Movie Curiosities: The Little Mermaid (2023)

It feels like ever since this whole live-action remake craze began, I’ve been begging for Disney to stop trying to improve upon their beloved nostalgic favorites from the past 30 years and turn their attention toward that ’70s/’80s period when nobody knew what to do after Uncle Walt died. I don’t need to know what Lilo & Stitch would look like as a live-action/CGI hybrid, I need to know what Bedknobs and Broomsticks would look like if it wasn’t incoherent candy-coated sludge. Shit, let’s have another adaptation of The Prydain Chronicles — The Black Cauldron was a half-baked misfire and the beloved source material is right fucking there!

But then a couple days ago, I revisited The Little Mermaid (1989) for the first time since I was growing up in the ’90s. Upon closer inspection, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes readily apparent that the film is obnoxiously clownish in a way that hasn’t aged particularly well, though I can certainly understand why it was so attractive to kids of the time. Especially considering the fantastic musical numbers and the beautifully iconic shots throughout.

In retrospect, the film is quite clearly the starting point of the Disney Renaissance. A good enough movie for its time to serve as a springboard for so many far superior films. So yeah, this is definitely one of those rare few times when a ’90s Disney movie (I know it was released in ’89, let’s not get technical.) has enough outdated sensibilities that it could plausibly be improved by a modern refresh.

Just two problems. First, the film is directed by the overrated Rob Marshall. I know he’s an Oscar nominee, he’s still a journeyman — this is not the guy you hire to reinvent the wheel, he’s the guy you hire when you want a perfectly functional wheel made to the letter of the blueprint. The second big problem is that the last few times Disney’s tried updating their classic princesses to modern feminist standards, we wound up with Mulan (2020) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).

So what did we end up with this time? Well, we ended up with another Disney live-action remake.

Let’s start with the positives. In the animated film, the merpeople were primarily afraid of humans on the grounds that humans eat fish. Let’s be real, this was always stupid. The undersea animal kingdom is loaded with carnivorous fish — like, y’know, the shark that attacked Ariel and Flounder in the opening minutes of the film! — but we never heard Triton giving them flack like he went on and on about humans. Compare that to the remake, in which Triton (here played by Javier Bardem) has a vendetta against the humans because they killed Ariel’s late mother. That works well enough.

Even better, we get to meet Eric’s mother (the unnamed Queen, played by Noma Dumezweni), who keeps her kingdom isolated and her son secluded on their tiny island nation because all their ships keep wrecking in storms. Presumably storms created by Triton in his vendetta against humans. Then the mermaids turn around and blame the humans for all the shipwrecks destroying their precious coral reefs. It’s a genuinely fascinating interplay that shows just how badly the two sides keep screwing each other over in their ignorance and paranoia, but they’re both too proud and afraid to see it.

What’s more, this new dynamic means that Prince Eric (here played by Jonah Hauer-King) has a legitimate reason for going out to sea all the time: He’s putting in an effort to try and establish relations and trade routes with other kingdoms. What’s more, he feels caged in by his mother’s paranoid fears for his own well-being, and he loves collecting all sorts of undersea specimens and curios from far-off lands. The end result is that the central Ariel/Eric romance doesn’t feel like some superficial love at first sight, but a meeting between two kindred spirits who can help each other learn and grow. Fantastic.

Oh, and it gets better. This rendition of Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) curses Ariel (newcomer Halle Bailey) so she doesn’t know she needs true love’s kiss to stay human forever. Thus Ariel is sincerely trying to woo Eric for her own heart’s desire and not for some ulterior motive. Best of all, remember in the animated film how Eric got to deliver the crushing blow while Ariel didn’t really do anything in the climax aside from distract Ursula? Well, in the live-action remake, the filmmakers reversed the roles so that our protagonist actually got some agency in the plot. Freaking genius.

But then we run into the musical numbers. And I’m not talking about the new songs composed by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda just for this movie — while those aren’t exactly great, they’re still pretty good and they make perfect sense in context. I get why they had to be included.

No, the problem here is in the songs carried over from the animated film.

Let’s start with “Kiss the Girl”. Part of why that song worked in the original is because Sebastian was established as a musical genius competent enough to throw together a romantic symphony out of whatever scraps he had on hand. In this movie, Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) is only Triton’s major domo, with no apparent musical background at all. Yet as “Kiss the Girl” is staged in the remake, Sebastian AND Flounder AND Scuttle are all suddenly virtuosos. It doesn’t work.

More importantly, while I appreciate the subtle lyrical tweaks, “Kiss the Girl” is still ultimately a song about pressuring a guy into intimate physical contact with a young woman he’s only known for a couple of days. There’s only so much that can be done to salvage such a concept, and it ain’t enough.

Then we’ve got “Under the Sea”. They kept the lyrics about how fish have it so bad on land because they get eaten, in a remake that deliberately back-burnered that rationale. What’s worse, they made this into a duet between Sebastian and Ariel, clearly showing that Ariel is getting involved and having fun, thus defeating the whole damn point of the number.

(Side note: Quoth Lin-Manuel Miranda in a recent interview, ““I said, ‘I will sign on as a producer. But really the hat I’m wearing is Chairman of the ‘Don’t Fuck It Up’ committee. And I will weigh in when I think you’re fuckin’ it up!” Mr. Miranda, sir, it’s my sad duty to say that with all due respect, YA DONE FUCKED UP!)

Worst of all, half the song is comprised of lyrics about fish playing various instruments. Something fish can’t do within the “photo-realistic” context of the remake. Regardless of how beautiful the visuals may be, the song was specifically written for a cartoonishly heightened style, and the song falls apart without it. (See also: The “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” number in the Lion King remake.)

Then we have “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Here we have another sad case of a song written for an animated context more fantastical than these particular filmmakers wanted to go. More importantly, this rendition of Ursula is very clearly established as Triton’s banished sister, giving her a more personal motivation and a clearer emotional connection with Triton’s estranged youngest daughter. The problem is that we’ve got a more nuanced depiction of Ursula still singing lyrics and reciting lines verbatim from her campy animated counterpart. Thus we have the classic Disney live-action remake problem of putting old moments and dialogue into a totally new context and it doesn’t fucking work.

As a direct result, this iteration feels like the character is playing McCarthy more than the other way around. Halle Bailey has the opposite problem. Much as I appreciate casting a strong-willed and charismatic performer to play Ariel, she goes through pretty much the whole movie at maximum burn. It serves her well when the character is mute, and Ariel has to depend on heightened movements and exaggerated expressions to get her point across, but it’s simply too much in every other scene. This is most especially obvious in “Part of Your World”, when Bailey is belting out all her lines with none of the nuances or subtleties we got with the classic Jodi Benson portrayal. This performance would be fine if she was reciting the song in a vacuum, but it doesn’t work in the context of playing a character.

Moving on to the rest of the cast, Javier Bardem could play this role in his sleep, and it looks a lot of the time like that’s exactly what he’s doing. Much as I love Jacob Tremblay, Flounder is somehow even more useless here than he was in the original film. If the character wasn’t so iconic as Ariel’s cowardly and unfunny sidekick in the animated film, he could have and probably should have been cut from this movie entirely with no ill effect whatsoever. Daveed Diggs does well enough as Sebastian, but I’m sure he could’ve done far more if he wasn’t stuck with the baffling patois that was a frankly terrible choice in the animated film to begin with.

Then we have Scuttle. With all due respect to the late great Buddy Hackett, his portrayal of Scuttle was an annoying, incompetent, thoroughly worthless, anti-funny blowhard; though at least he redeemed himself at the last minute with a wonderful showing at the climax. Awkwafina’s portrayal is the exact opposite. The character is still a useless chatterbox, but at least Awkwafina has the charm and confidence to sell it. Alas, the character’s big contribution to the climax falls short, once again because the animated film went so much harder than this more “photo-realistic” film was built to go.

As for Jonah Hauer-King… well, he’s a bit older than I might’ve gone with and his chemistry with Bailey isn’t quite where it should be. Still, I have to commend Hauer-King for his part in taking such a bland non-entity from the animated Disney canon and making him a character with more than two dimensions. Kudos.

Throughout the whole movie, I was reminded of the adage that “photo-realistic CGI” will look laughably dated and subpar in five or ten years, while a really awesome cartoon will always look like a really awesome cartoon. This movie looks terrible in comparison to the recent Avatar: The Way of Water, and I doubt it’ll look any better next to the Aquaman sequel coming up at the end of this year. Really, this whole artistic style was a terrible choice from the outset. This is a film with mermaids and magic spells and sea witches and talking fish — why in the nine hells are we bothering to pretend that this is set in any kind of “realistic” world?!

Overall, The Little Mermaid (2023) is on par with its fellow live-action remakes, which means that it’s only a misguided and mishandled mediocrity as opposed to an abject failure. Once again, the filmmakers stick with “photo-realistic” CGI because it’s so trendy and cutting-edge, regardless of the fact that it’s a terrible fit for the story. The filmmakers have genuinely good ideas in updating the film for modern sensibilities, but they’re hamstrung by lines and lyrics and characters from the source material that no longer make any sense in the new context.

(Though at least “Les Poissons” got cut and the Chef Louis character got benched, with the implication that the scene in question happened offstage. Thank goodness for small favors.)

What really sucks is that this wasn’t anywhere near unsalvageable. Just imagine if this same cast and these same writers were given the chance to start from scratch with an original adaptation of the original Hans Christian Anderson fable, telling the story with modern sensibilities and without any baggage from the original animated film. Of course, it might also help if they had handed the project off to a visionary director and not a workhorse like Rob Marshall.

In other words, Disney just had to repeat what they did with Peter Pan & Wendy. Oh, wait…

I’m calling it, folks. I give up. I’ve covered enough of these Disney live-action remakes for a long enough period of time that it’s time to abandon all hope it will ever get better than this. Whatever’s coming next, we all know it’ll be an unholy abomination at worst (Pinocchio) or a disposable curiosity at best (like what we’ve got here).

This isn’t funny anymore. The gimmick has gone stale. After so many promises, all that hype, all that time and money spent so many different ways, not a single live-action remake has spawned an enduring stand-alone franchise or an identity of its own. The live-action remakes vanish from the zeitgeist after opening weekend and we’re left with the animated originals built to last for generations.

It’s not happening, folks. Disney has tried hard enough for long enough, it would’ve happened by now if it was ever going to happen. Whatever they try remaking next, just assume the filmmakers will make a tin-eared bad decision for every savvy good decision and save your money.

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