Another remake: Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’.
THE LITTLE MERMAID **1/2 (135 minutes) PG
It has become a wearily predictable reaction to so many of these huge-budget live-action remakes of animated Disney classics how all they ultimately accomplish is to remind everyone how truly great the original was.
Enter The Little Mermaid, Disney’s $US200 million makeover of the 1989 classic that reignited the studio’s ailing animation division, and nothing has changed.
As a crowd-pleasing family film, the glittering new retelling has enough virtues to pack out multiplexes for at least two weekends – a far-from-wild guess given the multi-generational drawing power of the original’s 34-year legacy that, by now, means countless millions of children who grew up with it then introduced the film to their children.
You don’t need to be a marketing genius to figure out how such deeply embedded brand recognition will trigger an automatic collective response as people flock to the film. Cynics might regard such behavior a form of social conditioning – but that won’t happen here.
The Little Mermaid certainly looks and sounds pretty enough.
The mandatory A+ production values and classic soundtrack – with a few new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame; not so much for In the Heights) – sweep us up in a story that we probably know more thoroughly than The Three Little Pigs. (And, by the way, where is the studio’s $200 million reimagining of its Oscar-winning 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon? Come on, Disney. Get on it. Just leave out the Jewish stereotyping.)
To nutshell the tale for the few unfortunates who don’t know it inside out, here goes:
A winsome young mermaid called Ariel falls in love with a sailor (actually a prince), defying the edict from her father King Triton to steer clear of humans, who are all bad.
Knowing how Ariel longs to experience the human world, power-hungry Sea Witch Ursula approaches the naïve, pretty semi-fish with a devious proposition.
She’ll transform Ariel into a human for three days during which she has to make the prince fall in love with her. Proof of such will be a passionate kiss before sunset on the third day.
Unfamiliar with the basics of contract law and despite the perfectly sensible protestations of her critter friends (a fish and a crab), Ariel stupidly agrees, even though part of the deal is that she will be rendered mute – so no beautiful singing voice to seduce her man.
Also, if she fails to get the kiss Ariel turns back into a mermaid and becomes property of Ursula, thus leaving the hefty witch to continue with her scheme to use Ariel as a bargaining chip with the King and so usurp the throne. (What a magnificent bitch of a villain.)
Ursula thwarts Ariel’s romantic endeavours and shape-shifts into a beautiful brunette who bewitches the prince into a wedding that Ariel and her animal friends (including a seagull) must derail.
The whole thing ends up in a huge undersea catfight that, of course, resolves everything so that evil is punished and all the good folk live happily ever after.
The remake hits all the familiar story beats of the original, though with some changes fans might find annoying.
Gone is Ursula’s marvellous passage about how Ariel losing her voice isn’t a big deal because men value beauty over intellect. It’s a huge mistake, and if it was excised due to Disney’s deeply regrettable habit of woke-washing it’s horribly misguided.
People, even little kids, understand irony and context and that Ursula is an evil witch trying to manipulate Ariel into accepting her devious deal. The film is diminished for losing this bit, and its deletion proves again how political correctness factors out context.
The remake also messes around with the concept that Ariel is an innocent creature by making her commit an act in the film’s action climax that simply doesn’t make sense for her. Fans of the original will know it when they see it and – Heaven forbid – they might react badly because it goes against her character. Creatively, it’s a huge boo boo.
It’s also dubious in terms of the film’s messaging as we see the sweet Ariel suddenly adopt the behaviour of aggressive men. Isn’t that supposed to be a bad thing? It’s not equality, it’s narrative inconsistency. Just saying.
Most irritating, however, is how here Prince Eric doesn’t see Ariel’s face after she saves him from the first act’s big ship wreck. In the original he does, so instantly recognizes her when she appears on the beach with her land legs.
That doesn’t happen in the remake, so once she appears in the coastal kingdom much time is expended on him having to re-establish his relationship with her while sending people off to look for the mystery woman who saved him.
This rather pointless change does nothing but turn what was the shortest part of the story into the longest, accounting for why the film is so long. The original ran 88 minutes (78 before credits) while this one is a whopping 135 (122BC).
This will no doubt prove a test to bladders across the globe – but fear not. It’s only a theory, but the film appears to have been designed with this in mind.
At a rough guess there are at least a half dozen spots in the movie where you can comfortably zip off to the loo, perhaps with your charges, and make it back in time without missing much of the story, which you know back-to-front already.
A good time to do so is during the many musical numbers – though stick with the Under the Sea segment, which is lovely. Or during the aforementioned prolonged stretch when Ariel goes onto land.
With the weight of the film largely on her tiny shoulders, Halle Bailey does a very fine job as Ariel, singing and swimming and emoting her way through the film with considerable conviction – some achievement given how much of her performance had to be delivered to a key screen before all the VFX were put in. She’s quite the charmer.
Indeed, the only irritating thing about Ariel is her hair. Under the sea it moves freely in graceful twirls and undulations. Once she goes above the waterline, however, her beautiful mane suddenly loses its buoyancy and appears all braided and flat. Perhaps it’s Ursula’s doing.
There’s been a lot of hot air about the re-casting of Ariel as a mermaid-of-colour, given that the original film adhered to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale, which had her as being white with blue eyes.
Doesn’t seem to matter here. The story even establishes how King Triton’s daughters hail from all over the shop and are ethnically diverse, so Ariel’s complexion is accounted for, not that it really needed to be.
That said, the planned introduction of DEI (Diversity Equity & Inclusion) policies into American filmmaking next year (to qualify for Best Picture Oscar consideration) feels like it might be a most odious move. They’re full of contradictions, downgrading merit in favour of preferential treatment, a position that highlights how equity and equality are not the same thing.
As actor Richard Dreyfuss so eloquently put it when asked what he thought of these new “inclusion standards”: “They make me vomit”. (Check him out here.)
Given how digital the film is, director Rob Marshall (Chicago; Nine; Mary Poppins Returns) corrals all the elements into a handsome whole, though you wish everything wasn’t so photo-realistic. Missing from the film’s digital critters is the joyous elasticity of the original cartoon cast, and the character such quality brings.
Looking like Aquaman’s father, Javier Bardem puts on his best furrowed brow while Melissa McCarthy is terrific as the film’s plus-sized villain, playing Ursula like Cruella’s big sister.
All up The Little Mermaid registers as a sufficiently pleasing, family-oriented entertainment, if ultimately underwhelming and overlong.
As with Aladdin, Cinderella, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio, Mulan, Peter Pan and Wendy, Pete’s Dragon and all the others, it proves how no amount of money or reimagining can match the magic of the original.
One final note: It’s relatively easy doing all these remakes based on classics. What would be far more interesting and creatively exciting is if Disney revisited old films that didn’t work and reimagine them so that they do.
One candidate would be the 1985 box office disaster The Black Cauldron. A far edgier one would be the controversial 1946 film Song of the South, which has proved such a racially charged hot potato Disney never released it on DVD or on Disney+.
The 1989 The Little Mermaid is available on Disney+, as is The Black Cauldron. Good luck trying to source Song of the South.