While Disney’s latest live action remake of one of their own animated classics, The Little Mermaid, is another bit of wading into the shallow end of the creativity pool, I think I finally understand the motivation to make such uninspired assembly line product. Throughout the unfathomably long and wholly unnecessary 135 minute running time of director Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid, I was transported back to my childhood. Not to fond memories of watching the 1989 classic on the big screen (because I honestly can’t remember if my parents took me to see it in theatres), but to something that I’m a little less proud of in hindsight.
When I was really young, I tried to convince my parents that I was somehow allergic to black and white movies, like watching one of them would somehow send me convulsing to the hospital. I also tried this same line of fibbery when it came to drinking water with hopes it meant more tasty, sugary treats, but that was far less successful. I just couldn’t see the appeal of watching a bunch of old (and probably dead) fogeys doing a bunch of old timey things in black and white when the world around me and the cartoons I loved at the time were in bright, vibrant colour. It took a long time for me to reverse that mentality, but trying to get me to watch a black and white movie was like pulling teeth.
In the back of my mind and throughout The Little Mermaid, I was wondering if something similar was in play, but instead of black and white film stock, little kids today were somehow turned off by the traditional animation techniques that were still in wide use through the latter days of the twentieth century. They haven’t been raised on that particular style of filmmaking, and even the cartoons they watch today have a different kind of sheen to them. You won’t see any hand drawn lines anywhere these days, and almost all of it is done by computers. It might actually be easier to get a four or five year old to sit still and watch a VFX heavy Little Mermaid than it would be a 35 year old animated movie because it’s more familiar to them.
Or at least that’s some sort of rationale that I kept telling myself, watching The Little Mermaid and being bored out of my skull. I was trying really hard to be charitable to Disney’s latest, but I have just run out of new things to say about these double dips into their almost bottomless amounts of IPs. Having some sort of familiarity with Disney’s previous take on the story of a young mermaid princess who yearns to be human is almost death for Marshall’s film unless you like being force fed a pale imitation of something you already know by heart. The Little Mermaid was a box office smashing classic back in the late 80s, one that forever altered the course of the company and almost singlehandedly saved Disney’s animation department from a complete gutting. Today’s take on The Little Mermaid is nothing more than the filling of a release date on a calendar with a bankable tentpole; a means to an end with little reason to justify its existence outside of the fact that section of the population will see it regardless.
The story remains the same, but the players have changed. This time out, Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, the titular mermaid who dreams of living life above the ocean surface, especially after developing a crush on hunky Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Her royal father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) strictly forbids it, and her sea creature friends – child-like fish Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), hyper-protective crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and scatterbrained seagull Scuttle (Awkwafina) – don’t think it’s the greatest idea, either. Undeterred, Ariel turns to her evil witch aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to grant her wish in exchange for her voice. Ursula obliges, but neglects to tell Ariel that she must experience true love’s kiss within the next few days or she’ll lose her precious, melodious voice forever.
And for the most part The Little Mermaid plays out almost exactly like the original, as if screenwriter David Magee simply copied and pasted John Musker’s original work into a text file and then just added a bunch of unnecessary bloat around it to drag this thing kicking and screaming beyond a running time that Marshall simply can’t sustain. Almost a full hour longer than the film that spawned it, The Little Mermaid is chock full of unnecessary and sometimes barely noticeable additions that drag the story down into Davey Jones’ Locker.
The pace of this thing is absolutely leaden, especially if you can remember how quick and economical the 83 minute animated version was. Does the world need an in-depth look at the backstory of Prince Eric, the story’s most one dimensional character, complete with a gratingly awful new torch song for him to sing? Absolutely not. Do we need additional scenes where Triton and Ursula further fret about their situations without adding anything of substance back to the story? Also, no. Does Scuttle need to provide a random rap penned in part by Lin Manuel Miranda? Probably not, but at least that provides one of the few whimsical high points here.
Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns) takes what can kindly described as a leisurely hour to get around to any sort of point here. The Little Mermaid just sits there, making the audience wait (im)patiently for all the fun high points they remember from the original, but it all looks so drab and delivered so unenthusiastically that it’s like waiting two hours in a drive-thru for a lukewarm Big Mac. Scenes occurring above water look pretty great, popping with vibrant colours that at least deliver some amount of spectacle. But the underwater action that comprises the bulk of the film is tough to swallow. Sometimes it looks like these characters are underwater, with their hair gently swaying with the currents and interesting plant life and creatures peppering the background. But too often, everything looks like it was shot on a nondescript sound stage and no one in post production was able to settle upon a consistent visual tone. Outside of the mermaid tails and Ariel’s best buddies, nothing in The Little Mermaid is all that convincing. Credibly making one believe things are happening underwater in an animated movie is easy because those films don’t have to subscribe to some degree of photorealism. Trying to look realistic is one of Marshall’s biggest flaws.
It doesn’t help that some of the actors in The Little Mermaid look like they would rather be anywhere else. To her immense credit, Bailey is a spot on casting choice, bringing a great voice and a true sense of wonderment to the character of Ariel, and adding some much needed warmth to an otherwise dark and soulless affair. For his part, King is fine, but again, his character isn’t that compelling to begin with. Diggs, Tremblay, and Awkwafina steal the whole show whenever they’re on screen, not just because these characters are fun to watch and play into some of the most memorable musical numbers, but because they’re lively and playful in ways the rest of the film is not. Bardem and McCarthy, on the other hand, look objectively bored and like they’re half a step away from firing their agents. Maybe it’s because of Marshall’s slow as molasses direction, but they are constantly downplaying their characters instead of embracing their campiness. They are fine actors trapped in roles that rob them of any sort of personality, forcing them to work at half speed and minimal energy.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I love Disney’s original take on Hans Christian Andersen’s significantly darker fable. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have seen it over the years. By that rationale, I can’t entirely knock Marshall and his team from taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the story. The stuff that works best is what’s been directly copied from the original. What I can knock is Marshall and Disney draining all of the fun and charm from this to no logical end. The same can be said about almost all of Disney’s live action remakes, but that doesn’t stop them from making them and from people flocking to go see the latest reboot. This corporate strategy doesn’t lead to good films most of the time. It often just leads to more easily marketable content. Really, the only difference between the theatrically released likes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King and straight-to-streaming fare like the recent Peter Pan & Wendy is probably down to the size of the budget and nothing more. This costs more to make, and more people are familiar with it, so it’s handled like a blockbuster all over again. Only this time out, the results are significantly less impressive and well in line with similar disappointments.
The Little Mermaid opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 26, 2023.
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