Review: In Its Latest Live-Action Adaptation, Disney Drains The Little Mermaid of All Its Magic, Charm

The 1989 animated feature film The Little Mermaid ushered in a new golden era of Disney’s storied animation legacy. A sanitized version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable about a young mermaid who wants to be human and the lengths she’ll go to for that dream, the film featured state-of-the-art (for the time) production and the musical stylings of the great contemporary composer Alan Menken. At just 83 minutes long, the film quickly and charmingly introduced a fairy tale story that would snowball into an empire of princesses for the Mouse House, The Little Mermaid quickly followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999). Four of those films have since been adapted into live-action versions, and as of this week, The Little Mermaid is the fifth to get the updated treatment.

While Rob Marshall’s version of The Little Mermaid (written by David Magee) attempts to make some contemporary strides in its casting and storyline, the film—like its predecessors—offers nothing in the way of a reason for its existence at all. This version clocks in at a mind-boggling 2 hours and 15 minutes, and while it makes every effort to appear sweeping in scope with colorful styling and clever underwater graphics, the film instead plays like a budget version of the animated classic, offering none of its magic, grandeur or charm. Ariel, played earnestly but flatly by Halle Bailey, lives in an underwater kingdom we never actually see; Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is an adopted royal on an island that looks more like a well-lit movie studio; and the film’s efforts to transform the mermaid’s desire into a search for independence defangs the story—Andersen’s or Disney’s—of its stakes, however low they were to begin with.

Much of what’s familiar from the 1989 original is retained in Marshall’s take, from Prince Eric’s shipwreck to Ariel’s secret stash of human knick-knacks she doesn’t know how to use. Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) are right by her side, and King Triton (the baffling casting choice of Javier Bardem) and Ursula (the only fantastic thing about this film, Melissa McCarthy) are the pesky adult influences who don’t always have her best interests in mind. Ariel yearns to experiences life on land, but her father admonishes her at every turn (there’s a backstory about her mother’s death at human hands that’s never quite explained). When Prince Eric’s ship wrecks during a storm, Ariel saves him from the sea only to disappear in a haze when he comes to on the shore.

From there, Marshall and Magee overfill this otherwise straightforward fable with so much extraneous plot the whole thing becomes more bloated than a blowfish. McCarthy gets the shortest end of the stick, having to spend her whole first scene explaining to the audience why she’s angry at her mean big brother (!?) King Triton and what she’s gonna do about it, using Ariel as her pawn. I suppose it’s worthwhile to get a glimpse of a villain’s motivation for their nastiness, but this all seems to take the concept a step (or four) too far—the scene is saved only by the way McCarthy absolutely revels in Ursula’s oversized personality. Once Ariel makes her doomed deal with the Sea Witch and finds herself above sea level, we’re treated to a bit more access to the royal life, but these extra scenes—particularly a goofy carriage ride and a cheesy stroll through a market that turns into a sad excuse for an ensemble dance number—feel more like filler than fun.

Similar to the issues the team behind the “live action” adaptation of The Lion King confronted when adapting that creature-driven family drama, The Little Mermaid suffers from a lack of imagination in how to bring all three dimensions into Ariel’s world. Underwater, Bailey’s hair swishes this and and that, and she awkwardly fins herself through the seaweed in her mermaid get-up, but the world is small and claustrophobic; all we ever really see is her cave of things and King Triton’s throne room. Above ground, the sets look more like something from a Disney parks experience, fake and flat, and the film’s pivotal final scenes, with a powerful Ursula who’s desperate to keep Ariel from happily-ever-after, never achieves the towering heights of intensity intended.

Those familiar with (and partial to) the 1989 version will recognize quite a bit in The Little Mermaid, most notably Menken’s endearing songs that, even here, remain warm and welcome (though don’t get me started on whatever it is the filmmakers are trying to do with sea urchins dancing during “Under the Sea”). Those only meeting Ariel, Eric, Ursula and the rest through this new adaptation might walk away feeling entertained to some degree, but the final product is an empty (conch) shell of what both Andersen intended and Disney is capable of. In theory, this trend of adapting these classics for a new audience with new technology and a contemporary narrative eye is a worthy—and even promising—endeavor. As of yet, however (with the possible exception of 2015’s Cinderella), no one tasked with this mission has completed it successfully.

The Little Mermaid is now in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone