Viewed independently of its source material, The Little Mermaid (2023) is a serviceable, if not particularly memorable, family film. The visuals are often vivid and fun, the music beautiful, and the performances charming in a campy, throw-back sort of way. Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) is deliciously diabolical, and her scenes are a clear highlight. It’s no masterpiece, sure — but in terms of being an enjoyable afternoon out with the kids, The Little Mermaid offers enough to keep the little ones engaged and the grown-ups mildly entertained.
Viewed as a live-action remake of one of the best-animated films of all time, however, The Little Mermaid fairs much worse. Even its best elements never meet the level of charm and creative passion found in the original. This version of The Little Mermaid is unnecessarily bloated — the beginning is frontloaded with needless additional backstory, while the second half is interrupted by new song sequences that add nothing to the overall experience. The movie bobs along at a leisurely pace, occasionally getting stuck on overly long comedic bits and exposition that never pay off. In short, The Little Mermaid in 2023 is a mixed bag of nostalgia bait and expensive photo-realistic production that barely justifies its own existence.
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
The Little Mermaid opens with a quote from the Hans Christian Andersen story: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more” (in that version, the mermaid is a Christ allegory — a far cry from the love-sick teenager who collects thingamabobs). The new opening sets up a decidedly serious tone. No longer happy-go-lucky mermaid-loving sailors, this Prince Eric is surrounded by men who would gladly harpoon a merperson just to stick it to ol’ Triton. These humans hate the merpeople so much, they killed Ariel’s mother once upon a time. Also, Prince Eric is adopted now, and is actively working to expand his nation’s GDP. The entire “Les Poissons” subplot was excised for being too silly for the live-action film. Director Rob Marshall tries to hit all the story beats of the 1989 classic, but his version of The Little Mermaid is a bleaker, more serious, affair — updated for 2023, but just barely.
Marshall would have been better to actually remake The Little Mermaid like Niki Caro did with Mulan — keeping the heart of the story but with content more suitable for a live-action film in the 2020s. Instead, his film is an awkward mix of old and new. Remarkably, Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) is not nearly as nightmare-inducing as other (failed) attempts to bring beloved non-human cartoon characters to live action — looking at you Lumiere — but he still lacks expressive qualities, undermining some of the comedy. Flounder is worse, while Scuttle, at least, benefits from Awkwafina’s personality. The main attraction, Halle Bailey as Ariel, is fine — but this movie is no star vehicle. Rather, every chance Bailey has to break out and be a unique, compelling take on the character is undermined by the forced adherence to the original movie’s story beats. Bailey has a fantastic voice and is brilliant onscreen, but she was limited by the material.
Disney Doesn’t Understand What Made The Renaissance Movies Special
Following the infamous footsteps of the Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin remakes, The Little Mermaid follows the 1989 film very faithfully, but “corrects” certain elements and extends the film experience with additional scenes and songs. Also, as with those aforementioned remakes, the new content actively detracts from the story. The songs are extremely generic “musical” fare — at times, I was reminded of a high-production-value College Humor sketch. The choice to give Ariel a new song to sing after she’s traded her voice (presumably it’s happening in her imagination?) was very confusing for my kids, and took time away from developing her on-land chemistry with her love interest. Eric’s “Wild Uncharted Waters” at least offers a good time for a bathroom break.
Disney has once again demonstrated its current creative leadership does not understand what made the Renaissance movies so special (or at the very least, doesn’t care about these remakes being timeless classics themselves). The changes made to the story in The Little Mermaid destabilize the plot, taking a clear, well-structured screenplay and throwing the balance off completely. Efforts are made to flesh out Eric and make him a parallel to Ariel — but this was never his story, and it would have been perfectly fine for him to stay a simple, likable himbo. The most egregious change, though, is the complete removal of the “Les Poissons” (RIP René Auberjonois, the original Chef Louis — you are missed). It would have been challenging to do this scene faithfully, but removing the entire “Chef Louis trying to cook Sebastian” subplot also eliminates the payoff to Sebastian’s running joke about fish being eaten by humans. “Under the Sea” has the lyrics “Fry us and eat us / In fricassee” — a reference to the French dish Chef Louis tries to cook later in the film. Now, humans are just anti-merfolk bigots, which is much less funny.
The changes to the tone also create contradictions that undermine the narrative pace and tension. The humans know mermaids exist, but want to kill them (for… reasons?), but there seems to be some confusion in terms of the mythology. Repeatedly, Ariel’s voice is referred to as her “siren song,” which is implied to have the power to enthrall humans, like when she sings to Eric (which uh, introduces some questions of consent here guys). Given the setting seems to be somewhere in the Caribbean, it’s possible Jamaica’s River Mumma is informing the lore here — which actually would have been very cool. But, because most Americans presumably have never heard of that folktale, The Little Mermaid instead awkwardly inserts the Greek myth, which suggests the humans fear the mermaids’ singing will lead them to their death and doom. It’s just one example of the many additions that only serve to complicate the narrative, introducing uncomfortable questions (like did Ariel put a spell on Eric?) in trying to give backstory that was never needed in the first place.
The Little Mermaid will make boatloads of money during its theatrical run, but it won’t make a splash long-term.
TVOvermind Rating: 2.5/5
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