LOS ANGELES, May 22 (UPI) — Of all of Disney’s inevitable live-action remakes, The Little Mermaid, in theaters Friday, is not as bad as The Lion King or its Pinocchio.
There are aspects to appreciate but more overwhelming evidence that live-action does not suit The Little Mermaid.
Ariel (Halle Bailey), daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), collects human artifacts that sank into the ocean. She longs to join the humans above ground, but Triton remains overprotective.
When Ariel rescues seaman Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), octopus witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) makes Ariel a deal. Ursula will give her legs for three days, but no voice.
If Ariel receives a true love kiss before the third sunset, she gets to stay human. But if she doesn’t, she becomes Ursula’s prisoner.
Opening the film to a more diverse cast is the best justification for a remake 34 years later. This film gives non-White viewers a chance to see themselves represented as Ariel, Triton and in the voices of Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) the crab or Scuttle (Awkwafina) the seagull.
Musicals especially lend themselves to different voices and interpretations, and Bailey delivers a rousing rendition of “Part of Your World.” It is also a problem that no subsequent song comes close to matching that feeling or intensity.
Seeing a live-action Ursula, Ariel and Triton brings some of the story’s themes into more focus, too. For example, it’s far more clear how Ursula is manipulating Ariel.
Fairy tales may have instant love but adults know three days is not nearly long enough to develop such feelings. A kid, let alone one who’s only lived under the sea, doesn’t know that.
As Bardem, Triton also displays a violent dramatization of an overprotective parent when he lashes out. That’s the guy who won an Oscar (No Country for Old Men) for murdering people with a cattle gun forbidding Ariel to leave the ocean.
However, the production of The Little Mermaid reveals the shortcomings of these adaptations. Not one single shot looks like they’re actually underwater.
Presumably, the reason to do these live-action remakes is that Disney has the technology to pull them off. In The Jungle Book and even The Lion King they could animate lions, tigers and snakes that looked like real animals.
The human characters look like they’re on a very dry stage with an ocean background added later, which it is. Aquaman used the same technique but managed to make the characters look more like they’re swimming.
The Little Mermaid actors did master a sort of wavy motion, and their fins look real, but without a believable ocean, the whole exercise is moot. Iconic shots like the wave splashing on Ariel look lackluster with a smattering of water compared to the animated counterpart.
Interestingly, Eric’s boat doesn’t look like it’s on the ocean either. Old films used to project images of the ocean or the road behind vehicles on a stage, and that primitive effect felt more immersive.
Audiences used to suspend disbelief when filmmakers made the most of what they had to work with. Now it feels like filmmakers gaslight viewers into accepting they’re watching the ocean when far more sophisticated technology still doesn’t look real.
There are hints of sophisticated themes in developing the story from Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s. Triton’s kingdom deals with pollution from shipwrecks and Eric’s mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), worries about the ocean eroding her island.
Neither of those themes pay off and only serve to extend the film’s running time between songs. New songs like Scuttle’s rap feel out of place, and feel blatantly like songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda adding Hamilton style to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s originals.
It is a given that any musical must include at least one new song for Academy Awards submission. Other Disney musicals have been far more consistent about it.
It’s an hour into the movie before Ariel makes her deal with Ursula. The film checks in with Ursula twice before in the first half, but she’s just waiting until Ariel has a vulnerable moment she can exploit.
The next hour Ariel spends on land with Eric is sweet enough. Ariel shows Eric the beauty of ocean artifacts he never realized, and learns to communicate without speech.
It’s still a lot of padding for a story that boils down to “be careful what you wish for” and “Parents, you have to let your kids grow up.” The Lion King was about 15 minutes shorter and hurt the pace of the original more, but The Little Mermaid still feels too long.
The Little Mermaid doesn’t quite capture the energy of the live-action Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. While not the worst of this trend, it does reinforce that inevitability alone is not a good enough reason to remake a film.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.