Disney has decided to remake literally all of its intellectual property into live action films. Devotees have a variety of excuses for recycling material instead of creating new stories, including “modernizing the films for a younger audience” (which seems to make sense until you realize that “Moana” - which came out in 2016 - is getting remade … the true reason is of, course, profit). I put the cynicism aside and decided to have an open mind, because while most of the reboots are quite unnecessary, I still maintain the “Beauty and the Beast” reboot was better than the original.
“The Little Mermaid” is a mixed bag, and unfortunately, the mix is more negative than positive. It’s a shame because I can see what the creators were trying to do, but they missed the mark a bit. It starts out particularly rough and gets easier as the film progresses.
One of the challenges of adapting cartoons to live action is striking the balance between realism and the whimsical nature of cartoons – “Sonic the Hedgehog” managed to do this (after getting it wrong in the first attempt and facing massive backlash from fans). That film had CGI characters that looked realistic but maintained the exaggerated expressiveness of their animated counterparts. “The Little Mermaid” gets it right with Scuttle, the bird, but flops with Flounder the fish (who is too realistic) and Sebastian the crab (who just looks odd). I suppose it’s better than going full-on realism, like they did with “The Lion King,” but Disney still has not got it right yet.
The underwater world is strikingly beautiful, particularly the colorful mermaid tails and coral reefs, but we lose a lot of the suspension of disbelief that is easier to maintain in the cartoon. There are so many moments where you go, “How is the bird talking underwater? How are these paper pages not disintegrating underwater? Scuttle just ate a fish; is there a hierarchy of seafood? Ariel is blasting a song right in view of the sailors. How do they not hear her?”
And the more annoying among us who are particularly attentive to plot holes (like myself) will notice, how does Ariel not get the bends swimming that far with air in her lungs? Why is there a coral reef in the deep ocean under this massive Galleon ship? Where is this even located and why is there bamboo next to palm trees?
It distracts somewhat from the magical world the creators are trying to paint - it’s easier to accept in cartoon form and they didn’t course correct when it came to realism.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the massive discourse around “woke is broke” and Ariel being Black. This is neither here nor there to me - I can see the beauty of Black children having a heroine like themselves to look up to, but I can also understand the argument that the Black community should have their own, original stories or stories that make more sense to co-opt (as was skillfully done in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”).
What bothered me more was the haphazard way race was handled. Eric’s mother in this rendition is Black, and this is explained - Eric is adopted. Triton, however, is Spanish I assume (since he’s played by Javier Bardem), and all his daughters are different races. I saw a white, Asian and Black mermaid at a minimum, and this is not explained. What does that mean? Triton has a lot of concubines? But they all refer to their mother being killed by a human when they were younger. Did Triton adopt too?
I suppose the film could be taking the Lin Manuel Miranda approach (he was heavily involved in the project), in which race is irrelevant and anyone can play anything, almost an indie stage-play approach. Or the “Bridgerton” approach, where it’s just fantasy, and again, race is not relevant even in a historical setting. But that doesn’t really work here - because the creators added a lot of subtext about the race of mermaids being pitted against the race of humans, much more than was present than in the original, so casting the film as race-blind doesn’t make as much sense to me when race is very much part of the story.
Furthermore, Disney did not cast a Jamaican as Sebastian, and this feels borderline offensive to me for a film that is so race conscious, especially because the accent is absolutely terrible. It is so obvious the person voicing Sebastian is not Jamaican - and there’s other actual Jamaicans in the film! Why? Ultimately the attempt at diversity just felt confusing and heavy handed rather than uplifting.
The film also suffers from some obvious miscasting and mixed-to-bad acting. Melissa McCarthy was an awful choice for Ursula. If you really wanted diversity, Disney, you would have casted Eddie Izzard (if she’d have agreed to it) or a drag queen and showed some solidarity toward the community, which is experiencing a lot of persecution at the moment in the United States. This would be more canon - the original Ursula was based on the drag queen Divine, and is very camp, where McCarthy was giving pantomime (and badly).
I didn’t think Javier Bardem was capable of bad acting, but it seems I was wrong (though he improves as the film goes on, as does Sebastian). The script really suffers from mixing new, more realistic dialogue and novel subtext with the old, cartoony dialogue. The result is that parts of the acting feel like a high school play, while other parts of it are very serious.
I enjoyed the serious bits, but the end result was not cohesive, and it did not straddle the balance between children and adult viewers gracefully at all. The most consistent actor is Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Eric. Halle Bailey (Ariel) struggles due to the mixed script, but she is quite convincing for most of her time on land.
The one part of the film that was done well was Eric and Ariel’s romance, and the subtle rehabbing of the biggest complaint against the original - that this is a story that teaches little girls to abandon their families for men they just met, even at the cost of their own voice. Eric is a cardboard character in the original, with little to no personality. In this rendition, he has a backstory, which makes him relatable to Ariel - he is royalty, but adopted, and does not feel fully at peace in his own world. He prefers to explore and see the seas, leave the castle, and he is resentful of his race’s bias against merfolk.
The story becomes one of two people fighting ignorant parents with outdated views and wanting to explore each other’s worlds, kick the nest so to speak, rather than one of a young naive girl chasing an older boy she just met. Their romance is given a lot more time, and there’s actual chemistry between them despite the fact that Ariel cannot speak. She can communicate with Eric with an expressive face and by showing him how to do things he never knew about, like finding rare gems in sea stones, or blowing conch shells. Their attraction is believable rather than slightly predatory (I always felt a bit queasy about a man kissing a woman who cannot speak, when she has not learnt sign language and is new to communicating while mute). And whilst this is of no relevance to anyone, I appreciated that Eric was British in this version because I do prefer British accents!
As for the songs, the creators cut out one of the best ones, like “Les Poissons,” the angry French chef killing fish song (which would have really added to the “hatred of the sea” narrative). Gordon Ramsay surely could have done a cameo; he trained in France. The creators added new songs as well - Eric’s song was helpful because it gave him depth, but some of Ariel’s were confusing (such as the one where she sings it all in her head because she cannot speak).
The random rap they made Scuttle do had Lin Manuel written all over it. It was not good and is starting to become a schtick - give it a rest, Lin Manuel (Scuttle is also made a woman in this version too and is given a totally different personality … why? Make changes for a reason, not for change’s sake.)
In the end, “The Little Mermaid” is a bit of a disappointment, because I feel with a more cohesive script, better casting choices, a little more attention to detail with animation, and more substantive thought about racial discourse, this could have been a good remake. It certainly had some of the right stuff. If you are a romantic, though, this version is worth watching for the romance alone.
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