/Film directed by Rob Marshall and another Disney live-action remake. The obvious reference is to the 1989 animated classic directed by John Musker and Ron Clements – and the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1837. Andersen’s fairy tale has a tragic undertone, so Disney’s previous adaptation of this material deserves recognition and acclaim.
The 1989 animated film became popular not only because of Ariel but also because of life under the sea, extremely charismatic characters, and of course, the amazing soundtrack. As I always say on my YouTube channel, when we have any announcement of a Disney live-action today, we can already make a consideration: if it’s going straight to Disney+, you can put it in the discard column, as seen with the terrible Pinocchio and more recently with Peter Pan and Wendy.
When Disney is releasing it to the cinema, the most common consideration is to ask again: is a live-action of a classic really necessary? I confess that I no longer have such high expectations, but I remain hopeful to be pleasantly surprised. I also don’t have a strong nostalgic connection to the original animation, although I appreciate the way the story is told in a fast-paced manner with a very strong musical score.
The 2023 version of The Little Mermaid is better than the recent Disney live-actions, but relies solely on what was already good in the original: the songs and how the production turn them into great segments. There is an expansion of the story that takes the runtime to 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it adds very little to the plot. I was actually surprised by the removal of some popular passages and the desperate attempt to reconstruct something that comes close to the charisma of the animation.
Lin-Manuel Miranda works as an executive producer and composer of the new songs, alongside the legendary Alan Menken – who worked on the original film. It is noticeable that the new songs do not fit well into this new scenario, which, as a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work, I consider to be his weakest compositions in cinema so far. Comparing the lyrics of this version with the ones written by Howard Ashman – who deservedly won several awards in the 1989/1990 awards season – makes things even worse.
As for the overall reflection on The Little Mermaid, it seems to me that a fairy tale alone is not enough for Disney anymore, and they cannot simply rely on bringing what is acclaimed back to the screens without making adjustments.
This is evident in the soul of this live-action, where the romance needs to be structured on foundations to show why the romance exists. At different moments, a glance is not enough; it needs to be accompanied by redundant explanations that do not add anything to the original mythology and only waste time.
The youngest of King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) daughters, Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure. Longing to find out more about the world beyond the sea, Ariel visits the surface and falls for the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Following her heart, she makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), to experience life on land.
The film begins with a reference to Andersen, which is the closest you get to the base story. The main reference is obviously the Disney animation.
The voice is a mystical element for The Little Mermaid, present in the fairy tale and all other adaptations.The question is how to work with this: in the 1989 animated classic, Disney decided to creatively explore the songs and bring in charismatic supporting characters. In the 2023 version, the decision is to focus on Halle Bailey’s performance, and her voice is truly beautiful and the main highlight.
When it comes to the supporting characters, there are things that work wonderfully well in the animation due to the easy integration. In this live-action, those elements are just shameful: just look at Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle. Visually they are horrendous, especially poor Flounder, who lacks any life in this live-action.
So, how can these characters become relevant again? Well, the use of voice feels exaggerated, especially when there is a transition between new songs, which I already mentioned I didn’t like very much. i know it must be very challenging to design a character for a live-action when it also needs to have a realistic element, but this live-action’s choice removes any charisma and creates exaggerated situations where you rely solely on the actor’s performance to overcome the lack of expression of the characters.
The major conflict I felt was the selective portrayal of what to take from the magic of the original and, at the same time, breaking away from many aspects with the mark of modernization. When there are segments built around classic songs, it works great because these songs are renowned.
And this conflict between magic and realism ends up creating a problem – what to do with the underwater world. Enhancing colors and brightness aligns with the magical idea, while the darkness that has become common in live-actions brings a more realistic feeling. Unlike recent projects, many scenes have well-detailed settings, and the film tries to bring more colors to its visual identity through the songs, although the color grading in recent Disney live-actions has been quite bad. Just as you start thinking that at least visually it holds up, you are presented with lifeless sequences, as if it were a mere obligation.
Ursula is portrayed by Melissa McCarthy with a great introductory sequence! The scenes involving her and Ariel are the most interesting ones in the film for me, although I consider the way her character finale to be more suitable for a video game battle than a feature film. In this conflict between magic and reality, there is a symbolic rivalry between Ariel and Ursula. Ariel is committed to a story where she becomes the heroine, while Ursula could lean more towards the magical side of a traditional animated villain. Everything remains balanced until the Ursula’s final scene.
Setting it in the Caribbean could have been great if there was at least some interest in adding relevance to why it matters for the story, beyond a few objects here and there. The main interest is to establish Ariel as the hero, as I mentioned before, and along with that, develop a romance. It’s a creative decision that could have been excellent with more work and text refinement.
The power struggle between Ursula and Triton is practically discarded from the script, and Javier Bardem’s involvement is the most disappointing due to how his character could have been utilized and his almost sporadic appearances. The film’s highlights are mostly focused on Hailey as Ariel. As a live-action, it is better than recent ones and has better art direction and visual integration than what we have been receiving – but these positive moments only occur because the 1989 version is great.
I also published my review in Portuguese on YouTube