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‘The Little Mermaid’ Review
How we went down the rabbit hole and wound up under the sea.
I SPEND MORE TIME THINKING ABOUT Disney’s 2010 live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland than I, or probably anyone else, should. But it’s a weirdly important film at the intersection of two macro-Hollywood trends, the shocking success of which helps explain so much of the following years’ big-budget output.
Alice in Wonderland was the first big-budget, wide-release 3D movie to come out after Avatar, and it shocked the world by grossing more than a billion dollars globally. It didn’t really matter that compared to Avatar the 3D was mediocre, in large part because three-quarters of the effect in Alice was put together in post. All that mattered was the dump trucks full of money pulling into Disney’s Burbank lot.
The lesson to Disney and every other studio was immediate and obvious: Avatar showed us audiences love 3D and Alice showed us they will reward us handsomely for churning out crap 3D. Hence the next half-decade of mediocre 3D conversions, which killed that particular golden goose.
But Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Disney classic was also at the forefront of another trend: Disney’s decision to mine its animated back catalog for live-action gold. After Alice earned a billion dollars in 2010, between 2014 and 2019 audiences were treated to Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King, which combined to gross more than $6.5 billion worldwide. It didn’t matter that these movies weren’t particularly good or that they were pale reflections of past triumphs; all that really mattered was how massively successful they were, how they appealed to the nostalgia-addled brains of Gen Xers and Millennials with kids, and the pleasure centers of young children who just like fun songs and talking animals.
This brings us, finally, to The Little Mermaid, a movie that will, like its predecessors, make boatloads of money by appealing to nostalgic parents and rapturous tweens even if it doesn’t look particularly good or offer up anything exciting and new.
Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, and her defining feature is that she’s done a pretty good job mimicking the voicework of the original film’s Jodi Benson. Ariel, of course, is the youngest daughter of Triton (Javier Bardem), king of the sea. He has forbidden interaction between merfolk and humans following the offscreen death of his wife, Ariel’s mother, at the hands of sailors. This is a problem for Ariel, who is obsessed with the land, collecting trinkets from shipwrecks and having their purpose explained to her, poorly, by seagull Scuttle (Awkwafina). Enter Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy), who offers Ariel a chance to win the heart of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) for the low, low price of her voice.
In an effort to differentiate this from the original, writer David Magee and director Rob Marshall add1 a trio of new songs—the first two are forgettable; the third, a rap between Scuttle and Sebastian the Crab (Daveed Diggs), is pretty entertaining in spite of, or maybe thanks to, Awkwafina’s truly odd voice. They have also added a very weird plot point: In this version of the story, Ursula has not only taken Ariel’s voice but also made her forget that she needs to kiss Eric by the end of the third day. It kind of destroys the entire purpose of Ariel going to the surface world; the whole point of the story is that Ariel is in love with Eric and the civilization he represents. She’s in love with him and she needs to make him realize he’s the girl he has fallen in love with despite being stripped of her siren song. It’s the sort of narrative choice that is so utterly baffling and unnecessary one kind of wonders why the filmmakers felt the need to make it. It’s just confusing.
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A strange thing about the underwater scenes in this movie is just how empty they all look when compared to its animated predecessor. The big “Under the Sea” number still has verve and lyrical life to it, but it feels muted and drab and weirdly spaced. The whole endeavor is also just a reminder that no movie should attempt underwater scenes in the wake of Avatar: The Way of Water. It all looks flat and washed out.
This isn’t to say that The Little Mermaid is bereft of pleasures; Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as Ursula, embracing the campy status the sea witch has obtained since the original’s debut. Bailey has pipes and the audience with which I saw the picture really enjoyed her big numbers. While most of the animals are slightly horrifying in their photorealism—Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) looks like a nightmare’s recreation of Big Mouth Billy Bass—Sebastian, with his exaggerated stalk eyes and amusing multi-legged scurry, is cartoon-like enough to prompt some chuckles.
In other words, as pure commercial product, The Little Mermaid is fine: It’s not good or interesting, but it’ll make money. But one wonders if Disney’s feedback loop is consuming itself. What’s going to serve as nostalgia bait for the current crop of kids who go home humming “Kiss the Girl” after seeing this picture?