The Little Mermaid, 2023.
Directed by Rob Marshall.
Starring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Art Malik, Jessica Alexander, Emily Coates, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jude Akuwudike, Russell Balogh, Adrian Christopher, Simone Ashley, Martina Laird, John Dagleish, Sienna King, Karolina Conchet, David Stokes, and Craig Stein.
A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
In Disney’s seemingly never-ending mission to redo every animated classic (for the easy money), The Little Mermaid remake helmed by director Rob Marshall (reshaping the story alongside David Magee and John DeLuca, with the former writing the screenplay based on the original story by Hans Christian Andersen and the original 1989 adaptation from Ron Clements and John Musker) surprisingly has a somewhat endearing ensemble.
However, like most things here, even that is a mixed bag leaving plenty of room to be perplexed. Whether it’s the divine voice of Halle Bailey as the inquisitive mermaid Ariel, Daveed Diggs injecting some humor and personality into crab Sebastian, or Melissa McCarthy’s sea monster Ursula, a role that fits her perfectly with some freedom to play to her comedic strengths, there are worthwhile performances here.
Then there is Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who is about as charming as cardboard, or Javier Bardem as Atlantica’s King Triton, giving the impression that he would rather be anywhere else. The visual effects on some of these talking creatures, especially Jacob Tremblay’s fish Flounder are also passable under the sea where they are juxtaposed against a good amount of color, and simply appear more natural in their regular environment, but are also strange to look at on land or above water (Flounder has the creepy dead eyes of a horror creature). The less said about Awkwafina’s rapping diving bird Scuttle, the better.
This makes for a wildly inconsistent film, albeit one that starts fine enough, swimming by on the voice of Halle Bailey and Ariel’s beloved character and story. It’s always difficult to trash live-action Disney remakes, too hard, considering the core story is typically still there and moving. It’s also beneficial that The Little Mermaid is certainly livelier than other remakes, with effort made to brighten many underwater scenes while adding vividness anywhere possible.
Still, there is no ambition to change the narrative meaningfully. Even worse, the filmmakers have added numerous songs and bonding scenes that bloat the running time rather than add anything of substance. Whenever a brand-new, original song starts, it sticks out as inferior to nearly everything else in the movie. The same applies whenever the story tries to expand the inner life of Eric or the surrounding Caribbean environments. So much of what’s happening simply doesn’t matter, feels empty, and is Disney showing off what it can do with grossly large budgets. A lot is happening on screen that looks expensive to animate, and it’s all generally forgettable.
For the unfamiliar, The Little Mermaid centers on King Triton’s youngest mermaid daughter Ariel, who feels suffocated living underwater and wants nothing more than to interact with the people above whom her father despises for causing her mother’s death. He believes all humans care about is destroying the sea and its creatures. Meanwhile, Prince Eric’s mother (Noma Dumezweni’s Queen Selena, a new character for this version) insists that exploring uncharted waters is dangerous and that mermaids only exist to use their siren calls for nefarious trickery.
The fear-mongering and smothering become so much that Ariel makes an ill-advised deal with her Aunt Ursula, a banished sea witch octopus, using sorcery to give her legs and the ability to function on land without telling her that she will lose her voice and that if he does not find true love within three days, she will transform back into a mermaid. Naturally, it’s part of a dastardly plan for Ursula to take over Atlantica and end her sibling rivalry with King Triton. For some added insurance on this villainous plan, Ariel has also had her brain warped into forgetting that she wants and needs to kiss Prince Eric, whom she falls for while noticing his bravery and selflessness while saving his life during a storm tearing apart his ship.
Only one-half of this equation rises above and beyond, inevitably sinking The Little Mermaid as it dedicates more time (there is almost an entire hour of added material here) to failing at igniting a spark between Ariel and Eric. There are attempts at further exploring the outside world, as one theme appears to be cultural connection, but there is also nothing remotely engaging going on within that idea; it’s all surface-level. The special effects are also mostly ugly and miscalculated above water, which is an issue since that’s where over half the movie takes place.
Thankfully, the overall quality is not at the bottom of the sea, but The Little Mermaid is a crapshoot of performances that are either expressive and overcome the limitations of wonky character design or lousy, with an extended narrative containing so much excess that the magic of the story quickly dissipates. Maybe things are better under the sea, but they sure as hell aren’t better in live-action.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com