Disney Returns for a Rehashed Adventure Under the Sea
DIRECTOR: ROB MARSHALL/2023
Once upon a time, a little mermaid named Ariel dreamed of—
Wait, do you really need me to refresh you the events of The Little Mermaid? Something tells me the best use of this review is not recapping a well-swum fairy tale, especially since this adaptation has been available to us on well-worn VHS tapes, DVDs, and Disney+ for 34 years. A better use of this space? Identifying the updates Disney has made to its 1989 animated hit, even if that list is short.
Our newest edition of The Little Mermaid is, once again, successful family entertainment, full of magical adventures, silly animal sidekicks, and catchy songs. Our Ariel is now voiced and embodied by Halle Bailey, who went viral for singing with her sister Chloe in 2013; here she proves she has the stuff to be a movie star, too. The live action Disney remakes of the last decade have spent a lot of their energy responding to criticisms of their animated feature counterparts, and Mermaid is no exception. Of all the Disney princesses, Ariel’s characterization may be the one with the most complaints. Too shallow? Too inert? Too naïve? Don’t worry—Disney has heard your dissatisfaction with all of the above.
With the help of a few script adjustments, Bailey is the key to transforming Ariel into a proactive heroine with more than a prince on her mind. New songs from Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda give her internal monologues when she has no voice, but Bailey hardly needs them. Her kind eyes convince you she’s the independent princess we’ve wished she could be for decades. (Extra impressive when you consider she spent much of her filming in front of screens alongside creatures added in post-production!) The script has also beefed up Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) into more than just a beefcake, providing him a solo and actual personality traits. Though they’re still rushing a relationship through a three-day timeline, Ariel and Eric are adults who have graduated into a romance based on more than attraction, which is another reason parents can rejoice.
But if you’re not watching the film with a parent’s mindset, The Little Mermaid won’t send you away from the theater with a wow factor. This film runs 52(!) minutes longer than the original, but most of it is a shot-for-shot and line-for-line rehash. We get three new songs, but only one provides new character insight. (All respect to Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs, who understood their assignments as Scuttle and Sebastian, but I did not need a new Miranda rap for them.) Ursula would seem like a natural scene stealer in the tentacles of Melissa McCarthy, but with no new character moments or development, she occupies less of the story than she did before. (She’s in so little of this I wonder if McCarthy only had a week or two available to shoot.)
Aside from the presumably-sizable paychecks, I’ve not figured out yet why directors like Kenneth Branagh, Niki Caro, Bill Condon, Jon Favreau, Guy Ritchie, and now Rob Marshall spend their time on productions they can’t put their stamp on. Favreau must have been interested enough in the technical innovations of The Jungle Book to return for The Lion King, but why make a “live action” film so dependent on animation? Why take time to create anatomically correct animals if they’re less expressive than hand-drawn ones? And why revisit a film that kickstarted a Disney Renaissance if you’re not going to keep its vibrance, zaniness, or innovation? Marshall’s movie feels breeziest when it’s on land, the brief part of this mermaid’s tale that does not feel beholden to a template or to the lifelike but dull underwater animation. This Little Mermaid may work for a holiday weekend family outing, but it won’t be starting another Renaissance for the House of Mouse.