Deep Dive: The Little Mermaid

Audiences have had a week to enjoy this film unperturbed. This article is probably closer to a deep-dive than a review, so be prepared for us to get into the nitty, and maybe even the gritty. Spoilers ahead.

When it comes to remakes of childhood favourites, writing a concise, measured and refined review is not only difficult, but in all likelihood dishonest. Your reaction to a film like this, if you care much at all, is guttural.  These live action remakes are Disney’s golden goose at the moment, and this reviewer is just about ready to put them out to pasture.

The fundamental justification for The Little Mermaid 2023 is the casting of Halle Bailey, and that decision has undoubtedly mattered a great deal to so, so many. But, one casting decision does not a film make, even if Bailey stands head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble.

Daveed Diggs and Jacob Trembley serve their roles well but fall victim to unemotive character design (Flounder suffers worst of all, lacking Sebastian’s slight… inner-crab eyelids?). The rest of the casting decisions make sense, on paper. Javier Bardem, for instance, seems a great fit for the authoritative Triton, but he’s clearly been directed to hold back. As before, the character fears that his daughter’s fascination with the human world will endanger her, but he never has an outburst on the level of the booming, frankly frightening discipline doled out in the original film.

The secret of plenty of these Disney classics is that they are often written by parents to assuage parents. Kids will absorb the themes and relate to the characters broadly, be dazzled by the animation (oops) and learn a bit about the wide world, etc., but The Little Mermaid is really about the fact that your kids will discover themselves, and you’ll have to make your peace with that. Triton’s temper in the original film, his inability to take his daughter’s perspective seriously, his heart-breaking “How much I’m going to miss her”, none of this is for the booger pickers. Robbing the character of his crucial overreaction when destroying Ariel’s collection of thingamabobs is totally detrimental to the film on an emotional level. He does destroy her treasures here as well, but not in a moment of overreactive fury. He just sort of does it.

Ariel’s absence at a showy concert for his benefit is the first indiscretion to irk him. You might say he doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to ‘perform for him’. In the remake, the concert, and in fact the entire underwater kingdom of Atlantica, are dispensed with. Instead, Ariel forgets to show face at the Corral Moon get-together, where Triton has all of his daughters gather. Why this is such an important event considering we see them all together again later in the film is a head-scratcher, but regardless, this decision weakens the dynamic between Triton and Ariel further and eliminates a great opening number in the process.

Melissa McCarthy vamps her heart out, but for naught. Ursula is a performative character, but she performs herself. Melissa McCarthy instead inflects Ursula, delivering every line as though she were speaking her last breath.

Prince Eric is one of the few weak spots in the 1989 film, and the remake is determined enough in sprucing him up that the character gets his own (weak) song, so it’s strange to see other changes work against what little definition existed in the first place. During our introduction to the character, he is presented with a life-size statue in his likeness. It is pompous and overdressed, and we start to like Eric when he clearly finds it embarrassing. He’s a seafarer, adventurous as Ariel is, and the point doesn’t need to be belaboured with additional dialogue (or a never addressed desire to return his ‘port to its once great stature’).

In the remake, the statue isn’t of Eric. At least, it doesn’t appear to be, since it’s hard to see much of anything whenever the characters aren’t in broad daylight. Assuming it isn’t a rendering of Eric, this makes Triton’s destruction of the statue still less emotionally poignant, but there’s also a strange slip-up. Ariel remarks that the statue’s eyes are “full of longing”, you know, like her. When the statue is destroyed, she cradles the disembodied face. In the remake, despite the fact that she still makes a point of the eyes being full of longing, she now cradles a detached hand. Is this a sign of a new motif? Ariel does take a rudder from Eric and their hands almost touch, but if this was intended as a shift in direction it wasn’t communicated well at *all*. The Little Mermaid 2023 is crawling with bizarre alterations like these.

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Jonah Hauer-King, as Eric, and Bailey do have wonderful chemistry, and some of the few genuinely effective moments here involve the pair getting to know one another. Unfortunately, these overlong and overly plentiful scenes also demonstrate the trouble at the heart of this remake. The original is a phenomenal film. Simple, but phenomenal. This reimagining comes in at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor. What new emotional realms, settings, and characters are explored with this freedom? None, as it turns out. Rather, themes and ideas explored all at once in the original are extrapolated and made into their own set pieces. Consider Ariel and Eric’s romance.

In the original film, their first day together plays out over about a minute of screen time. A montage bridges a curious breakfast, and the unassailable ‘Kiss the Girl’ scene, which puts as fine a point on things as possible. The purpose of this sequence is to: 1. Show Eric’s growing preference for this real, if odd, girl over his wrongheaded longing for a dream woman, 2. Introduce us to the island life with a refreshing change of scenery, 3. Show Ariel’s wonder at finally being on land, 4. Laugh at Ariel’s entourage as they try to keep up, consternated by the lack of progress in the relationship. In the remake, three of these are turned into their own, separate scenes. A song about “jumping, dancing” etc. for the first time. An extension of the freewheeling carriage ride that piques Eric’s interest in Ariel’s adventurous spirit. A trip to the marketplace where she marvels at life above water. Then a dance number to round out that scene. And so on.

The changes that benefit the film, like having Ariel herself deal the killing blow to Ursula, are so few they’re hardly worth mentioning, and are surrounded by a sea of banality. Others aren’t necessarily good or bad, but they often drag on far too long, like the adaptation of Scuttle’s less than romantic serenade.

The score has been adapted well, the soundtrack less so, with the new songs predictably falling short. ‘The Scuttlebutt’ has made waves online for being obnoxious (though not enough people have forewarned that there is a second, faster, more confusing rap within it), and the film does feel as though it’s been possessed by the demon Lin Manuel Miranda for a moment, but kids will probably respond to how up-tempo the track is. That almost certainly has more to do with how boring everything around it is than with any inherent grooviness.

Director Rob Marshall seems totally suffocated whenever scenes are set underwater and uninspired when set on land. Small flourishes remind us of the promise of Chicago, like the visual similarity between Triton’s magic beams spreading across the surface of the water and the reflection of the sun doing the same, but this reboot is lacking in vision. He’s gone on the record as saying he found this to be his most challenging project. Believe him. The behind-the-scenes footage for this film is mortifying, and, with all the screens involved, bluer than the ocean in the final product. What’s worse is the CGI doesn’t even look very good. Don’t misunderstand: it’s great compared to Black Widow, but it’s no Avatar: The Way of Water either. Seeing Triton’s actual beard above water at the end of the film produced shellshock. Get it, shell-shock?

That may have been a bad joke, but if you thought that was dumb, the new material in The Little Mermaid probably won’t win you over. Additional jokes stick out like a sore thumb because they seem to have nothing to do with anything. A good movie is like the universe, everything is the centre, and thus everything points to everything else. The new material in this film points to nothing in particular. Take any good joke from the original, and you’ll find a justification for its placement in the scene, the characterization motivating it, the rhythm and tone of it, the way it rolls into the next beat, absolutely everything. Here, as an example, Scuttle arrives in Ariel’s room one morning and begins to pilfer her leftover food. The bird then complains that there aren’t any nuts to eat. The scene then moves on. What was that supposed to be?

Adaptations in the name of progress are often frustrating, not because they wouldn’t be justified, but because most of these moments make points which are already in the original film, just not so prominently, or awkwardly. A line like “Bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand” isn’t just appropriate given the character’s frustrations in the scene, but artfully written and performed. “Thank you for hearing me” and “You shouldn’t have to give up your voice to be heard” are not. If you listen closely, you can hear the faint sound of executives patting themselves on the back for that one.

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The (new) Little Mermaid’s treatment is so boneheadedly literal that, and this is not a joke, there is an actual Little Mermaid in this film in the form of a small statuette in Eric’s collection. Yes, it serves as a parallel with Ariel’s destroyed statue of Eric (or, her statue of some guy, I guess), but that didn’t stop the theatre from laughing both times a character proclaimed, “my little mermaid”.

We mentioned the missing opening number above, but that decision has at least some sort of logic you might be able to get behind. Eliminating it means the first song of the film is now ‘Part of Your World’, making for maximum impact. Okay, cool. Why invoke it in the score so often before the performance then? Bailey’s voice is solid gold, but they have her perform the number with unnecessary flourishes (the quieter reprise after she’s rescued Eric, sung as she cradles him, is much better, except for the strange, twitchy intensity Bailey has when clutching the rocks nearby). This is nitpicking, but my God there are so many nits.

It goes without saying that the staging of every one of the numbers suffers in the translation to live-action, though not nearly so much as in The Lion King 2019. That’s a good way to judge this film. It is much better than a lot of the Disney remakes, but not a fundamental improvement. The bottom line is: The emotional experience of watching this new Little Mermaid isn’t evocative of the original film, but of watching any of the other Disney live-action remakes.