Written by Tom Augustine.
What a wonderful presence Halle Bailey has in The Little Mermaid. The one-time child star, current popstar blessed with a golden voice is about as close to a real-life Disney princess as you could find, and brings just the right mix of aloof luminescence to her iteration of the mermaid Ariel – so-called ‘controversy’ around her casting by racists who want to keep the ocean white be damned. Taking a cue from Brandy’s iconic turn in 1997’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, it’s a resounding reminder that anyone can be the face of a fairytale.
That is the beginning and the end, however, of what makes this soggy retread of The Little Mermaid worth watching for anyone above the age of six. The latest in an exhaustingly long line of dispiriting cash-grabs from Disney, resurrecting the carcasses but not the souls of the many beloved classic titles in their vault for empty ‘live-action’ adaptations (in quotations as so much of it lives behind an uncanny CGI sheen that it’s often difficult to tell what, if anything, is actually ‘live’ within a given frame), The Little Mermaid joins other woebegone rehashes like Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and, allegedly, Pinnochio. Once upon a time, Lost in Translation and The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola was slated to be the one to tell this tale, an intriguing and ambitious proposition that was cut off at the knees, seemingly due at least in part to fears from the Mouse House that it would lose some of its commercial viability. It’s a shame, because this is an undeniably rich fairytale for an assured auteur’s vision, one that has provided endless connection and joy for young and old since the original bopped onto screen in 1989.
The latest beloved animated classic to be updated in live action by Disney continues their streak of cynical, uninspired retellings that add very little to the original’s grandeur. Aside from a luminous performance from Halle Bailey, the only elements that work here have been lifted from the vastly superior prior work.
The version we have received comes to us from Rob Marshall, who once directed a film that won Best Picture in 2002’s Chicago, then spent the intervening years apparently attempting to disabuse us of the notion that the film’s winning had anything to do with him. The mind behind such modern musical flops as Into the Woods, Nine and Mary Poppins Returns is essentially asleep at the wheel here, capturing the magical underwater kingdom with all the wonder drained out. A dimly lit facsimile is what we’re given, in some attempt to make a fairytale about mermaids as “realistic” as possible, which is allegedly something people want.
Obviously, I am not the intended audience here – though I will note that by-and-large the best of children’s films offer pleasures that extend into adult audiences as well – and The Little Mermaid is sure to provide two hours of distraction for gawping youngsters. Whatever joy or feeling is squeezed out of this The Little Mermaid, though, is entirely whatever excess magic has floated in from the original (Bailey’s performance excepted). The music of the 1989 version, from the romance of ‘Part of Your World’ to the infectiousness of ‘Under the Sea’ will always be undeniable, even in a mode that feels like a grainy jpeg of a photocopy of a great work of art. The new musical additions serve to detract, not add, including a godawful ballad moment for Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, white bread) and a horrid rap for Sebastian and Scuttle from the pen of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who simply must be stopped.
Which leads back to the eternal question – why do these films exist? Disney would like you to think that there’s more to it than the fact that a live-action adaptation is sure to line their pockets – but if there is, that reason has yet to become clear. There’s a base-level competence to what is on-screen (if they were badly made or strange in any way, they’d probably be more interesting), but it is this bland efficiency that makes these films so offensive as cinema. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be better served by rewatching the animated version – from the checked out cast (Javier Bardem, I’m so sorry), to the murky, colourless cinematography to the shaky CGI that regularly dips into the uncanny valley (the nightmarish rendering of Sebastian as a biologically realistic crab is by far the worst, but he’s not alone). By now, audiences surely are aware that the chance to see their most-loved childhood memories recaptured in photorealistic imagery is the definition of diminishing returns, an attempt to recapture a feeling in the most cynically uninspired way possible. How long until the well runs out, and audiences start demanding something new? I can’t wait for the day.
The Little Mermaid in cinemas now.
The Little Mermaid
Movie title: The Little Mermaid (Marshall, 2023)
Movie description: The latest beloved animated classic to be updated in live action by Disney continues their streak of cynical, uninspired retellings that add very little to the original’s grandeur. Aside from a luminous performance from Halle Bailey, the only elements that work here have been lifted from the vastly superior prior work.
Date published: May 25, 2023
Country: United States
Author: David Magee, John Musker
Director(s): Rob Marshall
Actor(s): Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem
Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy