Regular readers of this blog will know that over the past few months I’ve been fairly critical (and fed-up) of Disney’s constant desire to remake its movies. Last year I was disheartened by Pinocchio; last month I was lukewarm on Peter Pan & Wendy; and only two weeks ago I was downright bored of White Men Can’t Jump.
As a general rule of thumb I’ve got no problems with remakes, as I believe many can be great (The Blob, The Thomas Crown Affair, etc), but the rate in which Disney is churning out substandard films these day is really bugging me. Remaking something is fine, if there is a decent reason to do it, but just pumping out any old tosh to fill up Disney+ is not reason enough.
So, as I’m sure you can imagine, with the release of a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid hitting screens this week, I’ve been less than enthusiastic about its arrival. The original 1989 animated version is my all-time favourite Disney movie, and with that film being a stone-cold classic which kick-started the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s, I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive over this one.
But the big wigs at Disney don’t care about my apprehension, and so The Little Mermaid live-action film is here regardless. It splashes down in UK and US cinemas today, with Rob Marshall on director duties, and a cast which includes Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, and Melissa McCarthy.
As for the plot of the movie, this ‘mermaid re-do’ follows the events of the animated movie very closely. The film focuses on the story of young mermaid Ariel, and her attempts to woo a human prince she has fallen in love with.
In the film, Ariel is the youngest daughter of King Triton – the ruler of the underwater mer-people. As with all mer-folk, she obeys the wishes of her king, which includes remaining under the water and never venturing above the surface.
But ever since she can remember, Ariel has had a fascination for the what exists above sea level. Something about the human realm intrigues Ariel, and she is forever collecting discarded human trinkets that fall into the sea.
One night, after overhearing fireworks from above, Ariel ventures up to the surface where she spots a handsome prince aboard a ship. Ariel finds herself instantly attracted to the man, whom she watches for a while, until a storm comes.
The storm causes the ship to crash into some rocks, sending the prince overboard and into the sea. Fearing for his safety, Ariel swims over to the prince and takes him to the shore.
Before he can regain full consciousness, Ariel leaves the scene and heads back under the water. However, this chance encounter only leaves Ariel even more in love with the prince and she becomes convinced she must see him again.
But Ariel knows the only way to see the prince again is to move freely above the water as a human. In order to do this she will require the assistance of a sea witch, who can grant her the ability to walk, but it comes at a price.
OK, lots of preamble to get throught there; now down to the important business: Is The Little Mermaid any good?
*Lets out a sigh*
This new version of The Little Mermaid is OK in places, bad in others, better than some of the recent Disney remakes, yet also quite soulless. I expect it will make a squillion dollars at the box-office, and I’m sure young audiences will find it enjoyable enough, but it has significant issues and it is not a patch on what came before.
Almost everything that works in the movie comes from the animated film, and pretty much everything that doesn’t only goes to highlight there really is no need for a remake. While parts of it are fun, it mostly lacks the spark of its predecessor, and it contains multiple ropey performances that are somehow flatter than the 2D animation seen in the original.
I’ll start with the performances first, which range from excellent (Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula and Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric), to truly awful (Halle Bailey’s Ariel and Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian). The scale of the acting on offer here really is all over the place, and boy, is it noticeable.
McCarthy is the scene-stealing, stand-out star of the film, and the only actor in this whole picture who appears to be having fun. Playing nasty sea witch, Ursula, McCarthy has a ball camping things up to the max and this comes across in every scene.
McCarthy takes what original voice actress Pat Carroll did in the 1989 film, adds in a dash of Ruth Gordon from Rosemary’s Baby, and then filters it through every drag queen and pantomime dame known to man to come up with her take on Ursula. It’s fun, sassy, highly enjoyable, and easily the best thing about this film.
It would seem that only McCarthy got the memo about making the characters likeable, but thank the seven seas that she did. I dread to think what I would be saying if she wasn’t involved with this movie.
She does everything she can with Ursula, never misses a step, and delivers something fab. In fact, the only time Ursula disappoints on screen is during the climax of the film, when director Rob Marshall foolishly whips McCarthy out of the picture to replace her with some terribly unconvincing CGI.
A mistake? Undoubtedly.
The Little Mermaid has some pretty poor effects throughout the film, but ‘CGI Ursula’ is easily the worst. How anyone could remove McCarthy and insert some computer-generated monstrosity is beyond me.
Thankfully, McCarthy isn’t carrying the movie alone, and the film’s second ace up its sleeve is Jonah Hauer-King who plays Prince Eric. Hauer-King takes what could have been a thankless role, turns it into something much better than it deserves to be, and gives the film one of its few believable characters.
As much as I adore the original version of The Little Mermaid, Prince Eric was always the weak link in that film. However, here Hauer-King turns in something which elevates the character, and thanks to a little more screen time and a new, original song, he is given the opportunity to deliver.
McCarthy and Hauer-King are the best things about The Little Mermaid, and while a couple of the supporting actors aren’t bad either (Art Malik and Jacob Tremblay), the rest are not good. And this includes Javier Bardem’s wooden take on King Triton, who appears to be reading lines via a prompt off screen.
The worst offenders though are the aforementioned Bailey and Diggs, who really should be much better than they are. At times some of their performances are cringeworthy, and that’s not what I want to see in a big budget Disney movie – especially not one based on The Little Mermaid.
Bailey’s performance doesn’t work because she appears out of her depth. While she has a fantastic singing voice, and knocks it out of the park when it comes to the musical numbers, her acting leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the scenes between Ariel and her animal friends feel stilted; she conveys very little emotion during the emotional moments of the movie; and you never really get a sense of who she is deep inside.
I know who Ariel is and how she feels because I’ve watched the animated movie a gazillion times, but I don’t get any of this from the new movie. I struggle to connect with her or even care about her plight this time around and this speaks volumes.
And then during the second half of the film, when Ariel loses her voice, things get worse. As much as Bailey struggles with emotion during the talking scenes, it’s nothing compared to her silent schtick.
There’s simply nothing there. No personality, no charisma, and no reason for Eric to fall in love with her, other than what’s written in the script.
I’m not sure if this is down to Bailey, or down to the director (I suspect the latter), but this version of Ariel is bland. It’s so disappointing.
And the disappointment continues with Daveed Diggs, who is miscast as Sebastian the crab. His line delivery is awful, his interactions with Ariel are bad, and he’s not likeable at all.
To be fair to Diggs, the actor is also lumbered with a creepy CGI character, who looks poor on screen. None of Ariel’s sea friends look great, but Sebastian certainly takes the prize for the worst CGI critter.
Outside of the bad performances, The Little Mermaid also suffers a similar problem to what all Disney remakes struggle with, which is unnecessary padding to round out the runtime. The movie includes three new songs, and with the exception of Prince Eric’s track, which does add something to the character, the other two songs are superfluous.
All three of these songs are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and they don’t sit well with the existing tracks from original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. Sure, Menken is still involved, but the new songs don’t have the same energy as the originals nor are they as witty, and this means they stick out like a sore thumb.
And if I’m speaking about sore thumbs, I might as well flag out the film’s biggest faux pas: The mishandling of fan-favourite song, ‘Under the Sea’. This is a track that every Disney fan adores, it is a highlight of the original movie, and yet here in the remake it’s another glaring catastrophe.
The problem isn’t to do with the musical arrangement, although some tinkering has taken place, but rather the staging of the song and the dance sequence, which are lacklustre. Remember all the dancing fish in the original? Yeah, well, they barely register here.
There are still dancing fish, but they don’t interact in the same way as they did previously, and when they do get involved in the scene, there is zero personality on display. Some CGI creatures show up, do a few twirls, and that’s about it.
A similar thing happens with the song, ‘Kiss the Girl’, which also pales to what came before. All of the fun is sucked out of the sequence, and what’s left is nothing to shout about.
Where The Little Mermaid does get things right is in a few subtle moments. The interactions between Prince Eric and Prime Minister Grimsby are strong, and a comment about Ariel having to lose her voice to finally be heard is also a neat touch.
The movie’s ending also gets a slight tweak, which sits more comfortably this time around. The final fight between Ariel and Ursula allows Ariel to be the hero in this version (rather than Eric), which is how it should have been all along.
Other than the above, the film is certainly watchable, and it clips along fine. At no point does boredom set in, and I will reiterate what I said earlier, young audiences will like it and it’ll no doubt be very successful at the box office.
But this film ultimately works as well as it does because 1989’s The Little Mermaid is an excellent movie. The template is already there, as are all the toe-tappin’ tunes, so it really would have to work hard to completely balls it up.
While this remake of The Little Mermaid isn’t as good as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, or Mulan, it is still leagues ahead of Pinocchio and a couple of the other recent rehashes. For this reason, and because I don’t hate it (despite my criticisms), I will say it is OK.
But my ‘OK’ rating is largely due to goodwill to the story and songs from the original film, along with what McCarthy and Hauer-King bring to the screen. It also gets a mild pass because director Rob Marshall gives original Ariel voice actress, Jodi Benson a brief cameo.
However, my opinion of these Disney remakes remains the same – and has only been strengthened by The Little Mermaid. They really are creatively bankrupt and I’d much prefer Disney to spend its money on developing something new.
If you have kids, or you love the original, I’m sure you’ll be off to see this new movie irrespective of anything I have to say – and if that’s the case, I hope you have fun. But if you choose to skip this movie, pop on Disney+, and watch the original instead, you will be watching the definitive version of this story.
Thank you for taking the time to read this review on It’s A Stampede!. For more reviews, check out the recommended reads below.
Leave a Reply