The Little Mermaid


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Little Mermaid
"The presence of human faces in some places makes this no less an act of animation than anything made solely of ink on paper." | Photo: Disney

Fifty-two minutes longer, with fewer songs (if I've counted right), and four of them by Lin Manuel Miranda. No longer a U but a PG, the BBFC dropping the "very" that the original had on its "mild threat" in what will be referred to as a "live-action" remake. Inverted commas on that because, as with Avatar: The Way Of Water, the presence of human faces in some places makes this no less an act of animation than anything made solely of ink on paper.

Though ink, paper, and accounting seem to inform most of this. You might think it cynical to think this cynical, but the creative in this industry does include the economics. Director Rob Marshall is best known for adaptations, including musicals, and also helmed Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a sequel based (very loosely) on a book. David Magee worked with Marshall on Mary Poppins Returns before this, also adapting several other books to screenplays. Derivatives are financial instruments, after all.

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Ariel (Halle Bailey) has plenty of charisma. The ichthyotic ingenue is one of the better updates: a lightness to her performance should make even neutrals bouyant. I can't say I was grabbed by the lyrics, but the presentation of For The First Time neatly works around the siren's silence. Jodi Benson (who voiced Ariel in the original animation) has a brief cameo in one of the market scenes, that's one of the neater nods to the preceding piscean picture.

Love interest Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is scion of a weirdly achronological island principality. At one point he gets a charming hat that makes him a dead ringer for a Mumford (or son) and also gets a big number called Wild Uncharted Waters. Though another written by Miranda, it seems to follow U2 rules in that the chorus and the title are the same. That unmapped maritime mayhem presumably includes his home shores, lost somewhere in a hinterland between the invention of the valved trumpet (1820s) and the steelpan (1900s), and, inevitably, surrounded by spooky rocks.

Multiple musical influences abound. Awkwafina voices Scuttle, though even if he weren't dead Buddy Hackett would probably have struggled to emulate her rapping. Kiss The Girl becomes a group effort, Sebastian and Flounder pitching in. They're Daveed Diggs, stage's Hamilton's Marquis de Laffayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Jacob Tremblay (Luca, Room). The almost photorealistic sealife do somewhat affect suspension of disbelief, but as with Avatar it's easy enough to drift along with things.

Or be carried away, perhaps. There's a sense of a cover version in the TV reality show style, not only sung but oversung. All eight syllables in 'above', 'be' buzzing on long enough that one hopes vocal chords were soothed with honey. That's a style though, and people like it.

The act of remaking, and there's a whole digression avoided in light of discussions about West Side Story, has produced new artefacts. Ursula's played by Melissa McCarthy, and while I can't say the frequent restatement of obstacles and objectives isn't kid friendly I'm less sure about Jessica Alexander playing (spoiler alert) alter-ego Vanessa.

Javier Bardem's Triton had something nagging about the way his face had been composited (or not) onto undulating tresses, but I've just realised it was that it reminded me of (at best) Max Headroom and (at most) Holly off of Red Dwarf. For sure he's got a magical trident and it appears to have been upgraded by someone with knowledge of rays. Its lightsaber sounding cavitation beam would make it a first order choice for villains, indeed its high on Ursula's list of priorities when she can't get her nuclear fish in.

They go unvoiced, those hencheels, Flotsam and Jetsam amongs many casualties of this film's attempt to synchronise with newer swimmers. There's a massive musical number that features dancing (often poisonous) aquatic species, inspired by the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. 30 odd years have seen not only advances in computer animation but also, it seems, in marine biology. Not all of it seems entirely factual, one tentacled horror is more of The Suicide Squad's Starro than any literal (or littoral) starfish. With a few references to astronomy, the sequence of a telescope falling beneath the waves is a very clear statement of ability, a falling that becomes a calling card.

Of course, bringing a 34-year-old classic to a new audience probably means updating potentially problematic lyrics in Kiss The Girl and Part Of Your World and Poor Unfortunate Souls, and alright, let's do Under The Sea too, but those are the ones people remember. Will find hard to forget too, since at least one gets a threeprise before a fourchestral variation. Other acts of repetition include a spiralling kiss-cam that's as much of Michael Bay's beastly Transformers as Mrs Potts singing about Beauty. Villainous soliloquys abound, but if they're stagey they're of pantomime, more Cilla Black than Charybdis.

This will be any number of kids' first film, and it will come to mean a lot to many. I and my siblings had the original in that hapticly satisfying plastic clamshell that was Disney Home Video. Someone much younger than us might have similar memories attached to a streaming service logo. It's got triumphal shots that appear to have been formatted for screen-grabs, but they feel more like app icons than iconic moments. Ariel's six sisters are a nod to the seven seas but also an offering to Mammon, one Funko-pop at a time. There's references both to 'The Sea Gods' and 'Santa Maria' but that mythological confusion doesn't alter (or augur) much.

Ultimately, as with anything else that lives in water, the question is 'is it worth catching?'. It'll eventually end up on, if not in, the net, and outwith cinemas as something in the background its run-time won't be a stumbling block. As such, perhaps not live, fresh as it is, Frozen would do.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2023
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The Little Mermaid packshot
A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
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Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: David Magee

Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Berdem, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs

Year: 2023

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: US


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