There is a moment in the new live action THE LITTLE MERMAID when you realize all the songs from the infamous Disney film have been performed. The film feels far from complete however and you notice there is still an entire hour left. While runtimes have been debated for far too long and a long runtime is hardly an issue, but when you find yourself wondering how a film is going to use up its remaining slog of a time well you know you’re in trouble Gary Marshall’s adaptation of THE LITTLE MERMAID is unfortunately yet another perfect example of how Disney has lost its heart and soul long ago (decades it feels like). It is not that it cannot capture the joy that came from the 1989 animated classic (although they doesn’t help), but it is more so that the film never understands it’s own source or refuses to be part of anything that made this classic tale so memorable. Here is a film whose weight relies so heavily on its super talented lead that when she swims against anything else it feels like someone drowning in an endlessly untalented abyss. Cast members asleep at the wheel, horrendous eyesore CGI, and a the now obligatory Lin-Manuel Miranda songs that will have you reaching for your nearest dinglehopper to pull your ears out. So take it from me, life under the sea is indeed better because at least down there you never have to come up to the surface to relive this nightmare.
Everyone knows the story of The Little Mermaid, and this adaptation for better or worse doesn’t try anything new to start off its near shot for shot remake. Ariel (a tremendous Halle Bailey) is bored with her undersea life and wants to explore the human world. Her father King Triton (a bored out of his mind Javier Bardem) doesn’t want her having any part of that world as it was the reason for the death of Ariel’s mother’s death, (a subplot that sets the film on a new path but is never explored past minimal dialogue). Thankfully Ariel has some underwater friends including Flounder the fish (Jacob Tremblay), crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and the always confident but rarely right bird Skuttle (Awkwafina). These characters now brought to life through CGI have lost any charisma that was once there, and while the film does not need to be always compared to its other iteration it is unfortunate that these animal friends often come around as mere annoyances as opposed to the friendly companions. Diggs may be a more appropriate voice for Sebastian but behind those beady eyes there is hardly any excitement. Even his big “Under the Sea” number is so lifeless that it feels more like a screensaver than musical extravaganza. The film seems to have a weird commitment issue to what they want to do with these animals when it comes to the realism of it all. There is nothing wrong with a more realistic portrayal of underwater creatures, but when half the creatures can talk and the other are limited to somewhat realistic portrayals then there is a realization that even the filmmakers don’t have a strong hand on what they are doing but instead settle for give us the characters we know and just leave it at that; the new Disney motto. Let the Disney name sell the product and settle with everything else.
Thankfully the creatures are not the main focus. The film’s not so secret weapon is its leading lady, Halle Bailey who has already set a name for herself with her award winning duo Chloe X Halle (which she shares with her sister Chloe Bailey). She also has built her acting chops with side roles that include Disney’s Grown-ish which has allowed Bailey to always deliver quick but always memorable one liners. From the moment Bailey is on screen she brings an elegance to Ariel that proves she not only fully understands the character she will make each moment her own swimming miles beyond what is given. Her vocal work is unparalleled, and while the film doesn’t bode for repeat viewing her performance of “Part of Your World” should be on everyone’s playlist for years to come. If only the scene itself knew how to do anything other than pan around the actress. A ballad about wanting to explore the world beyond the limitations put on women in life, is reduced to just a camera panning around its young star. Again it knows Bailey’s voice will lock you in so the filmmakers feel no need to try anything else.
While the story of Ariel has always been about how young girls are often silenced in their wanting to explore this film settles for a more Romeo and Juliet obstacle. The idea that both the human and sea worlds are at war can be seen as admirable, especially if heading towards an ecofriendly tale, but this film settles for minimal at every corner. Enter Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) who wants to explore the uncharted waters, but due to his adoptive mother forbidding him (something about his father going mad) he spends his days being watched over and singing ballads about the uncharted waters. Hauer-King is far from a poor talent but Prince Eric continues the trend of being one of the more forgettable characters in an unforgettable tale. His first meeting with Ariel brings some excitement towards the film and after a nauseating trip to the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy giving us absolutely nothing) Ariel sacrifices her voice for life on the land and with her hopeful Prince to love. Once on the land it seems like the film might have found its stride and even with her voice gone, Bailey is able to excel with wonderful eye acting and mannerism that continuously remind us we are not just seeing a star being made for a wider audience but also that she is making every moment her own that. Expanded scenes on land involving Ariel exploring a market or dancing with the locals never lives up to anything past your standard “dish out of water” story, but Bailey carries herself with such radiance that when the film finds a way to give us a new Ariel song, you are continuously reminded that she is not just putting in every bit of work she is carrying this film that you’d much rather have a Halle Bailey Disney concert instead.
THE LITTLE MERMAID may not have had a high bar to live up to as most of the Disney live action remakes have stumbled (although not financially) it is still quite a shame to never feel anything past boredom for this story that can and has been so joyful too many. There are those (including this critic) who may not have a nostalgic emotional connection to any previous versions of the nautical tale, but this is just another version to add to an already forgettable list of remakes that choose to never capture any of the same beauty. It is not an argument that these films are hard to adapt, no it is instead an unwillingness from a studio who knows what they already have and refuse to deliver anything new or exciting. To a new generation this could still work, but for the most part it is hard to believe that they will still not grow up on the already established classics that have been created by filmmakers and composers that believed in what this magic could bring to many. Whereas these dished out new renditions have proven time and time again there is just a choice to settle and rely on maybe one or two exciting talents to carry the whole thing. The film also finds a way to suggest that this is far from the last time we will see this version of the story as of course sequels are hinted at. And if that is the case I Implore that now that the first story is out of the way the filmmakers must find a way to bring this journey into a light that can conjure up some bit of magic or excitement. Ariel’s wonder and excitement is more than alive and there is plenty of ways to make up for this and bring a new sense of joy for everyone. If not then I think its time for this story to stay at the bottom of the ocean forever.
THE LITTLE MERMAID IS IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE