The Little Mermaid (2023) Review
The Little Mermaid is the last of Disney’s live-action remakes of its “big four” animated movies of Disney’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty” era, a particular era of Disney filmmaking that hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory.
The new Little Mermaid is one of the better of these films, thanks to a fantastic performance by Halle Bailey as Ariel, mostly decent renditions of the great Alan Menken/Howard Ashman songs, and a first-rate visual presentation, at least the majority of the time.
Rob Marshall, the director, also made Chicago, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns; he’s the guy you bring in to make a musical that isn’t going to be a classic, but will be professionally produced, and good enough. And that’s what this is.
The Little Mermaid, based on a 19th-century tale by Hans Christian Andersen (also the source for Disney’s animated musical hit Frozen), was first made by Disney as a hand-drawn animation film in 1989. Featuring bright animation and amazing songs by the Broadway duo of Menken and Ashman — “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and the all-time “I want” song “Part of Your World,” — the original The Little Mermaid kicked off a renaissance for Disney that continued with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Menken and Ashman wrote the songs for the first three movies, although after Ashman’s 1991 AIDS death, Tim Rice stepped in to write with Menken on some songs, and Rice and Elton John wrote the Lion King music.
All four of those have since been remade in live action, in ways excellent (Beauty and the Beast), middling (Aladdin), and downright awful (The Lion King.) Now we have the new Little Mermaid, which is firmly the second-best of the genre.
The plot follows the general outlines of the 1989 film, with some subtle changes, new musical numbers, and about an extra half hour of screen time. Ariel is a mermaid, living underwater, under the thumb of her father the underwater king (Javier Bardem, wearing a combination of CGI and a massive beard.)
After she meets human Prince Eric (generic handsome English actor Jonah Hauer-King), the two fall in love, with obstacles in the way including the disapproval of their respective royal families, and he being a human and she being a mermaid. After she makes a Faustian bargain with Ursula the Sea Witch (a delightfully campy Melissa McCarthy), Ariel gets legs and the chance to spend time with Eric on land, at the expense of her speaking voice.
Old friends Sebastian the Crab, Flounder the Fish and Scuttle the Bird are back as well, now voiced by, respectively, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina. Diggs makes quite an impression, while the others really don’t.
Berry, best known previously for the cable show Grown-ish, is very good, showing strong screen presence, good chemistry with Hauer-King, and a first-rate singing voice.
There are only two things that go wrong here. The first is that, because the filmmakers wanted to complement the great Menken/Ashman score from the original and compete for a Best Original Song Oscar, they’ve brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda to work with Menken on a couple of new songs, and some new parts of the older ones. Miranda is, after all, an Oscar away from EGOT, so that was likely a big consideration.
One of the originals, “The Scuttlebutt,” isn’t bad on its own merits — and I am an unabashed Hamilton stan — but because it contains just about every one of Miranda’s songwriting tics, from sophisticated wordplay to Daveed Diggs rapping, it’s absolutely out of place here. (Disney this week announced that Howard, its 2020 documentary about Ashman, is being pulled from Disney+ as part of its content purge- an absolutely inexplicable thing to do, the same week that a major movie featuring some of his greatest songs debuts in theaters.)
Those who have followed the film discourse heading into this film may have seen that many of the first images reduced from The Little Mermaid are dark and hard to see. The majority of the film is bright, and colorful, and doesn’t look anything like that. But the final third-act battle DOES look like that. It’s ugly, hard to follow, and is just one big CGI muddle, of the kind that usually closes out movies over on Disney’s Marvel side.
But of course, a great deal of the world’s worst people is going to focus, more than anything else, on whether the new Little Mermaid is “woke,” although the sort of people with that mindset won’t need to actually see the movie in order to pass judgment. Most of them decided what they thought four years when it was announced that the new Ariel was Black.
What’s likely to get the mouth-breathers going, this time? At one point, a character does the “bawmp-chicka-bawmp-bawnp” song, long associated with porn, although in reference to the idea of Ariel and Eric kissing; Ron DeSantis isn’t going to like that. Then again, some fans, when the film was first in production, had asked that Ursula be played by a drag queen since the original Ursula was inspired by the John Waters muse Divine. Good as McCarthy is in this, I sort of wish they’d said yes.