The Little Mermaid
- Directed by Rob Marshall
- Written by David Magee, based on the animated film by Ron Clements and John Musker
- Starring Halle Bailey, Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy
- Classification PG; 135 minutes
- Opens in theatres May 26
This past week, Disney issued a rare corporate mea culpa, saying it would shut down its first Star Wars-themed hotel in Orlando 18 months after opening the property. Vaguely citing the Galactic Starcruiser’s prohibitive costs – rooms go for about US$5,000 for a minimum two-night stay – Disney said it would “take what we’ve learned to create future experiences that can reach more of our guests and fans.”
Perhaps that same mentality can be applied to the Mouse House’s feature-film division, as its latest “live-action” revamp of a classic animated film, The Little Mermaid, is a stark example of how the dream factory is losing its grip on what its fans want or deserve.
A thoroughly pointless cash grab of a thing, this new Little Mermaid is one of the most uninspired films to slither out of Disney since the company started raiding its own vault, a practice that started in earnest with 1996′s 101 Dalmatians but didn’t become a viable new line of production till Tim Burton’s redo of Alice in Wonderland in 2010. In pure economic theory, it’s a brilliantly evil double whammy: Keep remaking your own intellectual property to draw in a new generation of viewers while at the same time juicing nostalgic interest in the original movies. Disney has even started to reboot its own live-action remakes, starting with 2021′s dire 101 Dalmatians prequel, Cruella.
The Little Mermaid, though, represents the Mariana Trench of the enterprise: This is as low as it goes, people. Dreary in tone, dour in imagination and paced like a sea snail stuck trawling the crusty barnacle of a beached whale, director Rob Marshall’s redo is not only difficult to sit through but also makes little business sense. Too frightening for the under-10 set, too drippy for the YA crowd and too painfully dull for any self-respecting adult, The Little Mermaid doesn’t seem to be made for anyone in particular. Because there is no way this was made for any vaguely artistic reason. It is a depressingly failed effort of commerce, pure and simple.
Certain participants fare better than others. Young actress Halle Bailey, for instance, should come out of the film as close to a star as possible these days, playing lovesick mermaid Ariel with far more spirit and charm than her script affords. She also has one hell of a singing voice, soaring and sweet.
That helps immensely when her heroine is stuck going through the same beat-by-beat story motions as Disney’s 1989 animated film, albeit this time captured in “live-action” underwater scenes that make no real spatial or physical sense. I suppose there’s no point quibbling about how pages from a book can remain stiff at the bottom of the sea when there are talking crabs and the like. But there is a lack of consistency to Marshall’s flat, often dim imagery that just reminds you how brilliant and next-level ambitious James Cameron is, for instance.
Melissa McCarthy earns her paycheque, too, playing the tentacled villainess Ursula with a wry glee that hints at her having polished the dialogue she was handed. Whenever McCarthy is onscreen, even when she goes full-on kraken in a tremendously ugly set piece toward the finale, you’re reminded of how these Disney redos only work when they fully give themselves over to the particular sensibilities of their headliners (see Will Smith in Aladdin or Bill Murray in The Jungle Book).
Not emerging from the flotsam nearly as well is Javier Bardem as Ariel’s overprotective father King Triton – the guy just seems tired, and who can blame him? – while Daveed Diggs as the voice of musical crab Sebastian, and Jacob Tremblay as Ariel’s little fishy buddy Flounder, also seem to be gasping for air. And the less said about Awkwafina as the squawking voice of diving bird Scuttle, the better.
Remarkably, The Little Mermaid is only the second big-screen kids’ flick to open this year, after The Super Mario Bros. Movie. But a lack of product shouldn’t force families to spend time inside this watery world. Walk along the beach, head to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet or even queue the original film on Disney+. Because take it from me, darling: It isn’t better down where it’s wetter.