The Little Mermaid
Live-action remake is a slick retelling —with some choppy waters
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I admit that I went into Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid expecting to hate it. The original movie had some memorable songs, but the follow-your-heart theme always struck me as dubious advice. After my kids were born, Ariel’s flouting of parental authority began to irk me even more. Also, recent Disney movies haven’t been great. Then there was the whole black mermaid controversy that absorbed social media and Disney’s recent tendency to sneak LGBT references into its content.
To my surprise, I actually liked this new adaptation of The Little Mermaid. It’s not as good as 2015’s Cinderella, but it’s better than some of the more recent attempts to recycle animated classics as live-action films.
The film follows the basic story of the animated classic. Headstrong mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) falls in love with a human prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Ariel’s father King Triton (Javier Bardem) forbids her from ever seeing Eric again, so Ariel seeks help from the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who turns her into a human. Ariel needs help from friends Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Scuttle (Awkwafina), and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) to convince Eric to kiss her because she loses her mermaid voice in Ursula’s bargain.
The film on the whole manages to be a slick retelling, but it’s got its share of choppy waters. At two hours and 15 minutes, the movie is at least half an hour too long. Disney added three new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, two of which are forgettable. The first part of the movie, when Ariel is still a mermaid, is especially weak. The computer-generated mer-world looks a tad plastic, and the actors deliver the whimsical dialogue of the original with pretentious gravity.
Often these live-action remakes stick too close to the animated movies, making me ask, “What was the point?” The Little Mermaid has plenty of scenes that are shot-for-shot from the original, but once we escape King Triton’s watery realm, the movie puts a fresh and delightful spin on the source material.
The setting has moved to the Caribbean. Eric’s adoptive mother rules over a multiethnic island of castaways, and the island scenes have a colorful multicultural vibe. The shift means Ariel’s dark skin makes sense in the context of the plot. The cast’s diversity will feel familiar to anyone who’s lived in one of America’s mega cities.
The Little Mermaid tries to update the story in various other ways—and some viewers will love certain changes and probably hate others. Ariel comes across a little more noble—she actually pauses to wonder if what she’s doing is wrong. Ursula is a little more treacherous. Some other changes bring the movie more in line with 21st-century expectations. There’s a little more female empowerment. For example, Ariel is always rescuing Eric, and he no longer gets to return the favor. Ursula’s lines in the animated film about how men don’t like talkative women get cut, and Sebastian changes his tune too. In 1989, he sang, “It don’t take a word, not a single word,” to kiss a girl. Now, Eric’s told he needs to use his words to ask her for that kiss. Ironically, by the time we get to the end of the movie, no one gives any verbal consent before the kissing commences.
The movie contains no hint of an LGBT agenda, but some viewers will probably still call the live-action The Little Mermaid woke. I don’t think it’s woke. It’s just a serviceable attempt to do what the 1989 animated film did for Hans Christian Andersen’s original story from 1837—updating an old tale to appeal to contemporary tastes.
—This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Melissa McCarthy’s name.
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