It should come as no surprise, due to my dislike of Disney's lucrative but creatively bankrupt practice of remaking their classic animated features as "live-action”/CGI blockbusters, that I would be especially disgruntled when they got around to remaking one of my 100 favorite films of all time—1989's The Little Mermaid. Directed by Broadway-choreographer-turned-film-musical-helmer Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns), who now seems to embody the human equivalent of having AI direct a movie, the new Little Mermaid is a beached whale of a production.
Expanding the 83 minutes of the original animated film into this 2 hour and 15 minute live-action epic creates all kinds of pacing issues. At some points, the movie has the rushed narrative velocity of contemporary animated fare, but at others slows to a near-stagnant crawl. The stars—Halle Bailey as the titular Ariel, Melissa McCarthy as villainous sea witch Ursula, Daveed Diggs as the loyal crab Sebastian, and Jacob Tremblay as the annoyingly anxious fish side-kick Flounder—seem to have been directed to recreate the performances of the original voice actors to such a degree you wonder why they didn’t just have them lip-sync to the original tracks and digitally alter any dialogue they wanted to change. (I'm fairly positive a significant amount of digital manipulation has been done on some of these performances for this very reason.) But the actors who do try something different with their roles—especially Javier Bardem as Ariel's strict father King Triton and Awkwafina as the obnoxious seabird Scuttle—wind up embarrassing themselves.
Of course, the power of the songs written for the original film by the peerless team of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, along with the story and characters developed by the directors of that picture (John Musker and Ron Clements), are strong enough to withstand most any retelling. This is as true for this bloated, overlong slog as it was for the now defunct 17 minutes stripped-down live attraction Voyage of the Little Mermaid at Disney's Hollywood Studios Theme Park. I'm quite sure when little kids do abridged low-tech productions as school plays, the original songs always carry the day.
For some reason, the funniest of the original Ashman and Menken numbers, “Les Poissons" performed by a crab-happy French chef voiced by René Auberjonois in the 1989 movie, has been excised from this version (is it considered offensive to vegans or something?). In its place, several new songs, written by Menken and the ubiquitous Lin-Manuel Miranda, have been shoehorned in. These new numbers fill non-existent gaps in the narrative and provide pointless opportunities for dull characters like the handsome human Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) to express inner feelings that we all understand perfectly well without hearing about them in full musical detail. The new tunes stick out like the sorest of sore thumbs alongside the iconic tunes. They accompany the type of extraneous sequences that would be cut from an animated film in the early storyboard stages. I guess Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi, A Man Called Otto) want to make this new film actually feel "new" in some substantive ways. However, these additional numbers just make it drag—I mean, does the target audience of little kids really want to sit through 135 minutes, plus the nearly 30 min of previews tacked onto the head of this release?
The additional material only serves to diminish and distract from the best aspects of the original film, specifically its incredible villain. McCarthy's Ursula looks good, when we can see her. But Marshall keeps her in obscured darkness for the most part, and often shoots her in extreme close-ups or wide shots in which she moves around so quickly we never get to fixate on her. In the original film the magnificent sea witch, voiced by Pat Caroll, would take her own sweet time slithering and oozeing her corpulence around her murky environment. Ursula's look was inspired as much by Divine, the iconic three hundred pound drag queen star of John Waters’ midnight-movie classics, as by squid, octopi, and other slippery sea creatures. Ironically, McCarthy's Ursula plays like a subpar drag performance in that she doesn't really embody the character so much as appropriate her look and mannerisms.
Unlike Jon Favreau's completely non-live-action live-action remake of The Lion King (2019) Marshall and crew shoot much of this film in sets with live actors. The underwater sequences are all filmed "wet-for-dry" but the special effects team creates an impressive way of making Ariel's hair (and the hair of her fellow merfolk) float with the "water." The swimming and other movements of all the aquatic life looks very credible and sometimes even elegant. Unfortunately, it all builds to a seemingly inevitable climax that's so plagued with dark, muddy CGI you can barely make out what’s happening. The filmmakers attempt to improve upon the original film's main flaw—which is that Ariel doesn't get to vanquish Ursula herself—by having her take the critical action in the final battle. However, this finale is so much less visually exciting than the 1989 animated film that this change falls flat.
Watching the two versions of the "Under the Sea" set-piece is the only demonstration anyone should ever need in order to understand why the hand-drawn animation approach is vastly superior for this type of musical fantasy. The 1989 sequence in which Sebastian the crab pulls out all the stops to convince Ariel that she should forget about her dreams of venturing to the surface and stay sea-bound where she belongs was and remains a showstopper. It had audiences standing up and cheering in some cinemas and propelled the tune to an easy Oscar win for Best Original Song. Watching the lacklustre rendering of this number in the new picture (apparently developed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater!) demonstrates the incredible sacrifice these filmmakers make in the name of photorealism.
The idea that an over-the-top production number in which a vast array of sea creatures gathers together to sing a swingin' calypso showtune would require verisimilitude in order to succeed is just astounding to me. That realism enters into the equation at all makes little sense. Not only is this a movie about mermaids, but it's also got a bird that can breathe and speak underwater and a flounder that dog-paddles above the surface so that it too can be heard when it talks. Photorealistic CGI isn't just an inappropriate medium for telling a story like this, it's not even really compatible. Traditional animation (be it handdrawn or computer generated) enables anthropomorphized fish (animals, inanimate objects, fantasy creatures, and even humans) to possess exaggerated, endearing features. Big eyes, funny teeth, huge muscles, hair that seems to have a mind of its own—these are part of what endears us to animated characters. Modern photorealistic CGI may have finally conquered the uncanny valley digital animators have been wresting with for decades, but it still just don't look right.
Rob Marshall's waterlogged shot-for-shot remake of Disney Animation's great 1989 comeback film takes the 83 minutes of the original's story and stretches it into this 2 hour and 15 minute beached whale of a quazi-live-action production.