“Flounder told me everything. Has Ariel killed the prince yet?”
The Little Mermaid is a 2023 Disney Studios feature film directed by Rob Marshall and written by Dave Magee. Starring Javier Bardem, Halle Bailey, Noma Dumezweni, Jonah Hauer-King, Art Malik, and Melissa McCarthy with the vocal talents of Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, and Daveed Diggs, the movie is a CG-enhanced, live-action remake of the 1989 animated musical. The composer of the original cartoon, Alan Menken, returned to reboot old tracks and create new music alongside co-producer Lin Manuel Miranda.
Ariel (Bailey), the mermaid daughter of King Triton (Bardem) is dissatisfied with her pampered life in her father’s kingdom beneath the waves. Ignoring her father’s warnings about the savage and depraved nature of humans and their depredations of the oceans, she’s become fascinated with the surface world, with humans and their trinkets, their technology, their shoes, and feet and legs. Despite the best efforts of the King’s advisor, Sebastian (Diggs) to distract her, Ariel’s curiosity can no longer be satiated by combing over cargo-laden hulls rotting on the ocean floor along with her friend, Flounder (Tremblay), for knickknacks which they take to the seabird, Scuttle (Awkwafina) for clarification and explanation. Even a spectacular song-and-dance number cannot dissuade her and she only becomes more intrigued after rescuing (adopted) Prince Eric (Hauer-King) from a shipwreck.
Ariel drags him to safety and Eric wakes on the shore, half-conscious while the mermaid croons above him. Startled by the arrival of his manservant Sir Grimsby (Malik) along with Eric’s men, Ariel darts back to the safety of the waves. Eric is smitten by his savior and can’t shake thoughts of her from his head no matter how often his mother, Queen Selina (Dumezweni), warns him he was injured, concussed and half-drowned; the girl might be a figment of his imagination. Sebastian spills all of this to King Triton, who comes down on Ariel like a ton of bricks. She protests in vain as he isn’t listening and destroys her collection, hoping to sever her connection to the surface world.
His ham-handed efforts harden her heart and Ariel is even more determined to see Eric again and be a part of his life. She just doesn’t know how, but an opportunity opens before her when she is contacted by her aunt Ursula (McCarthy), a notorious, nefarious, malevolent octopus being who lives in a dark, deep, cold part of the sea. Banished from King Triton’s court many years earlier for her serious sins and shenanigans, her brother nevertheless leaves her alone in the depths to ply her trade amongst the “poor, unfortunate souls” willing to make a deal for their heart’s desires. Still smarting from Triton’s rejection, her dismissal from court and castle as well as the loss of privilege and power that is custom for the sister of a sovereign, she decides to screw Ariel over and place her under duress by offering her niece a deal she just can’t decline.
She figures if she can squeeze Ariel, she’ll have leverage over her brother to gain recompense and revenge while achieving her revanchist goals. Ursula offers Ariel life on land, legs, and love. All she has to do is plant a kiss on her beloved prince Eric before the sun sets three days after Ariel signs her pact with the Sea-Witch. The catch is, she can’t say anything to Eric. Ursula wants Ariel’s voice in exchange for her legs. If she fails to kiss the boy, Ursula will claim her soul as well. It’s a sucker’s bet, a rigged contest, but she knows Ariel can’t resist.
Ariel agrees and makes the deal, realizing only then that she can no longer breathe beneath the waves. She makes a bee-line for the surface and is tossed to the shores of Queen Selina’s island like so much flotsam. Discovered amongst the debris, she’s assumed to be a castaway, her inability to speak a result of the trauma caused by her experiences. Though she resembles the heroine who pulled him from the waves in his hazy memories, Eric is fixated on the fact that he remembers his savior singing. No matter how fetching this mute and derelict lass is, she can’t possibly be the woman who saved him from the sea. There’s something about her though, something he finds intriguing.
Can Ariel convince Eric she’s who he thinks she is without saying a word? Can Eric dispel his doubts and listen to his heart? Can Sebastian get the couple together so there can be some serious smooching? Can Scuttle figure out what anything on the surface world is actually for? Can Flounder get past his anxieties and live in the moment? Can King Triton put aside his over-protective nature and embrace Ariel’s independence? Will Ursula force her brother to be bound by the black-letter law of magical contracts? Who will rule the waves and will longed-for-love be lost? Please watch the remake of The Little Mermaid to find out.
“Think only of what is.”
The Little Mermaid is the 18th live-action adaptation of a Disney movie. Some of them have been critically acclaimed; some have been sequel bait and conscious cash grabs. There are many things about The Little Mermaid that work. The music retreads are very nice. Bailey can certainly hit the required notes. Many of the underwater “dance” numbers are spectacular. The reworking of Kiss the Girl is worth the price of admission.
There are a few visual problems that are a bit jarring, however. There are quite a few scenes with mer-characters surrounded by fish and other ocean-dwellers they’re interacting with. There’s something very wrong with the sight lines in those scenes, it REALLY doesn’t look like the actual actors are making eye contact with any of the CG performers. It becomes very noticeable when scenes swap back and forth between people acting with other people on land and people acting with fake CG fish and fowl in the water.
That struggle between realism and movie magic becomes apparent with the hair. In the cartoon, hey, it was all hand-drawn. Faces were hair-free so you could see expressive eyes and mouths doing dialogue, appropriately draped on shoulders when required and sodden. This remake’s urge for verisimilitude makes this reviewer remember every time he’s seen hair underwater IRL and how it looks nothing like the submerged hair depicted in The Little Mermaid.
Similarly, there’s a scene where King Triton is at the surface. Human actor Javier Bardem is treading water. Half-fish King Triton totally would NOT have to do that, and in fact, is not in the parallel moment in the original movie. Director Rob Marshall has an urge to copy some of the moments in the previous production beat-for-beat but some of the real-world contortions the characters make so they can synchronize those sequences look REALLY creepy.
Scuttle, Buddy Hackett’s character in the original is gender-swapped with Awkwafina, and the character with agency in the climactic moment of the film is also flipped about. Between that and a Black woman playing the titular mermaid, the OTHER daughters of Triton played by actresses of various ethnicities along with a Black woman playing the monarch of a largely Black island nation, this reviewer imagines the anti-woke crowd will have more to complain about when it comes to Disney’s creative decisions.
This reviewer often struggles with remakes, retcons, and reboots. This era of pop culture seems trapped in a nostalgia loop with studios fearing to drop new IPs over concern of ROI because retreading old material comes with a built-in audience and can assuage fears of box office returns. So they are stuck with telling old tales only slightly twisted for a new time and a new fanbase that might not be familiar with the original content.
The thing is, that’s the BEST thing about the new Little Mermaid. Representation is really the only thing that justifies MAKING this movie again. Making this movie more diverse is important. Making all movies more diverse is important. Making popular culture more diverse is important. It’s important to have people in movies look like people in the real world. Whoopie Goldberg once said that seeing Nichelle Nichols on TV as a BRIDGE OFFICER on Star Trek in the sixties changed her life. If just ONE little girl watches this film and feels something similar, it’s worth it.
The Little Mermaid is in theatres now.
The Little Mermaid was created by Hans Christian Andersen.