The Little Mermaid's biggest success? It's not as terrible as live-action remakes can be
Jackson Weaver | CBC News | Posted: Friday, May 26th, 2023 8:00 AM | Last Updated: May 26th
Disney's latest live-action remake is at least less-bad than most of the others
Thirteen years after Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland became the sixth ever film to cross the billion dollar mark, it's looking more than ever like there's a third certainty to life. Because, as Bob Iger is our witness, it seems the only things we can be sure of is death, taxes — and an unending slew of soulless live-action remakes made from the bones of what once were untouchable Disney classics.
Depending how you count (is 2000's 102 Dalmatians a remake of the original, and how exactly does 2010's The Sorcerer's Apprentice fit into the Fantasia universe?) the House of Mouse has returned to their cartoon vault somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 times, with almost as many currently in development.
And while there are a few exceptions — Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and David Lowery's surprisingly subversive Pete's Dragon among them — their track record suggests it's not a devotion to inventive storytelling that sends the company back to the well. Instead, it's likely an opportunity to scrub past social faux pas for a new audience, along with the rodent-sized dollar signs swimming in Mickey's eyes.
The Little Mermaid gave all the early indicators of the same: a soft-shoe cash grab whose existence simultaneously disrespects the magic and singularity of animation, while delivering a timorous plot to uncritical children — that's just inoffensively distracting enough for Disney to sneak out the backdoor with your ticket money.
Though parts of that assessment will still ring true after the credits roll, there's a bit more to the story. Because unfortunately, you do gotta (slightly) hand it to them — in the disenchanting, decomposing pile of animated adaptations, The Little Mermaid at least lies somewhere in the upper half.
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More songs, more reality
That said, the merit doesn't lie in anything new drawn out of the story. We still follow teen sea (almost) queen Ariel as she enters into a bargain with octo-witch Ursula, gaining legs and losing her voice to venture on land in pursuit of Prince Eric. But even with a runtime nearly twice that of the original, director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee almost impressively manage to avoid adding much substance.
Instead, songs are cut (Marshall gutted the admittedly bizarre Les Poissons to avoid the horrifying visual realities of cooking CGI characters), plot points adjusted (Ariel's dad King Triton now wants her by his side for the "Coral Moon Festival," instead of an inexplicably important musical number) and certain characters pushed into the background — including Canadian Jacob Tremblay's uncanny valley Flounder.
But at the same time, there is respect to the original. Though songwriting partner Howard Ashman died in 1991, Alan Menken returned to work on this iteration of The Little Mermaid. That shows in the subtly updated, but mostly impressive renditions; musician and actor Halle Bailey initially struggles to recreate the beautiful ingenue-like voice-quality of 1989 Ariel's Jodi Benson, but is given more space and an additional reprise on Part of Your World to show off the incredible register-hopping power she developed while performing with her sister Chloe.
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And as she redefines what was the first "I want" song of the Disney renaissance, Melissa McCarthy's Ursula does enough to keep the story interesting with one of the most iconic villain songs of all time, Poor Unfortunate Souls. While she doesn't quite match the drag queen-inspired vocal performance of the supreme Pat Carroll, that would likely be impossible. McCarthy instead manages to, impressively, perform in the same general arena.
The additional runtime is mostly given over to a padded, though not meaningfully expanded, story. We are given much more insight into Prince Eric's desires and suitably tragic backstory — first clunkily spelled out, and then unnecessarily restated in his own (additional) "I want" song, Wild Uncharted Waters.
Eric also gains an adoptive mother — Noma Dumezweni's Queen Selina — and his isolated island nation gains an awkward relationship with, and aversion to, globalism. Globe-trotting adventurer Eric continually pushes for increased trade (and, coincidentally, more globe-trotting adventures for himself) as his mother fights to keep them cut off and protected. It's an ill-fitting, and never fully fleshed out, parallel to Ariel's burning desire to meet and learn from humans against her father's will that likely looked better on paper than it works onscreen.
Closer to the attempted message of acceptance of others half-heartedly raised by Prince Eric's island is Ariel herself: since Bailey was announced as lead actress, a litany of critics loudly complained — either because a Black woman was cast in a role that was originally written as white, or (nonsensically) that it's somehow less plausible for mermaids to have evolved to be Black due to them living underwater.
While that's far from the only supposed implausibility (Scuttle, a bird, speaks and breathes underwater for a whole scene) or the only change (here Ursula has eight legs instead of the six she sported in the 1989 version, which prompted Carroll to argue to her death that the famed antagonist was actually a squid), that critique casts some of the movie's only actual strengths as flaws: under the sea we get a multicultural mer-family that — especially for kids — suggests a world that doesn't have to ever worry about racism.
Not only is the implausibility criticism moot, disingenuous and in bad faith, it's a symptom of the overwhelming problem at the heart of this remake: a seeming belief that adapting a cartoon well means making it fit better into the bounds of reality. The most obvious example is the visuals, as once cute anthropomorphized animals are turned into horrifying sea-creature abominations — Sebastian's eye stalks are sure to haunt your dreams, while Flounder's literal fish face just had me reciting the Jaws monologue: "lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes."
The environment becomes more realistic too — and while that adds in visually interesting segments like cavitation in underwater explosions and a whale fall on the way to Ursula's lair, it also makes the setting infinitely more dull and depressing.
And of course, there is the effort to make character choices, and thematic messages, align more closely with the real world. Why does King Triton irrationally hate humans? Here (potentially borrowed from a prequel released 20 years after the original) it's because they caused the death of his wife, instead of just because they eat fish.
After Ariel loses her voice in her deal with Ursula, why doesn't she just write a note to Eric explaining why they have to kiss? Now it's just an additional caveat to Ursula's spell, forcing Ariel to forget the conditions of their deal — which potentially also removes the iffy subtext that comes along with her being materially motivated to establish a physical relationship above an emotional one.
Fixing past mistakes just adds new ones
There were other similar changes — Menken told Vanity Fair that the "body language" segment of Poor Unfortunate Souls — where Ursula advises Ariel that "on land it's much preferred for ladies not to say a word" — was removed so that "young girls [wouldn't] somehow feel that they shouldn't speak out of turn."
While some changes seem warranted if you are remaking a decades-old film, others seem superfluous — it's probably unlikely kids would take advice from a Disney villain. Meanwhile, remaking a classic just to fix past mistakes doesn't leave much room for spontaneity or raw enjoyment. Instead you, at best, end up with a safe, sanitized and sensible redo with no magic, novelty or passion — and that by no stretch of the imagination actually needed to exist.
Even if that leads to a product neuter enough to find success at the box office, the best accolade you can bestow The Little Mermaid is it didn't damage the memory of the original that much. But at the same time, if it didn't bother in the first place we at least wouldn't have to live in a universe with a new Awkwafina-delivered rap song that Vox most aptly described as "aural terrorism."