The Little Mermaid (2023)
The Little Mermaid (2023)

Genre: Fairy Tale and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.

Release Date: May 26th, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Rob Marshall Actors: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Jessica Alexander, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, Noma Dumezweni

 


 

D

espite ocean ruler King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) numerous warnings, his youngest daughter, Ariel (Halle Bailey), remains obsessed with learning about the human world above. The more he forbids her from engaging with the dangerous land dwellers, the more the headstrong mermaid yearns to experience living amongst them. When a trade ship runs aground during a vicious storm, Ariel rescues one of the sailors, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Desperate to see the young man again, Ariel falls prey to the cunning sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who tricks the girl into giving up her voice for a chance to reunite with the prince. Now, with the aid of her best friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (Awkwafina), Ariel must share a kiss with Eric within three days or she will be become a pawn in Ursula’s dastardly quest for revenge.

The transition from traditional animation to largely computer-generated visuals doesn’t help the cute and cuddly nature of many of the denizens from the 1989 version, but perhaps this is more in line with the severity of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. After all, that source material includes a wealth of tragedies and a dearth of lighthearted adventure and humor. For this adaptation, an introductory quote about a mermaid’s increased suffering due to a lack of tears certainly seems to pave the way for a darker interpretation.

But, of course, as a Disney picture, any potential harshness is limited at best, even when an initial shark attack sequence in a ship graveyard boasts greater thrills. Strangely, even with the authenticity of a computer-animated shark, the chase and close-calls feel plain and unthreatening (Flotsam and Jetsam are a touch more menacing, however, alongside Ursula’s sinisterly upgraded lair). Plus, it’s not long before unprompted singing occurs, which is suddenly harder to digest in the realm of live-action actors and photorealistic sea creatures. This is true of the fantasy elements as well; before, in the cartoon classic, the existence of magical beings was never questioned. But once the backgrounds, props, and saltwater inhabitants take on a striking realism, it’s more difficult to buy into potions and otherworldly powers – and even talking fish. The suspension of disbelief is exponentially higher with a switch to live-action, despite this fairy tale being well-known. A prime example of this is when “Under the Sea” booms, with the aquatic band no longer playing instruments, because, well, that would be unbelievable for authentically-depicted starfish and dolphins and jellyfish to pull trumpets and tubas and percussion equipment out of nowhere.

The lion’s share of the introductory sequences are entirely familiar; the reimagining, though benefitting from an exquisite visual upgrade, offers few deviations. Some of the frills and gills are redesigned (Sebastian’s crustacean figure is now so authentic that it highlights just how unnatural the cartoon’s look was – something of a clam or slug merged with a crude crab), along with costumes and hairstyles, but these are minimal. Everyone here is an obvious iteration of the original. Bailey is perfectly acceptable; Bardem, Tremblay, and Diggs are excellent; and McCarthy is a superb casting choice (“squidling rivalry!”). But Hauer-King doesn’t seem quite right and Awkwafina’s voice is too overwhelming to sound like anything but herself, which overtakes Scuttle as any sort of specific character; it’s now just Awkwafina as a bird.

So many of the initial moments are direct translations (this is an obvious remake of Disney’s own property, not a fresh look at the Andersen tragedy) that it becomes jarring when tiny things are changed – whether it’s a switched note or a new word in an old line of dialogue. Fortunately, the main songs are still here and still resounding, as Alan Menken’s music for the ’89 version represented quite possibly the best the studio ever produced. But for the sake of not being the exact same, countless minor alterations arise, from overdramatic exaggerations in action and the background score, to amplified lightning and fire and destruction at sea and during the climax. “The sea gods are against us!”

As with any redo of a perfect original, the odds are stacked against effortless success. And this 2023 version really needs to justify its own existence, or why not simply rewatch the prior film instead? A handful of new songs crop up, but, like the bulk of triflingly modified details or subtle shifts in the plot, they not only seem unnecessary but also contribute to a slower pacing. Hand-drawn animation has to stick to essential components only; the easier format here allows for greater dawdling, which it readily embraces. The music and the basic plot (focusing on a fish out of water learning about a “grass is always greener” mindset, to the tune of a romantic comedy) are still exceptional, but this modernization can’t come close to capturing the magic of its three-decades-older inspiration. “We’re running out of time and no one’s puckered up!”

– The Massie Twins

  • 6/10