Film review: ‘The Little Mermaid’ live-action remake fails to entice viewers to dive in
Jonah Hauer-King (left) and Halle Bailey (right) play Eric and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Directed by Rob Marshall, Disney’s live-action remake of the 1989 film premiered on May 26. (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)
“The Little Mermaid”
Directed by Rob Marshall
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
By Vivian Xu
May 26, 2023 1:05 p.m.
“The Little Mermaid” has at last reached land – and has frankly flopped like a fish out of water.
Released on May 26, the live-action remake of the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid” takes viewers from surf to turf as Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale receives a second dose of the Disney treatment. With high potential for entertainment value, the film attempts to dazzle but fails to deliver a piece of cinema that justifies its $250 million budget. Stellar vocals and a handful of standout acting performances somewhat compensate for the viewing experience, but ultimately fail to give viewers a compelling reason to dive under the sea.
The root of the problem lies in Disney’s frenzied live-action remake mania. In the past decade, the Hollywood giant has pumped out remakes with the breakneck speed of an assembly line. While most of the films have received a lukewarm response from audiences and critics, it seems that Disney’s focus on box office revenue is enough reason to warrant yet another dull remake.
Given that the film is a remake, it is burdened with the expectation of not only living up to its predecessor, but also standing on its own. Unfortunately, “The Little Mermaid” is barely able to fulfill either. Its rickety foundation is partially due to the live-action transformation, which egregiously dramatizes the narrative, but is also a consequence of shoddy musical numbers and characterization.
[Related: Second Take: Disney loses its magic with overly nostalgic sequels and remakes]
Perhaps the primary problem of the remake is its gross dramatization through dark and shadowy color grading, as well as flagrantly employed CGI. For instance, in Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) song of yearning, “Part of Your World,” the lighting is so murky that the mermaid might as well be swimming through polluted waters. As for the CGI choices, the shipwreck that Ariel saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from is wildly turbulent and could have been lifted from live footage of a Category 5 hurricane. In all this dramatization, the playful dazzle of the narrative is muzzled and results in an ominous tone more akin to a nautical saga than a fairy tale.
With the movie magic muffled, it is fitting that Ariel’s go-to fish companion Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) is cast aside with few speaking lines. This unfortunate creative choice could be because of the filmmaking team’s acknowledgement of the anthropomorphic fish’s unsettling hyperrealism, or the possibility that Flounder’s character development was sacrificed in favor of Prince Eric’s. If the latter is the case, then the tradeoff is somewhat worth it, as Prince Eric is proven to be more than just a pretty face through his meticulous artifact collection and a commendable performance from Hauer-King that underscores the prince’s vulnerability.
More impressive is the chemistry between newcomers Bailey and Hauer-King, which proves to be a pleasant surprise. Even on land when Ariel is rendered unable to speak, the pair are able to pull off a convincing mutual attraction built upon furtive glances and body language alone. The crème de la crème is the “Kiss the Girl” song sequence, as Bailey nails Ariel’s bashful innocence with her wide doe eyes, while Hauer-King’s longing gaze never wavers as the two drift afloat a lake twinkling with ambient lights.
[Related: Film review: ‘Overstuffed’ plot eclipses pitch-perfect performances in ‘Beau is Afraid’]
Not all musical numbers are a hit, as the addition of three new songs to the remake, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, proves to be a contentious choice. Some, such as “For the First Time,” function as a clever way to omnisciently communicate Ariel’s thoughts when she is unable to speak. Others, however, such as Scuttle (Awkwafina) and Sebastian’s (Daveed Diggs) song “The Scuttlebutt,” are rather dimensionless and appear to be more of an irritable nuisance.
Through all the sonic chaos, Bailey’s crystalline voice shines through as she subtly applies her own pop twist to the original soundtrack, while earnestly staying true to Ariel’s endearing vocals. Supplemented by a laudable vocal and acting performance from Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, the duo are able to offset Javier Bardem’s mediocre Triton and lift the movie’s music out of the depths. Other sonic supplements, such as the whooshing of fins through water, are fervently amplified with the Dolby Theatre’s sound system.
Ultimately, as “The Little Mermaid” remake attempts to assert itself as more than just little, it only makes a small splash. Disney’s decision to produce a beat-by-beat remake, rather than taking advantage of a chance to expand upon overlooked plot points, feels more redundant than revolutionary. At the end of the day, the film provides adequate entertainment value, but struggles to establish a wow factor that can break a rut of rudderless remakes.
Perhaps it is finally time that Disney gleaned some knowledge from Sebastian and buried the live-action remakes “Under the Sea.”