A generation grew up in the revitalized animated Disney era that the 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid helped to ring in. Now that generation has kid of their own or just wants to relive the magic enter the latest somewhat live action The Little Mermaid. But sadly Disney and the film’s director Rob Marshall have run out of magic.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen, it’s the story is about a mermaid named Ariel who wants to be a part of the human world. She defies her father, King Triton and makes a deal with his evil sister Ursula. Ursula will give her legs in return she’ll have to give up her voice. If Ariel, cannot receive loves true kiss on three days she’s doomed. The animated film came in at 87 minutes. Which bring us to the first problem— the live-action remake is a bloated 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Marshall, who struck oil with his first major motion picture Chicago for which he received his only Oscar nomination for Best Director. He’s become Disney’s go-to director with Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns. Marshall has fallen into a rut with a formulaic approach to these films: gather a few movie stars, sprinkle in a well-known Broadway performer, if applicable give a couple of newcomers their big break, add a new song or three for good measure and you’ve got yourself a quasi-hit. Long gone is the man who figured out how to adapt what was considered an unadaptable musical.
What is so baffling with a clear formula in place what a fumble this film is and how hard it tries and fails to build momentum. For everything it gets right there’s at least two problems. There’s been plenty of criticism about this film some more trivial than others—we’ll leave that to forums and blogs to debate.
Halley Bailey makes her big screen debut as the titular mermaid and after having to endure the ignorance of the masses that rallied around the #NotMyAriel hashtag. She more than proves the naysayers wrong. Bailey is a star and proves she’s got the fin to handle the characters big song: “Part of Your World.” She excels in the silent areas of the film able to project what Ariel’s thinking. But Marshall, fails to trust his lead instead choosing to give her an unnecessary inner-song numbers to elongate the film and bore the audience.
Prince Eric played by Jonah Hauer-King is an area where the plot is expanded to make him a more interesting character even given his own song: “Wild Uncharted Waters.” But as Disney Prince’s go he’s dull not under a witch’s spell or as charming or heroic as others. Prince Eric is a means to an ending. They should’ve left well enough alone.
Then there’s Ariel’s CGI friends; Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) along for the ride to help out. Diggs who rose to fame in Hamilton as Lafayette/Jefferson and has spent his post-Hamilton time cashing in on his fame with a series of forgettable television roles. Diggs is perfectly cast as the lovable crab and nails the two most important songs from the beloved animated film; “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”
Which brings us to the two biggest stars in the cast Javier Bardem playing Ariel’s father King Triton and his onscreen sister Ursula played by Melissa McCarthy. Why cast Bardem if he’s going to have nothing to do? Of all the changes made to the animated story why one of them was not expanding Bardem’s role maybe giving him a song? This one must’ve been for his kids. McCarthy is clearly having a ball as Ursula and is perfectly cast—another character that could’ve been expanded but wasn’t.
The movie has two major problems. The first being that the under the water scenes seem to have been shot individually with very few shots of characters together—think a two shot. There’s plenty of over the shoulder shots giving the appearance that characters are together but that could be trickery. This was filmed during COVID—but many films have been made during COVID that had two characters interact together. The other problem in the underwater sequences is that the characters appear to be drowning in CGI. Take McCarthy’s big number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” she has all the vamp and viv to sell the number but she’s lost in visual effects.
The film’s music is still timeless. Alan Menken took home an Oscar for Best Original Score and share Best Original Song with the late-great Howard Ashman for “Under the Sea” and picked up another song nomination for “Kiss the Girl.” But with time and conversations about consent necessary tweaks were made to “Kiss the Girl” but they’re so minimal only those with the soundtrack on repeat for the past thirty years will notice. Ashman passed away in 1991 so they brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda to assist with the lyrics for the live-action go around. His contribution is most obvious with the new song “The Scuttlebutt” a rap between Sebastian and Scuttle. It’s cute but thematically sticks out since it doesn’t thematically fit in with the classics.
Marshall is the third Oscar nominee and or winner to take on one of the biggest gems in Disney’s crown. The first being Kenneth Branagh and his live action of Cinderella, although he did have the advantage of not having to make a live action musical. Branagh more than captured the magic of the original. Next, was Bill Condon who insisted that Beauty and the Beast be a musical—even with the introduction of two new songs the film harnessed the magic of the original making more along the way. But Marshall, wasn’t up to the heavy task of making a live-action The Little Mermaid, even with some memorable moments its nostalgia couldn’t make this an entirely enjoyable outing. If Disney should (and the will) decide to do another live-action remake it may be time to find another director one who hasn’t lost the magic.
Nostalgia can only take you so far.