The Little Mermaid – Film Review
Mermaids have always been a popular character within mystical folklore and therefore Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid was always bound to be an object of fascination. A sensuous and mysterious aura surrounds mermaids with their hybrid functionality between humans and mammals with serene singing voices, which Disney’s 1989 animated version highlights in the form of a musical. The animated version was heralded as Disney’s saviour commencing the Disney Renaissance enabling the studio to revive its popularity. It inspired hand-held computer games alongside having mermaid toys for McDonald’s Happy Meals. As such, the question will inevitably be, whether a remake was even required. The headlines have unfortunately focused on Disney’s decision to employ diverse casting for this remake, not least as the mermaid Ariel is now a young, black woman. Still, these sensationalised comments should not detract from enjoying this charming musical which will be relatable to the ‘Hamilton’ musical generation with impressive vocals, new songs and enthusiasm from Halle Bailey as Ariel.
This new version of The Little Mermaid makes its inclusive approach clear from the outset, with a diverse range of ethnicities onscreen, and there is a quote from Hans Christian Andersen about a mermaid’s suffering, ‘but a Mermaid has no tears and therefore she suffers more’. It is a blunt tool encouraging tolerance that is embraced by Disney but remains demonstrable of a darker version of the popular The Little Mermaid fairytale by Christian Andersen, to appeal to adults too, embracing a modicum of realism for a modern world compared to its animated predecessor.
Still, this is not the first time that a mermaid’s tale of life ‘under the sea’ has been given legs to rise to the surface as a feature film. It can be argued that 1984’s Splash was an earlier incarnation of Christian Andersen’s fairytale, featuring Darryl Hannah in the title role of the mermaid, Madison, coming to the shore. In that film, a feminist spirit prevails with Madison having autonomy and eschews convention with her love interest following her home. Unfortunately, the animated version renewed a sense of the looming patriarchy and hierarchy with the dynamics of Prince Eric, an older man, with a 16-year-old Ariel. Furthermore, Splash relies on traditional film styles with minimal visual effects, whereas this live action version utilises a blend of CGI, which is questionable at times.
However, there is no denying the visual aesthetics of this new version, which radiates with light and, frankly, some extremely Instagrammable photo shoot moments, such as stunning sunsets. Bailey’s Ariel is luminous under the sea bathed in light amongst vibrant colours of shells and coral reefs. There is a constant glow on Ariel, which makes sea life seem like a nirvana, and when she rises to the surface, she intoxicatingly glimmers with a mesmerising aura. Bailey is perfectly cast, with a wide-eyed innocence, and is indeed that star of the moment within the film and impressively carries musical classics such as ‘Part of Your World’ flawlessly which is bound to be a crowd pleaser. With musicals maestro Rob Marshall, of Chicago fame, as director and Lin-Manuel Miranda on board, the songs were bound to be toe tapping numbers and this rendition of ‘Under the Sea’ is a rousing steel pan fuelled number with the Caribbean lilting tones of Sebastian voiced by Daveed Diggs. The film’s further emphasis on Caribbean life is welcomed, but one musical misfire is a number involving Awkwafina’s character Scuttle, which does not resonate compared to the other rhythmic songs.
Bailey’s charisma extends to her chemistry with Jonah Hauer-King as Eric, for whom Ariel makes the ultimate sacrifice in relinquishing her mermaid powers for an apparent love. Some of the more problematic aspects of the animated version may have been erased in this remake but there is still that unsettling feeling of the concept of losing your voice in order to be loved by a man that seems very old-fashioned. But, there are indeed moments that may also terrify younger children, particularly in exposing the darker elements of the sea occupied by the sea witch, Ursula. Melissa McCarthy is certainly in her element as the cackling Ursula, who tricks the naive Ariel in to giving up her voice. Yet, there are again some CGI misfires when the full extent of Ursula’s evil powers is unveiled.
This The Little Mermaid remake may not be revolutionary, but it is an enjoyable immersion and overall a delight to watch onscreen. It would also translate well on the stage with its combination of classical numbers from the animation and more modern songs. The film creates a spotlight on Bailey whereas Javier Bardem’s role as King Triton seems lacking despite being an omnipotent sea king and perhaps the sea’s version of a formidable King Lear. However, the film’s emphasis on the importance of family and that father-daughter bond is a nice touch as well as the reminders to protect the earth and the seas.
Disney seems to have used this remake to convey such important environmental messages, but a subtler approach may have been preferable. Still, there is no denying that Bailey’s charmingly captivating performance as Ariel does convince and will enchant many little girls seeing a princess resembling them onscreen. Thus, this live action remake of The Little Mermaid will undoubtedly impress despite some of the issues with the film’s technical quality and pacing.