movie review

What Happened to the Frothy Pleasures of The Little Mermaid?

Halle Bailey is a delight in the Disney live-action remake, but everything around her is mercilessly dull and misguided. Photo: Giles Keyte/Disney Enterprises

The cries of anti-feminism still swirling around the original The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, seem to misunderstand that Ariel (voiced marvelously by Jodi Benson) is a young woman fueled by boundless curiosity. Her exploratory spirit and desire for adventure on the surface world finds an outlet in Prince Eric, but he’s hardly the cause or impetus of her curiosity. In the 2023 live-action update, Halle Bailey gets it; she foregrounds Ariel’s sweetness but also maintains her desire to face the unknown, the two sides of her personality stitched together with vitality and charm. It all comes through in her singing voice, which has a clarity of emotion in its range that is beautiful. But Bailey is, unfortunately, completely failed by the dull, misguided production around her. As the studio has done with other live-action remakes, Disney betrays its own lack of imagination and an essential misreading of what made its original children’s fare such a joy to audiences in the first place.

The marketing around the film, directed by Rob Marshall, would have you believe that this The Little Mermaid is a bold reimagining that prioritizes a modern, moral, even feminist schema missing in the original. But this Little Mermaid doesn’t reimagine so much as curdle its predecessor’s story with mostly minor changes. It sticks to the sequence, scenes, and dynamics of the original, save for some overdone character exposition that is meant to give the film greater emotional heft but just leaves the plot and dialogue leaden.

Ariel (Bailey) is the youngest of her colorfully designed seven sisters and vastly different than the rest of her diverse sistren, played by actors like Bridgerton’s Simone Ashley. The sisters don’t live in the castle; they only visit from their respective sea kingdoms for the coral moon to reconnect with their father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). Despite her mother’s death at the hands of humans — a fact that is unceremoniously dropped in a bit of dialogue but never really reckoned with — Ariel is profoundly curious about the surface world and the dynamics of its peoples, leading her to collect the prosaic sunken treasures of fallen ships. King Triton forbids his youngest princess and anyone of the kingdom from such pastimes, but Ariel’s desires continue unabated, leading her to eventually come across Prince Eric, a leader who deeply desires to bring his vaguely defined kingdom into a new era. The sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) observes this connection and uses it to exploit Ariel for her own gains — revenge for having been exiled from the kingdom by her older brother, King Triton. The only positive and dramatic change is in how Ariel eventually saves the day at the very end (I won’t say how). Otherwise, backstories are wielded like cudgels. Diversity is surface level — a neat way for Disney to bolster its image and give the appearance of political thought; the studio is more than happy for Black people to act as foot soldiers defending the worth of the brand against a barrage of online trolls with bad-faith arguments.

And yet Bailey’s Ariel is a wonder, perhaps to a fault, as evidenced by her lackluster scene partners’ inability to effectively share the screen with her. She barely speaks to her sisters (who make no real impression beyond my questioning why their scaly mermaidness was visually designed in such a manner), another sign that the feminist bona fides laced into Disney’s marketing are merely image bolstering. Bardem’s Triton is bored and checked out, never granting genuine affection for Ariel or any of his daughters. Scuttle is grating before and after Awkwafina performs a sing-song rap (Lin-Manuel Miranda must be stopped!). Disney could have cast an actual Caribbean for the role of Sebastian. Instead, we get Daveed Diggs’s poor accent and comedic timing.

But the two greatest failures come in the form of Ursula and Prince Eric. Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula should be a fragrant delight. In the original, she’s a full-bodied spectacle, the most free and confident of the undersea world’s inhabitants. McCarthy lacks the silken pleasures that voice actor Pat Carroll provided the role. She’s not bawdy or alluring. She leaves little impression right down to her final moments. Somehow worse off is Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric. He’s a man without the charisma and virile vulnerability the character demands. Instead of being the kind of strapping prince you swoon over, he comes across as the guy who served you coffee at a café down the block and whose visage you forget the moment you grab your cup. You can feel Bailey trying to conjure some heat — any spark between them. Despite her efforts, their relationship never stirs the heart or captures the spirit of a great, consuming love, making her choice to become human and leave her culture even more damning than before.

The lack of narrative invention is only a single issue in a film filled with them. The sonic and visual dimensions lack the elastic flair of John Musker, Ron Clements, Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken’s earlier creation. The 1989 movie was a seamless, frothy confection. The 2023 remake is a ragged mess. (Though perhaps not quite as visually muddled as trailers and clips would have you believe.). The night scenes and a good portion of what occurs underwater is in fact hard to parse out in its visual details, as if a coating of dishwater has been placed upon every frame; there’s no visual levity. And while this Little Mermaid begins in more colorful fashion, the vibrancy is leached from the movie as it marches on, checking off the beats of the original while adding nothing to justify a revamp. Its biggest misstep is the decision to make the once animated animals creepily photorealistic, exiling the movie to an uncomfortable uncanny valley where the dead eyes of Ariel’s aquatic friends attempt to ferry the story along. The musical approach is egregious, too, the tweaks made to the featherlight originals feeling laborious more than anything else. (Where’s that great bodyyy language line from “Poor Unfortunate Souls”?) What’s added to the life of the film — like Prince Eric’s time waste of a song and the aforementioned Awkwafina rap — brings no joy. Yes, Bailey gives a transcendent vocal performance, particularly in her yearning rendition of “Part of Your World.” But I don’t think a film of this sort — clocking in at about 45 minutes longer than the original despite not adding that much consequential new material — can thrive off the strength of a single song.

In a March profile, Bailey argued for the worth of her version of Ariel: “I’m really excited for my version of the film because we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy. It’s way bigger than that. It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life and what she wants.” This is clever promotion, not a truth about a movie that is neither explicitly modern or feminist. This Little Mermaid only provides the skin of progress, not the bone, marrow, sinew, and guts necessary to change a story on a deeper level. Mainstream pop culture is stuck in a gear where the people involved in a production argue for the work’s importance rather than its artistry. They give a personal anecdote. They talk about how children can grow up viewing the characters as a model for their own lives. Rinse and repeat.

At this point, we — critics and audiences and filmmakers — need to have an honest conversation about the limits of this kind of representation, which is generally good for children’s imagination but sours when adults begin to look at the media they consume like children as well. It’s all made worse by the fact that Hollywood sees people of color as a buoy in times of financial strife. Consider the blaxploitation boom of the 1970s, which handily saved the studio system. Disney is once again excavating an audience of color desperate for material change, taking advantage of those who believe film is a mirror or a moral tool. It shouldn’t have to be either. Its pleasures don’t need to be found in realism; they can be found in fantasy, built with worlds and peoples far beyond ourselves that still let us consider the touching foibles that make us human. The only fantasy The Little Mermaid provides is built on the calcified enterprise of Disney and Hollywood itself, which continues to fail its great Black talent as it lines its pockets and mines the worst aspects of our culture’s nostalgia.

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What Happened to the Frothy Pleasures of The Little Mermaid?