Not content to colonize American and/or global pop culture through various multimedia franchises (the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, among many others) and, of course, theme parks, the “House of Mouse” has turned inward, adapting its own, homegrown animated films into live-action or live-action/computer-animated hybrids, usually with mixed to negative results. From the occasional surprise (Pete’s Dragon) to the all-too-frequent non-surprise (The Lion King), Disney’s live-action adaptations feel like nothing more than cynical brand extensions or copyright management, ushered into production by risk-averse executives interested more in short-term revenue and profit generation than long-term innovation or creativity.
Unfortunately, Disney’s latest live-action effort to re-capitalize on its back catalogue, the Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns, Into the Woods) directed The Little Mermaid, falls into the second underwhelming category. Broadly unnecessary and only fitfully justified by production values or lead performances, the film expands on its sleek, 83-minute predecessor with overlong, time-padding expansion, painfully inadequate underwater scenes (thunderstorm set pieces excepted), and song additions thanks to the ubiquitous Lin Manual-Miranda. The new songs subtract by addition, paling in comparison to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s trio of earworm-ready songs, “Part of Your World,” “Fathoms Below,” and “Under the Sea,” each one a stone-cold classic, as hummable or singable today as they were almost 35 years ago.
But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves. Like the animated classic that shares its name, The Little Mermaid centres on the title character, Ariel (Halle Bailey), the rebellious teen daughter of the stern King Triton (Javier Bardem). As one of seven multi-ethnic, multi-racial daughters (seven daughters for seven seas), Ariel and her sisters mirror the top-side dwellers in their welcome diversity and a positive, if history-denying, representation of a near utopian world devoid of racism, slavery, or colonialism. There’s little or no trace of white supremacy or its vestiges either. The magical world on screen certainly falls far short of realistic, but that’s hardly the worst of The Little Mermaid’s sins (if, indeed, “sins” is the right word here).
As before, the starry-eyed Ariel pines for the world above, a world denied her by her naturally over-protective, controlling father. While she spends most of her time with crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), one of the king’s advisors and Ariel’s part-time minder, Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), an anthropomorphic fish of little utility but good cheer, and Scuttle (Awkwafina), a somewhat daft, rapping diving bird, Ariel collects human artifacts, detritus leftover from various shipwrecks, in a secret grotto away from her family’s prying eyes or judgmental attitudes. She also pines from afar (actually, below) for the princely Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the adoptive heir to a nearby island kingdom, saving him at least once after a raging thunderstorm tosses him and his men overboard.
It’s more than enough for King Triton to discover Ariel’s grotto, losing his temper and essentially grounding her. That, in turn, opens Ariel to the manipulative predations of her exiled aunt, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a so-called “sea witch” bitter at the patriarchal rules that gave the undersea kingdom to her brother rather than her. From one perspective, Ursula’s bitterness qualifies as understandable, but since she’s slotted as the villain, her actions almost immediately escalate into unjustified territory. She makes an unbreakable deal with the emotionally vulnerable, fragile Ariel: In exchange for Ariel’s literal voice, Ursula will temporarily transform Ariel’s fins into legs, allowing Ariel to live among the humans’ topside. The deal comes with a time-stop (three days) and a seemingly doable condition, sharing a kiss with her prince. No-kiss and Ariel gives herself over to Ursula as her indentured servant in perpetuity.
Nothing that follows will come as anything approaching a surprise to anyone who’s experienced firsthand the 1989 animated classic three or three hundred times, but once Ariel leaves the dodgy CGI of the stagnant, repetitive underwater scenes for the surface world, The Little Mermaid lurches forward narratively, centring Ariel and Eric’s romance, the island’s perpetually sunny environs, and lighthearted court intrigue. The approaching deadline also adds a sense of urgency missing from the dull pre-deal scenes underwater, but it’s really Bailey, finally freed from CGI wires and under-rendered backgrounds, who emerges as a root-worthy heroine. It helps too that Bailey’s voice is well-suited to Ashman and Mencken’s songs. Her confident performance helps her sell an otherwise perfunctory romance with Hauer-King into borderline persuasive territory.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid opens in theatres on May 26.