The Little Mermaid (2023) expands the 1989 story, perhaps imperfectly. But it is still the best Disney live-action remake to date.
The Little Mermaid (2023) Synopsis
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved tale and a live-action remake of Disney’s 1989 animated hit of the same name, The Little Mermaid narrates the tribulations of Ariel, the youngest daughter of Sea King Triton who falls in love with a human prince. Forbidden from having contact with humans, the lovelorn Ariel foolishly accepts the sorcerous help of Ursula the Sea Witch. She does not realise that the skewed bargain is part of Ursula’s vengeance against King Triton.
The Little Mermaid (1989) was the first movie of the so-called Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s and 90s. Together with later animated hits such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), the House of Mouse reestablished itself as the leading force in American animation. High points of this era included Beauty’s nomination for best movie at the Oscars and how practically every soundtrack from these movies was critically and commercially successful. (In the Electone world, many of the tracks are considered performance standards)
For reasons yet to be clearly determined, though, Disney didn’t start with Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved tale when they started giving their catalogue the live-action treatment. Depending on how you look at it and how supportive a Mouse fan you are, this could be a prudent move or a poor decision.
For me, it trended toward the awful. While there were great moments like The Jungle Book (2016), most of the remakes were painfully flawed in some way. They were either insipid, or bland copies, or like the recent Peter Pan & Wendy, feverishly revisionist. After sitting through these, I genuinely dreaded how The Little Mermaid (2023) would turn out—I didn’t even watch the trailers till last week.
Worse, I became increasingly convinced that Disney just couldn’t get the formula right. If they’re “testing” the way before reworking what’s hands-down their most transformative hit of the last century, they certainly don’t feel as if they are learning. In fact, they are practically killing my enthusiasm for these remakes with each new release.
But, thank goodness, it seems like Disney did pick up some of the criticism after all. In short, The Little Mermaid (2023) is very faithful to the ’89 animation, but it also works hard to be more than just a CGI rehash. It’s still the ’89 story but with characters much better fleshed out.
Prince Eric is now more than just another pretty prince thanks to a new backstory. The true motivations of the divine Ursula, bless her plump tentacles, are given more detailed light.
Ariel’s fascination with the human world now makes a little more sense and is no longer the teenage infatuation depicted in the ’89 movie.
To be clear, these additions come with certain shortcomings. For example, they significantly lengthen the run and result in an occasional loss of dramatic energy. However, here’s where Halle Bailey as the right choice for Ariel steps in to save the day.
Bailey’s singing is nothing short of mesmerizing. Her acting skills are rather limited to wide-eye fascination and simple longing, but for the Ariel persona, aren’t these what’s needed most? In other words, Bailey successfully conjures the impression of the animated Ariel brought to life.
The other cast members are a mixed bag but thankfully, mostly on the positive side. Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian the learned crustacean grows on you. Awkwafina’s Scuttle is, erm, weird but it’s hard to dislike her too much, yeah?
Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy’s Triton and Ursula both feel somewhat too wooden to me. However, McCarthy does occasionally display the sort of hysterical melodrama the original Ursula is identified with.
In all, this remake restored my faith in Disney live-action remakes, if only a little and only for the moment. I’ll say that The Little Mermaid (2023) is the best remake I’ve watched since The Jungle Book, and that’s six years in the wait, but it’s not quite enough to completely restore my trust, yet.
Disney shows that it has an idea of the right way forward. But whether they’d stick to this, that’s anybody’s guess. I wonder, with a bit more enthusiasm now, how the new Snow White movie would be.
A Non-White Little Mermaid
To discuss the issue of race in The Little Mermaid (2023) is distasteful to me. But I suppose it is necessary given the criticism showered on the project during its announcements and how scathing jibes continue to be circulated on social media even as I type this review.
But two declarations first, before I continue. Firstly, I’m all for racial diversity and equality in the film industry. Secondly, I think race-blind casting, however admirable, needs to exhibit a certain sensibility because otherwise, it ventures into a different arena of disrespect. An example of the latter is NOT when you get a black actor to play a Chinese role, but when you do so purely to provoke.
In the case of casting Halle Bailey as Ariel, i.e., as a darker-skin mermaid instead of a Caucasian one, I think it makes sense because the ’89 animation had always exhibited a Caribbean feel. Moreover, mermaids are mythological characters. In some folktales, they are even described as terrifying creatures. So who knows, maybe a “white” mermaid is the wrong image to begin with?
I don’t feel a non-white mermaid is disrespectful to Hans Christian Andersen too because, come on, the movie is an adaptation. If faithfulness to the source material is the concern, then shouldn’t one be more angered by how Ariel didn’t transfigure at the end of the story? How she didn’t consider murdering Eric?
On Disney’s part, I think they acknowledge the touchiness of the subject while standing firm on their beliefs, and this is admirable to me. Throughout the show, there are energetic hints that merpeople represent the seven seas and thus, they have the likeness of different human races. It’s a little in your face, admittedly, but it explains Disney’s casting decision in a more rational manner.
Certain viewers will still find offense, I’m sure. But as a tempered step towards genuine equality, I feel this movie did its best.
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