My son and I have just returned from the Disney live-action remake of the 1989 The Little Mermaid.
How was the movie? Well, it’s a mixed bag. The Little Mermaid really lags when it’s under the sea and trying to be a frame-for-frame match of the 1989 animated version. It’s grey, it’s slow, it’s dull, it’s slightly depressing and frankly it’s irritating because all you can think of is how much crisper the animated version was.
Seriously, the scene where a shark attacks Arielle and Flounder as they explore shipwrecks goes down like slow-pour cement.
Once the movie moves out of the water however and unshackles itself from the 2D animated classic it finally gets a chance to stretch its legs. We see the island where Eric lives with his adopted mother. We see the nervous romantic chemistry between Eric and Arielle. We see Arielle’s face as she notices the dancing feet of people in the marketplace. We see the subtlety of expression between the poised but affectionate Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) and Grimsby (Art Malik).
On dry land, The Little Mermaid shows the audience what we want: an expansion of the Disney “Little Mermaid” universe that only a live action movie can produce.
The opening of The Little Mermaid is surprisingly dark. We see a shot of violent, unreal ocean that’s probably pure CGI. Over the ocean is a quote from the Hans Christian Anderson original story: “… But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers much more.” We then cut to a ship full of aggressive male sailors, their faces twisted with hate, as they try to kill an apparent mermaid swimming by their boat.
It took me back a bit for sure. Dang, was the whole movie going to be this dark? Was Disney just going to go whole-hog and end it like Hans Christian Anderson originally wrote: with the little mermaid killing herself because she refused to stab Eric in the chest as he slept naked in bed next to his new bride?
But no, despite the dark opening scene Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid still remains mostly in young adult movie territory. The underwater action movie scenes, as I noted before, are leaden, dreary CGI imitators of the energetic 1989 animated movie but Disney still does 19th century sailing boats well. I remember being in first grade and thrilling at the sight of Eric’s boat filling the screen in the first shot of the 1989 Little Mermaid. I love the haunting beginning of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (there was only one Pirates of the Caribbean movie made, btw. Disney was one and done with Pirates of the Caribbean and never made another film in the franchise. Yup.)
The live-action The Little Mermaid continues the tradition of its animated predecessor and other Disney films by showing absolutely fabulous shots of 19th century sailing vessels. Seeing the sails billow out as Eric’s boat surges forward, gets caught in storms and sinks still makes the heart palpitate.
These shots are also a good argument to see The Little Mermaid on the big screen in the movie theaters instead of streaming it at home.
Other parts of the film have some bad CGI missteps. Sebastian the crab with his irritated lower lip thrust in the 1989 Little Mermaid is beloved by generations of Disney fans. The 2023 Little Mermaid unwisely made Sebastian look like a realistic crab, which absolutely diminished his character presentation despite the best efforts of voice actor Daveed Diggs.
Scuttle, voiced by Awkwafina, doesn’t do much better but Scuttle and Sebastian get to sing a peppy hip-hop duet called “The Scuttlebutt.” It’s a song that wasn’t in the original 1989 film and it’s very catchy.
Is The Little Mermaid worth a view? If you have kids then yes. Go for it. There are some messaging problems with The Little Mermaid of course. The large, powerful, non-married, outspoken Ursula is still portrayed as all that a woman should NOT be while the petit, pretty, voice-less Arielle is shown as the platonic ideal of a woman worthy of a man’s love. But frankly The Little Mermaid has a long tradition of pissing off feminists. Why break it now?
Plus, as my son and I left the theater, I saw an entire party of 10-year-old girls getting ready for the next showing of The Little Mermaid. One mom took a picture of the girls posing in front of the movie poster. One girl pointed to the character of Ursula, posing menacingly in the corner, and said “I like her! She looks sassy!”
The kids will be okay.