The Little Mermaid’s makeover is meek, but offers visual treats
The Little Mermaid (PG)
135 minutes, opens on Thursday
The story: In this live-action remake of the beloved 1989 animation feature, Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest of King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) daughters. The young mermaid is fascinated by and collects artefacts made by humans, a habit that incurs the wrath of her father. When a storm capsizes a ship captained by Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she saves him and, in doing so, falls in love with him. Her desire drives her to seek the help of her aunt, the sea-witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy).
It is hard to overestimate the legacy of the 1989 animated feature that spawned this remake. A generation of adults – and their long-suffering parents – grew up with Under The Sea ringing in their ears.
When the original is so influential, anything you make that references it will inevitably become an homage. Director Rob Marshall and his team know this and they lean into it.
The Under The Sea sequence, for example, in which a desperate Sebastian the crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs) tries to convince lovestruck Ariel to love her identity as a sea creature, is not a frame-by-frame copy of the animation, but it is essentially the same scene, with different choreography.
Halle Bailey is an astonishing singer and a highly watchable actress. And, yes, in reply to questions in online forums, the undersea scenes tend to be dark, but not distractingly so. It is done for dramatic effect, so that characters in the foreground pop.
In fact, scenes with maritime action – Ursula’s spell rituals, ships torn by storms or wrecks raised from the ocean bottom in the climax – owe their visual punch to the Pirates Of The Caribbean films (Marshall having directed the film franchise’s fourth film, 2011’s On Stranger Tides).
Marshall is, of course, constrained from remixing or reinterpreting. His job is to do some gentle updating and use 21st-century computers to achieve what they could not in 1989.
Part Of Your World, for example, is still sung like a Broadway ballad – gentle at first, with a belter of an ending.
One update is inspired – Bailey is there as a result of race-blind casting, but the film-makers have used her ethnicity to make a realistic point about geography.
Her mermaid sisters are a rainbow coalition of races, which makes sense for a magical kingdom that spans the globe.
Why shouldn’t a mermaid who lives in East Asia look East Asian? Or consider it this way: How weird would it be to have a red-haired mermaid living in Japanese waters?
Sebastian’s Caribbean accent is not just for effect. Prince Eric lives in a tropical, multiracial Afro-Caribbean world, with a musical palette to match. This movie’s ethnic logic is internally consistent and impeccable.
Marshall has said that his goal for this remake is to deepen its level of emotional realism, so it opens with the Hans Christian Andersen quote, “The mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more”.
It creates the expectation that he is ready to drag the story back to its creepy, surreal Andersen roots, but nothing of the sort happens.
As alarmed writers and academics have pointed out, this remains an upbeat story about a young girl who throws away her identity for a man she has just met, the very act that a more knowing film like Disney’s Frozen (2013) turns into a joke.
Hot take: For a movie that has generated so much online heat, The Little Mermaid is a fun if forgettable piece of entertainment.