The management regrets to inform you that Disney’s The Little Mermaid remake is actually pretty good.
Well, that’s a bit tongue in cheek, in truth I’m actually surprised and elated that the 1989 classic which kickstarted the “Disney Renaissance” has been given a respectful and delightful reimagining. Unfortunately this success continues to guarantee that we can settle in for more of Disney’s systematic cannibalization of their animated library.
Disney’s revisiting their animated classics as inspiration for live action films isn’t a new concept. In the 90s, enjoyable new takes on The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians were helmed by Stephen Sommers and Stephen Herek, respectively.
But starting with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Disney fired up the remake machinery and started churning them out at an alarming pace with the bad ones outpacing the good, even with talented filmmakers like Guy Ritchie, Rob Zemeckis, and Jon Favreau attached. The threat of additional remakes looms heavily over additional classics including Snow White, Lilo & Stitch, Hercules, Bambi, Robin Hood, and even Moana. There’s a sense of naked greed and consumerism to it all.
In all this, The Little Mermaid feels like an outlier. It’s among the best films to come out of this particular cycle, which is to say that it is pretty great and actually brings a lot to the table, marrying the classic film with some new ideas.
As before, the story, loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, concerns a mermaid (Halle Bailey) who falls in love with a human prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), and pursues her heart’s desire against the counsel of her father (Javier Bardem). She’s aided by her friends Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), a crab, Scuttle (Awkwafina), a seagull, and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), a fish of indeterminate species who is decidedly not a flounder. She strikes up a bargain with Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy), to make her human for three days with which to try to win the Prince’s love. But she must do so without the ability to speak or sing; the cost is her voice.
The biggest win here – and it’s a huge one – is the casting of the lead. Halle Bailey is an absolute revelation and demonstrates huge talent as both an actress and singer. Her Ariel is imbued with girlish charm, elegant beauty, and an incredible voice. Ariel is an inherently difficult character to portray, not only because of the physicality of the film’s “underwater” settings, but because it’s a duality of extremes: from being powerfully vocal to rendered mute. In a neat twist, Ariel’s given an additional narrative capability here, as we can sometimes hear the song in her heart – even though she can’t express it out loud.
Similarly, Melissa McCarthy is – unsurprisingly – delightfully devilish as Ursula, the villainous Sea Witch.
The films excels particularly in fleshing out the relationship between Ariel and Eric. Rather than just being based on a simple mutual attraction, these are actually two people who find they have a lot in common and discover in each other a kindred spirit; someone who shares interests, aspirations, and even frustrations. Grimsby, Eric’s advisor, has a slightly expanded role as a more wise and sympathetic friend who is now serves as more of a direct parallel to Ariel’s Sebastian. The film’s distinctly Caribbean locale also gives the tale a more specific flavor than the original’s undefined setting.
The film is directed by Rob Marshall, who has already had a bit of a dry run on the concept. Marshall directed Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), which has a major subplot about a human missionary and a captured mermaid falling in love. It’s the best aspect of that underrated sequel, and you can kind of see how he’s had these ideas swimming around in his head for the last decade and applied a thoughtful and engaging romance in his approach.
As the film feels stronger when it’s doing its own thing, so too is it weaker when it’s adhering closely to the original. Whenever the dialogue is recycled – which is frequently – it feels lacking and “wrong”. Perhaps this is to some extent familiarity bias, but you can’t just hand Buddy Hackett’s lines over to Awkwafina and expect the result to stack up. Similarly, Sebastian has a lot of recycled dialogue but spoken with a different cadence and inflection, which makes it feel out of place if you know the original film. That’s not to slight the actors in these examples, rather I think it would’ve been better to change up the dialogue to avoid the distraction of direct comparison.
Generally speaking, this does also line up another point, which is that the animal sidekicks are a drag. As with The Lion King, the aesthetic for somewhat natural looking “live action” style animals really undercuts a lot of their character and warmth, opting instead for uncanny-valley designs that look kind of creepy rather than cuddly. Scuttle even sings (or raps) a terrible and out-of-place new song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
But overall, I really enjoyed the film. It feels like a more mature and nuanced version of the story, which makes it fitting for (now much older) fans of the original while also being a beacon for new ones.