A young mermaid longs to experience the fascinating world of humans in Disney‘s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.
The youngest of seven mermaid sisters, Ariel (Halle Bailey — not Halle Berry as I remind myself for the hundredth time) spends much of her days frolicking among the wrecks of the human race littered across the ocean floor. Their random baubles and bits fill her with wonder of a world that she knows so little about. If only she could get a firsthand look at this curious community that travels about so awkwardly on those — what do you call ’em? Oh — feet!
Her father Triton (Javier Bardem), the king of the seven seas, has forbidden such forays above the waves and reprimands his rambunctious daughter for her most recent excursions. A despondent Ariel turns to her mystical aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) and takes her up on an offer that she can’t resist — but at what cost? It falls to her friends Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) to keep Ariel from losing more than just her way.
The beloved 1989 animated story that serves as the foundation for this live-action remake is revered for several reasons. One of them is that it represents the film that brought Disney animation back from a long, dark period of box office failures. It was a trend so pervasive that the very existence of the art form came into question. For all of the new fortunes that film brought up from the deep, it pales in comparison to many of Disney’s later animated efforts. It’s a thin story with even thinner characters that feels driven by the power of one unforgettably addictive song. This is the Disney story that could benefit the most from their insistence on squeezing every last dollar, pound, lira and yen from its catalog of classics.
For their part, Disney seems to have accepted the story’s shallow shortcomings. They’ve clearly set out to plumb the depths of this potentially teeming ocean. Gone are several dreary subplots that only distracted from the main attraction. Benefiting the most is the backstory of love interest Eric. In the original, the poor lad was little more than an afterthought, existing only to give Ariel someone to draw her into his world. The Eric of this fairy tale is far more fleshed out with his own set of challenges and curiosities. Ariel’s over-protective father also gains much-needed nuance. The Triton in the original was just a short stack of annoying stereotypes. This Triton is a living, breathing (more or less) believable father figure desperate to protect his daughter out of love, not rote tradition. Bardem gets the chance to infuse the character with an authenticity that transforms the story into a surprising, heartfelt father-daughter tearjerker.
There are some choppy waters here. McCarthy is uneven as the evil Ursula. She sways with the tides between astounding and exasperating. The songs survive, but with two notable issues. A new number called “Scuttlebutt” feels out of place, and more disturbing, Disney messed with the magical mojo of its cash cow “Under the Sea” by moving it from a chorus number to a duet. The end result is a decent rendition, but lacking much of the energy of the original. Thankfully, Bailey’s melodic timbre helps to offset the downgrade.
Speaking of Bailey, her performance, along with the new storyline, sets her up as a personable princess for a new generation. The only qualm that I have was that, at 23, the actress looks all of 15, making for a few unintentionally creepy moments during her courtship.
The biggest shock of all is in the visual department. Ariel’s undersea world is utterly captivating, but the immersion is shattered every time any mermaid, mollusk or mammal moves as much as a muscle. The CGI, especially when compared to the recently released Avatar: The Way of Water, looks like something out of the earliest days of the technology. Nothing moves with any sense of realism. On the plus side, while Sebastian also looks ridiculous in motion, the rest of his animated self works wonderfully. I wanted to buy a toy version long before the film’s finish.
On the whole, this live-action transition comes into port mainly intact and well-provisioned for a longer journey. It isn’t quite as good as the live-action Beauty and the Beast, but it’s a far cry from the misfires of the rest of Disney’s live-action remakes.