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King” and it doesn’t work here – in fact, it looks (and sounds) ridiculous. Go back and watch the 1989 “Little Mermaid” and notice how expressive those particular characters (Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle) are and you’ll have a greater appreciation for animators and probably better understand what does and does not work in the transitions to live-action. In this movie, Flounder looks laughably ridiculous. It looks like you took a dead sergeant major fish and used invisible fishing lines to get it to move it’s mouth, eyes, and fins. No offense to the voice work done by Tremblay, but the way this Flounder looks and moves, makes me feel sorry for any seen Bailey is in with her character’s supposed best friend. It looks like she’s interacting with a cardboard fish.

Sadly, Sebastian and Scuttle suffer the same outcome. Granted, out of the three characters, Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian is probably the most convincing when it comes to believable talking creatures to interact with, but it’s still a far cry from the expressiveness that the animated Sebastian had. As for Scuttle, it’s a different take on the character for sure, but it’s hard divorcing Awkwafina from your mind is like trying to forget that Sean Connery is the voice of a dragon you’re watching. It’s also impossible to forget how the animators did such a great job matching the look of the character in the 1989 original to the zaniness of Buddy Hackett. This bird just seems lifeless and awkward. This is bound to be someone’s first “The Little Mermaid” but what a shame that they won’t experience these fun, jovial, and cantankerous characters for the first time in animated form.

On that note, some of the live-action mer-characters don’t fare that much better here either. One sore thumb is Bardem’s King Triton. The first time he appears in the screening I attended, there were audible chuckles. I don’t think it was because here was a recognizable, Oscar-winning actor playing undersea king. It’s mainly because it doesn’t look convincing…especially when Triton surfaces toward the end of the film and Bardem winds up looking like a wet rat. It’s not just him though…when all his mermaid daughters gather round him at the beginning of the movie and sit on their respective seashells, that too comes across as silly. It just doesn’t look right in live-action.

So, why does Bailey as Ariel look more convincing then anyone else? It could be because she’s the best part of this “Little Mermaid”. That’s a good thing considering the movie’s title. Bailey is believable in her undersea environments and equally so as a fish out of water. She conveys such convincing wonder and curiosity as Ariel, as well the strength and stubbornness required of the role. Most memorable though is her voice. Bailey belts out “Part of Your World” like nobody’s business. It’s just a shame that she’s not in a better movie. No doubt, we’ll be seeing more of Bailey in no time.



As for the movie’s antagonist, McCarthy has some tough tentacles to fit into after the incomparable Pat Carroll. At first, it was interesting to see what the actress was doing with the role, despite some of the sea witch’s movement looking odd for a creature who’s top half is human. As the movie progressed, it was clear there needed to be more to Ursula, a character who oozes volumes of sass and swagger. Considering the casting, the expectation would be for McCarthy to be having much more fund with the role than she is here – even for her to be bigger (I’m not talking size, that comes later and I was getting post-traumatic flashbacks of Big Oprah in Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time”) and just really sinking her teeth into it. There’s nothing wrong with her singing voice as Ursula, but there’s also nothing menacing or fun in those numbers either. That has less to do with McCarthy as it does the fact that there’s more than can be done in animation than live-action.

Some of the songs from the original movie are jettisoned, but that’s a choice that actually makes sense considering it would either take more time or just wouldn’t do well in live-action. Award-winning composer and songwriter Alan Menken returns to score the movie, and co-write some new songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Disney’s go-to guy). The four new songs include: two for Halle Bailey’s Ariel (“For the First Time” and a new reprise of “Part of Your World”), one for Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric (“Wild Uncharted Waters”), and a hip-hop number (“The Scuttlebutt”) for Awkwafina’s Scuttle and Diggs’s Sebastian the crab. The song that Hauer-King sings sets out to expand on his character, so that’s welcome and while most fans won’t like it because it’s so different from the other songs, I kind of liked it for that very reason. Seminal songs like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” wind up being underwhelming because it’s glaringly obvious they worked better when they were animated.

As for the overall story, screenwriter David Magee sets out to expand the world from the previous movie (which was written by directors Musker and Clements), but since most of the live-action elements jarringly fail, these story changes are an afterthought. The efforts here are commendable and maybe they would’ve worked out in a movie that knew which lane to swim in…hint: the animated lane. But sadly, Disney and Marshall are looking to create a more naturalistic presence for this fantasy tale and even when it tries really hard, it’s very clear it doesn’t work. At least Bailey is sublime here with a wonderful presence and a heavenly voice.






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