Some years back, I polled actors, filmmakers and critics for a column I was writing about “a movie that made you cry.”
And a couple of people took me aback when they mentioned “The Little Mermaid.” But they were old enough to have seen the Disney animated classic when it was new, in theaters in 1989. And like me, they were absolutely bowled-over and profoundly moved by the experience.
Disney, the gold standard in film animation, hadn’t made a movie this beautiful, this joyous and this moving in decades. Just the year before, a middling ‘toon titled “Oliver & Company” had tipped us that maybe they might find their mojo again. Then Disney brought in the team that turned “Little Shop of Horrors” into a musical, and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, with directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and literally changed the world.
We all learned how good that theatrical convention, the “aspirational” first act song of longing, could be.
“I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see ’em dancin’
walkin’ around on those
Whaddya call ’em? Oh, feet…”
Disney animation was saved and transformed, new enthusiasm for new attractions based on new films in the theme parks grew, and even moribund “Starlight Express” era Broadway was revived with The Mouse leading the way.
And to think it all started when Ashman rhymed “sardine” with “beguine.” Because “Darlin’ it’s better down where it’s wetter, Take it from me.”
So it’s no surprise that when Disney continued its practice of turning animated classics into live action (with animation) remakes, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods,” “Mary Poppins Returns”) and company were a little daunted, no matter how much experience they brought to the production, no matter how many earlier animated jewels they’d turned into live action features.
They couldn’t take any risks with this, the Mermaid Movie that Changed Cinema, revived Disney’s brand, and set the table for Pixar collaborations, a Marvel buyout and world dominance.
And it’s sadly no surprise that the film they made from this frothy delight is stately, slow and almost operatic in its self-seriousness.
They cast a lovely, emotive singer (Halle Bailey) as the new Ariel, and kind of pinned her down in the part. She’s still capable of moving us with “Part of Your World,” but we have to wait forever to get to it while all this pointless backstory is slow-walked across the screen.
It’s not really covering new material. We’re still meeting Ariel’s “sisters of the seven seas” and her disapproving of all-things human and terrestrial father, King Triton (Oscar winner Javier Bardem). It just takes forever to do it.
As expensive as making all this acting and bickering and singing underwater stuff come off was, you can’t afford to trim for pace and time, I guess. Thus, we end up with a “Little Mermaid” over 50 minutes longer than the original.
We don’t hear a song for over twenty minutes at the movie’s opening, and there are similarly long stretches between numbers, making one wonder if they meant for this to be a “musical” remake at all.
One tune was dropped, others (by Lin Manuel-Miranda) added so that Awkwafina, who plays Scuttle — a white diving boobie — could sing and rap something fresh for the soundtrack. Buddy Hackett voiced the original Scuttle, who didn’t sing.
Did we need to give the handsome prince (Jonah Hauer-King) who falls overboard his own number? Sure. I guess. But I’ve forgotten it already.
You remember the story — Ariel collects human items from shipwrecks, detritus that’s fallen overboard and longs to be “Part of Your World.” Her yearning doesn’t move her compliant but fearful fishy friend Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) or her father’s Crustacean advisor Sebastian (Daveed Diggs from “Hamilton”). But saving the shipwrecked prince from drowning cinches it.
She meets her father’s exiled octopi sorceress, “Aunt” Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, who steals the movie), a bargain is struck and she has feet, but no voice, and mere days to win the prince’s love on land before Ursula owns her mortal soul…and voice, etc.
The prince and his court are a multi-racial but bland lot. Look for original Ariel Jodi Benson as a street vendor in town.
Scuttle/Awkafina cracks wise and makes Scuttle” every wrong description of this or that human artifact funny. Sebastian the crab kvetches — “Oh my, what a softshell I am turning out to be.”
And the show stopper, “Under the Sea?” It stops and starts and gets at a fundamental failing of this adaptation.
The original number was a riot of fish and sea creatures, everything Sebastian names in the song, crammed into the frame, layered on top of each other. Here, “even the sturgeon and the ray” and “oh that blowfish blow” get their own moment in the frame alone. In digitally recreating real fish, and a real crab for Sebastian, they’ve taken away ALL the sight gags the characters had, gags that gave the comedy that extra boost.
The riotous, frenzied fun that Disney animators would repeat with “Be Our Guest” in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Never Had a Friend Like Me” in “Aladdin” is gone.
Anybody worried that Bailey (“A Wrinkle in Time”) wouldn’t measure up as a singer and empathetic actress is proven wrong. And McCarthy not only sings, her Ursula is the stuff of many an eight-and-unders nightmare, a tentacled terror bathed in gloom and menace.
Long before Disney took “Beauty and the Beast” to Broadway, they’ve been a corporation that knew how to find ways to wring more cash out of intellectual property they already owned. Of course they’re going to remake their greatest hits. And even with all the animation and digital trickery it took to make “Mermaid,” isn’t the most pointless of these “live action” remakes. That title still belongs to “The Lion King.”
But this “Mermaid,” weighted down with expectations, responsibility to the corporate bottom line and what feels like fear that “We’re going to screw this ‘sure thing’ up,” sinks and rarely swims, an epic that impresses when it’s under the sea, but never really moves us. And when it’s on dry land, it could not be more bland.
Rating: PG, scary images, scenes of peril
Cast: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy and Javier Bardem, with the voices of Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina.
Credits: Directed by Rob Marshall, scripted by David McGee, based on the 1989 Disney animated film, adaptation by Ron Clements and John Musker, and the book by Hans Christian Andersen. A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 2:15