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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Despite two good performances, new "Little Mermaid" lacks magic

I’ll never forget seeing the original “The Little Mermaid” for the first time back in 1989 at the Randhurst Theater where I worked at the age of 17. The story, characters and songs leaped off the screen in a way I hadn’t seen from a fully animated film since “Bambi.” We now had a reason to be excited for this format and its possibilities once again. With the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin at the helm, fresh from their off-Broadway smash “The Little Shop Of Horrors,” the songs added to the narrative in a way that not only revitalized animation, but also the musical, another genre that had been mostly dormant for the past decade. These days, we get live-action musicals on an average of once a month, or so it seems. Since Disney started making live-action adaptations of their most popular animated films, the prospect of a “Little Mermaid” remake had been a daunting pursuit. The original was the Big Bang of modern day Disney animated films and a childhood favorite among many.

Rob Marshall’s live-action retelling serves the fans just about everything they might want and many more things they don’t. The original “The Little Mermaid” runs 83 perfectly tight, soulful, joyous, beautifully animated minutes. This new live-action version runs 135 minutes, adding more bloat to the simple storyline and with only two actors making any kind of impression. I happened to look at my watch at around the 83 minute mark and they still hadn’t done “Kiss The Girl” yet. It feels as though the extent of the story meetings at Disney were along the lines of “what we have here in ‘The Little Mermaid’ is already perfect. How can we make it longer?” That seems to be the general case of most of the live-action remakes. Only David Lowry’s “Pete’s Dragon” knew it had to start from scratch and pretend the other film didn’t exist. It’s why his film remains the best of the bunch.

Marshall’s film isn’t the worst (that dishonor still belongs to Jon Favreau’s unforgivably lazy “The Lion King”), but it’s hardly worth celebrating either. When it works, it’s mostly because the songs written for it were already great and it’s always nice to hear the songwriting craft that went into them again. It also helps that the two stand-out performances–Halle Bailey as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula–are those with plenty of screen time. The rest of the film either feels like lazy fan service or overwrought additional songs that add nothing worthwhile to the proceedings. Even Lin Manuel Miranda’s contribution will elicit more groans and wincing than cheers.

Then there’s the overall look of the film, much of which, of course, takes place underwater. Much has been written lately about the state of cinematography lately as being too dark. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” famously had this problem and “The Little Mermaid” does, too. Say what you will about James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,’ but the underwater scenes looked gorgeous and well defined. Granted, “The Little Mermaid” takes place in the deep oceans and not off the coasts of tropical islands, so maybe the “lighting” underwater in both regions will be different and maybe the cinematographers are just trying to be consistent. Perhaps, but this is an oppressive color palette from which to work and the film loses whatever magic it might have had as a result.

Marshall’s film also suffers from another case of live action renderings of non-human characters being too stiff or unnatural. The live-action “Beauty and the Beast” proved that there are some emotional qualities of animated characters that are better accomplished when using 2-D animation than with CGI. The enchanted clock, the candelabra and all the other inanimate objects had no real connection with the human characters. The animators and engineers just couldn’t make it work. The same problem exists here. Despite some solid vocal delivery from Daveed Diggs, Sebastian seems too limited in his expressions, which is especially sad considering that character was practically a scene-stealer in the original, a lot of which had to do with what he could do with his eyes and infectious, goofy, smile. Flounder also just looks like a fish who can talk, but can’t express himself. Somehow, Favreau managed to make his animals come to life in “The Jungle Book,” but almost everywhere else, this seems to be a major and unfortunate hurdle in enjoying these films.

Again, let me reiterate the running times. 83 minutes for the original (that includes all credits), 135 minutes here. What did they add? More dialogue and more songs, of course. In the original, Eric didn’t need a song to tell us who he was, but here, actor Jonah Hauer-King makes a desperate plea for the audience to see the story from his point of view with a lame song about his own longing for romance. It’s downright excruciating. Ariel's sisters, Ursula and others have expanded and instantly forgettable songs as well, but the true test of patience comes late in the game when Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) bursts into Ariel’s bedroom rapping frantically about Usula’s shenanigans in what has to be the piercing and unwelcome musical number I’ve seen come out of the Disney studios since the original “Pete's Dragon.” Mirada is obviously a talented songwriter, but his style is so at odds with Ashman and Menkin (as is every other new song) that it completely disrupts any consistent flow a musical like this needs in order to work.

The main strength of the film that keeps it from being at the very bottom of a ranked list of Disney live-action remakes is the casting of Bailey and McCarthy. Bailey exudes charm and is a strong presence. She handles the silent, physical aspect of Ariel’s journey with great ease. As Ursula, McCarthy revels in the menace by giving her voice a guttural and distinctly sinister flavor, her anger piercing through every scene. They’re on screen just enough to make you almost forget how flawed everything else is. Unfortunately, those flaws and drawbacks coupled with the unnecessary run time and plot points (why make Ursula and King Triton siblings if it’s not going to be paid off somehow?) make “The Little Mermaid” nothing more than another example in the huge pile of movies that simply don't need to exist. At the end of it all, years from now, it’s more likely people will still be reminiscing about where they were when they first saw the original, even though it’s over thirty years old. Because it’s that good.

Rating: (**)

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