31 May 2023

Review: The Little Mermaid

From At The Movies, 7:08 pm on 31 May 2023

The 1989 Little Mermaid was the film that turned the Disney studio’s fortunes around after a string of uninspired animated features. 

It was a stone-cold classic, the sort that Uncle Walt used to make.  It got everything right – a modern heroine, genuinely amusing sidekicks, some great songs and the clever Disneyfication of Hans Christian Anderson’s romantic but tragic original.

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Photo: Screenshot

And for a solid decade, Disney animators could do no wrong.  They followed The Little Mermaid with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King – all original, deftly produced and enchanting.  

But for the last decade, Disney’s decided to abandon original and enchanting in favour of simply duplicating what worked before. And here they go again.

The rationale is that what worked before will work again if it’s given flashier 3D animation, and new, more relevant performers.

I’ve seen no evidence that this is the case, incidentally. The audience I saw this Little Mermaid with were clearly indoctrinated already, calling out favourite plot points as they happened.

Still, comparisons being odious, let’s all pretend this is the original movie. And we open on a ship above the sea, where Prince Eric is having some difficulty in a storm.

Under the sea we meet mermaid Ariel, who it seems is fascinated by the world of humans.

Despite the warnings of her father, the King of the Sea, she hangs around the shore and of course regularly bursts into song, explaining why she’s doing it.

Actually - breaking my “ignore the original movie” rule for a moment – my complaint about most films from the Disney Renaissance of the Nineties was that they tended to overdo the songs a bit. 

Did we really need a song about every twist of the plot?

Apparently we do. In fact, the remake goes even further.  

Original songwriter Alan Menken and new lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda have written even more songs, all a solid two or three minutes long.

Anyway, Ariel saves Prince Eric, then flees before he can get a good look at her.  

This doesn’t go down well with either Eric’s mum, the Queen of Dry Land, or Ariel’s Dad, the Undersea King.

Ariel obsesses over Eric because – well, you know, love at first sight, Hans Christian Anderson.  

And, despite the advice of her comedy sidekicks - a crab, a gannet and a fish called Flounder - she decides to get help from Ursula the evil Sea Witch.

Ursula – a tentacled Melissa McCarthy - arranges one of those fairytale deals where Ariel can become human, but with all sorts of strings attached. 

She can’t talk, she has to kiss the Prince before midnight, that sort of thing.  But at least the tail’s gone.

The Little Mermaid rests on the appeal of the star, Halle Bailey, who’s perfectly fine by the way.  She and the director - musical veteran Rob Marshall – are essentially giving us a high-tech Broadway version of the original film.

And like all Disney’s past live action remakes, you can’t deny so much work by so many people has gone into this one.

And yet it remains a cover version.  And a cover version, no matter how faithful, will always miss that spark of inspiration that made people fall in love with the original.  It’s the difference between karaoke and Caruso.  

Meanwhile, photo-real animation brings its own problems.  Sometimes it’s too real.

With a hand-painted animated shark, a lot can be suggested.  A photo-real shark is a big, scary, Jaws-type monster. 

Same with Ursula the Sea Witch when she gets big and threatening at the end.  She looks like something from Cloverfield.

Coming out of it afterwards, the 6-to-10 year olds seemed mostly happy enough.  But I couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to have been a lot more toilet breaks throughout the film than if they’d been truly gripped.

Or maybe it was just all that water.

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