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The Little Mermaid Both Swims and Sinks

Life's full of tough remakes, innit?

There is possibly no more important film in the Disney canon than The Little Mermaid. It kicked off the Disney Renaissance, re-asserted Disney’s presence in cinema, and revitalized the movie musical. We wouldn’t have the Disney we know today, and quite possibly all of the franchises it’s subsumed like Marvel and Star Wars, without The Little Mermaid. It has both one of Disney’s most beloved princesses and one of its most celebrated villains. So the idea of a live-action remake of the film was as inevitable as it was risky. How do you make something that can possibly stand up to a film so iconic and impactful? Well, it turns out you really can’t.

The live-action remake follows the same basic outline of the original animated film. Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of the oceans. She’s fascinated by the human world, which she’s been forbidden to be part of, and especially with one Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Desperate to escape the grip of her father, Ariel makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human. However, Ariel has only three days in which to get the prince to give her True Love’s Kiss (TM), and Urusla has taken Ariel’s captivating voice as payment for the bargain.

It’s probably not a surprise that the live-action version is not any more accurate to the original, surprisingly dark and harsh fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, this film strays even further from its source material, incorporating new elements or parts from other iterations of Disney’s original, such as the Broadway version. While these do help to flesh out some of the flatter narrative aspects of the animated original, it does nothing to further the argument that the current never-ending trend of Disney live-action films are essential for anything other than the extension of copyright.

Part of your…marketable IP.

Now that’s not to say this is a particularly bad film. That’s not to say it’s a particularly great film, either. But as far as Disney live-actioners go, this is definitely aiming toward the upper tiers. Director Rob Marshall does his best to keep the visuals inspirational or at the very least eye-catching. I mean, at least in the beginning. The opening underwater shots of the sea are captivating, even if the score lays on the nostalgia and emotion a little thick right out the gate.

Marshall doesn’t keep up a consistent vision, however. The first act is admittedly well done, but the overland scenes often lack the same sense of wonder, and the climax is a muddy, underlit, underwhelming mess. Some of the musical numbers like “Kiss The Girl” are strong echoes of the original that effectively use their emotional energy. Others like “Under The Sea” are confusing revamps that sacrifice the original’s intimacy and sense of space, instead trying to maximize the spectacle of the moment. Taking things on average, Marshall does a perfectly adequate, middle-of-the-road job here.

This film also increases the musical output of the original, with Alan Menken composing three new songs with Disney’s go-to lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda. A fourth song meant for King Triton didn’t make the final cut, and the three that did add virtually nothing to overall film. They’re not necessarily awful, but I don’t know who thought Prince Eric needed an “I want” song that comes just about 10 minutes after that most iconic “I want” song of the past 50 years. It doesn’t help that Jonah Hauer-King might have a decent singing voice but isn’t able to elevate Eric’s song from it’s painfully generic sentiment and composition.

It also doesn’t help that of the entire cast, there’s only one truly outstanding vocal performance. Thankfully, that belongs to the star mermaid herself. Halle Bailey is a fantastic performer and a perfect choice for Ariel. Tonally, she sounds nearly identical to Jodi Benson’s original Ariel, possessing a voice that is clear, full, and inherently melodious. Even her speaking voice sounds like a song. She’s a better singer than she is an actress here, but she’s a luminous presence whenever she’s on screen. She does have a tendency to over-emote at times, giving her delivery a more Broadway edge, but it’s clear that she’s devoted to giving the best performance she can. Really, I can’t praise Bailey enough here.

That’s not the sun…she’s just that good.

On the other hand, I’m going to ask you to sit down for a moment if you aren’t already, because I’m going to spend some (that is, a lot of) time talking about how the movie completely wastes the character of Ursula and how Melissa McCarthy isn’t helping. Now, full disclosure, Ursula is one of my favorite Disney villains of all time, second only to the one true dark queen Maleficent. I love her for her theatricality, her sass and confidence, and her roots in subversive queerness. After all, she’s inspired by Divine, who’s drag is iconic for its confrontational nature.

Very little of that is present in Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Ursula. McCarthy tries her best, and her Ursula voice is about two-thirds of the way there. In all fairness, it’s hard to even come close to Pat Carroll’s definitive original. But McCarthy is out of her depth here. She simply doesn’t (or can’t) connect to the treacherous camp-and-vamp supremacy that the character needs. It’s a very surface-level imitation, and as a singer she lacks the assured, oversized delivery the role requires. There were so many better choices for casting this role: Jinkx Monsoon, Lizzo, Queen Latifah, this 13-year-old kid who blows his school musical out of the water. But I suppose McCarthy is a legitimate movie star, and they went for marquee value over suitability or musicality (or any hint of queerness for that matter).

McCarthy isn’t the only reason Ursula fails here. Her signature song “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, one of the best villain songs ever written and I will take no arguments, has been gutted and takes Ursula’s character with it. Both this song and “Kiss The Girl” had sections of their lyrics re-written to reflect modern sensibilities. With “Kiss”, it amounts to very little and changes virtually nothing. But with “Souls”, the entire verse where Ursula talks about human men preferring women who don’t speak their mind has been cut (as well as her iconic “body language” line). This was done to discourage young girls in the audience from keeping their voices quiet, which is a noble and worthwhile goal but ends up destroying Ursula’s edge and with it her threat. Ursula both displays her cynicism and her ability for manipulation in this verse, taking supreme advantage of Ariel’s naivete and desperation. Removing it makes the cost of Ariel’s voice seem less like part of a Faustian bargain with a true villain and more like a negotiation with a grumpy neighbor. Ursula’s characterization never recovers from this, and McCarthy is unable to salvage it no matter how much she flails her comedic chops around.

The make-up was also…a choice.

The rest of the cast falls somewhere in-between the two extremes of Bailey and McCarthy, usually occupying a solid middle ground that says “Yeah, that’s fine.” Jonah Hauer-King’s Eric is a much more complex character this time around (which admittedly didn’t take much), but Hauer-King himself is charming and appealing enough. Daveed Diggs’ take on Sebastian the crab is loyal to the original, but his voice lacks some of the lower timbre that gave Sebastian an air of amiable authority. Javier Bardem’s King Triton is a much more imperious, serious take on the character, trading the animated version’s oversized Daddy energy for a level of grounded drama and emotion that helps make the character more relatable but at the cost of vibrancy. The most notable alteration is probably Awkwafina as Scuttle, here changed from a male pelican to a female Northern gannet. Her distinctive voice and rapid delivery is a refreshing case of a character not aiming for a perfect replication of the original. She also raps (yes) on one of the new songs, “The Scuttlebutt”, that isn’t any more essential than the other new songs but does contain an epic amount of cringe.

One of the through-lines for this version of The Little Mermaid is a lack of conviction and follow-through. There are hints of where Marshall and the writers want to take the story, but they don’t get all the way there or their application is inconsistent. There’s a strong push to make Ariel a more active character, to make the romance between her and Eric feel more balanced, and to giving Eric a character at all. All of these come off relatively well if not always deftly executed. But the setting’s time and place are impossible to pin down from the script’s context, the film can’t really decide if it wants to be grounded or fantastical, and the scenes on land can sometimes feel oddly inert and contained. The underwater moments feel like you’re part of a living, breathing ecosystem, but the above-ground ones feel like you’re part of a wholly artificial set that manages to feel both cheap and expensive at the same time.

Of all the Disney live-action remakes we’ve been subjected to, and of all the ones yet to come, none contain the level of risk that The Little Mermaid did. Almost no other Disney film is as important to the animated canon. While it makes a harder case for its own identity more than most of the other remakes, and while it allows the world to meet the radiant talent of Halle Bailey, it ultimately doesn’t rise to the level of truly essential. It’s a much higher bar to clear here than we’ve seen before, and the film should be commended for even coming close. Maybe if it hadn’t sacrificed one of its most iconic villains in the process, it could have crossed the threshold. It’s true what they say: “Life’s full of hard choices, innit it?”

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+

1 comment on “The Little Mermaid Both Swims and Sinks

  1. Jay Davis

    There’s just reasons why the Disney adaptations worked so well in animation and with some tweaks, on stage as well. Characters like Ursula, Sebastian and Scuttle work so well when depicted as over the top, which doesn’t work so well with how tastes in film have developed. On stage and in animation, we can go over the top, but in live action, people want more realism, more subdued and nuanced performances.

    That worked great for Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella where he basically did a new adaptation from the ground up with only a few nods to Disney’s animated feature because he didn’t have to live up to those moments. But with these remakes where the script is only somewhat reworked from the animated version we’ve watched for decades, we can’t help but remember the iconic performances that these new versions are based on. We remember how they delighted us. So these open at a disadvantage.

    I thought Melissa did fine as Ursula, but trying to make this story realistic just wasn’t the wisest thing. It’s a story about a mythical creature. Embrace it or don’t bother.

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