“You can’t live in that world unless you become a human yourself.”
That’s what Disney thinks, anyway. In 1989 Walt Disney Studios was suffering a bit. The box office had been loaded with several disappointments, and it seemed that the storied studio might have to give up its crown for the dominant provider of family entertainment. It was the release of The Little Mermaid as a animated feature film that brought families back to the movies in droves. But it wasn’t only that particular film that would save things for Disney. The Little Mermaid set the template for what would become one of the best decades in Disney animation history. With animated features like The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast, it was like a new golden age of hand-drawn animation. It was an unprecedented run, to be sure. Now we’re in a new millennium, and Disney has once again suffered some box office miscues, and in the middle of that is this trend to create live-action, or as near as can be attained, versions of these classic animated features from all of the phases of the studio’s library. Some have been quite impressive, like The Jungle Book. Others not so much, like Dumbo. Where does The Little Mermaid fall? Someplace in between, I’d say.
The story pretty much follows the 1989 film script with a few changes we’ll talk about in a minute. Ariel, now played and voiced by Halle Bailey, is a mermaid. She has always had an interest in the surface world. That interest angers her father, King Triton (Bardem), who wishes her to embrace his under-the-sea kingdom. Her desire grows when she witnesses a great ship catch fire and sink. She rescues Prince Eric (Hauer-King) but disappears just as he awakens, leaving him only the memory of her siren song. She collects all kinds of artifacts from the surface world, and when King Triton discovers her secret stash, he destroys it in anger, which makes Ariel only desire it more. Enter Ursula (McCarthy), who hates the king and wants his power for herself. She takes advantage of Ariel’s desires and the king’s anger by offering Ariel a deal. If she’s willing to give up her voice for three days, she’ll have legs instead of fins and have a chance to win over Prince Eric. Prince Eric himself has had the kingdom’s resources put into finding his mysterious rescuer, much to the chagrin of his adopted mother, the Queen (Dumezweni). If she can’t get him to kiss her in three days, she’ll belong to Ursula forever. It’s the typical crossroads deal with the Devil, except Ursula doesn’t play fair. She’s using her minions and power to stop that kiss from happening. Ariel presents herself as a castaway and is taken to the castle. There she does manage to catch Eric’s eye, and they spend a wonderfully musical day together, but Ursula prevents nature from taking its course at every turn. The battle of wills ends up costing Ariel her father’s life and more. Can she finally win over the Prince? If you’ve seen the animated feature, you already have your answer.
As in the animated feature, Ariel is helped along by some friends. Sebastian is the crab who is tasked by the king to keep his eyes on Ariel. He’s voiced by Daveed Diggs. There is Flounder, the fish friend who is not really a flounder, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, and Scuttle, the somewhat lame-brained seagull, voiced by Awkwafina. To call this live-action is stretching things a bit, as most of the characters are either computer-generated or computer-enhanced, as is the entire underwater kingdom and its many creatures. The film certainly looks incredible, and the underwater stuff looks really good.
The story does stray from the first film and has never really been that faithful to the source material written by Hans Christian Anderson. Most of the songs are carried over from the first film. One of the problems is that Disney messed a little with the lyrics in order to serve “modern” standards, like asking permission in Kiss The Girl. Of course, she needs him to kiss her, but we’re expected to forget plot lines that might put the kiss in better perspective. The same thing happens on Ursula’s temptation song. The biggest flaw of the film is that they stretch the story out so that it’s two hours and fifteen minutes. That’s too long for the material and certainly puts the young ones’ attention spans to the test. When you consider that the original feature is nearly fifty minutes shorter, it is absolutely too long. The film becomes more about showing off achievements in environments than telling a good story.
The performances fall on two very dramatic sides of the coin. Halle Bailey is incredible as Ariel. Her voice is dynamic; in fact a couple of times it was too dynamic. The theater sound had some trouble with her upper-register notes, and they became somewhat shrill for a second. Her performance almost makes the longer time seem worthwhile — almost. The trouble is that Jonah Hauer-King is absolutely terrible as Eric. Fortunately, he only gets one song, and it was an attack on these musical ears. I’m not sure how many auditioned for this part, but I simply can’t believe he was the best they could find. He has no chemistry at all with Bailey, which is such a crime. To see this marvelous performer with Hauer-King shows a stunning lack of attention to talent or chemistry by whoever put this cast together. Bailey has one heck of a career in front of her, Hauer-King? Not so much.
Melissa McCarthy is OK as Ursula. It’s somewhat hard to put in too solid a performance when your lower body has tentacles. Javier Bardem does a really good job, suffering from a similar computer-enhanced body, albeit fins instead of tentacles. I guess it’s the motion that might make some of the difference. The voice cast of the completely animated characters works for me, with the possible exception of Scuttles, but I think we’re supposed to find the bird annoying.
I think the film will do fair business, but I don’t expect it will ever be the classic the animated feature has become. It’ll pull in some bucks at the box office, but I suspect it’ll fade away pretty much within a year or less. This year finally sees a full slate of summer anchor films, and the competition for those bucks is going to get harder. That is true also for us as filmgoers. We have Indiana Jones returning to the screen. There are Transformers and superheroes waiting for us in the weeks and months to come. Will you have the time or money to see them all? “Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?”