'The Little Mermaid' review: Halle Bailey captivates, but Rob Marshall's live-action remake nearly drowns in Déjà Vu

‘The Little Mermaid’ review: Halle Bailey captivates, but Rob Marshall’s live-action remake nearly drowns in Déjà Vu

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? A live-action Disney remake that sparks an existential debate? This time it’s Rob Marshall’s interpretation The little Mermaid, based on the 1989 version by John Musker and Ron Clement and starring Halle Bailey as the titular sea creature. It features new music by Lin-Manuel Miranda and snatches as much as possible from the company’s CGI budget.

The questions this faithful adaptation raises are familiar, but answering them is only important up to a point. Nostalgia pays in cash, correctives in advertising. For the profits of the global conglomerate, the classics are worth remaking. The fact that these already temperate fairy tales are adapted for contemporary audiences is only a plus.

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The little Mermaid

The bottom line

A ho-hum adaptation underpinned by a nice main twist.

Release date: Friday 26 May
Launch: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: David Magee

PG rating, 2 hours 15 minutes

Marshall’s Ariel (Bailey) is Black, a choice that has led scores of people to clutch their pearls and return to racist protests. Their complaints about a non-existent white erasure are littered across the internet under the hashtag #NotMyAriel. (It seems to have not occurred to the objectors that a fictional character belongs to no one.) Detractors had no position, but their indignation stoked anxious anticipation and anticipation around the film.

Thankfully, Bailey doesn’t disappoint as Ariel. Her performance adds edge to what is ultimately a worthwhile film. Whether she’s belting out a newly arranged “Part of Your World” or silently watching her less-than-glamorous prince (Jonah Hauer King) grapple with his social constraints, his charisma radiates offscreen. The prodigy of Beyoncé and her other half of the Grammy-winning duo Chloe x Halle gracefully introduces her Ariel of hers: her character is still sweet and sharp-tongued, but there’s a more biting edge to the challenge of she. Even her voice, the raison d’être of the narration, sounds ethereal. Reconciling the strength of Bailey’s portrayal with the rest of the film, however, takes some work.

by Marshall The little Mermaid reminiscent of many of Disney’s recent offerings: it’s sentimental, erratic at times, and overstuffed to withstand controversy. There’s a nagging sense of risk aversion – narratively, at least – and that wariness makes the fun it has feel sanctioned. Like other live-action remakes, The little Mermaid it’s a well-wrapped story with representative awareness ribbon. There’s enough to fill an evening, but it doesn’t inspire much more than a passing sense of déjà vu.

The film opens with a photorealistic interpretation of the sea somewhere off a fictional Caribbean island. Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) resembles a real fish, his skin is slimy and slightly wrinkled. The scales on Ariel’s tail glisten as she prowls a shipwrecked area in search of treasure instead of meeting her father (Javier Bardem) and sisters. The coral reefs appear to be in a National Geographic spread. It’s jarring at first to see Ariel’s world take on a different kind of life, but eventually you get used to the hyper-realistic rhythms of her home.

For the most part, Marshall’s version echoes Musker and Clements’ version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic story. (I hope for a version someday of THE Mermaid which takes the author’s harrowing original tale and renders the menacing reality of the sea.) When Ariel and Flounder narrowly escape a ravenous shark, it’s easy to remember the same scene and marvel at the sharpness of this three-dimensional predator. The changes in the mermaid world come in the form of Triton’s daughters, each of whom are of a different race and, we’re told at the beginning of the film, are representatives of the seven seas. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do or explain about this cosmopolitan bunch of mermaids.

Marshall and his team went to great lengths to capture Ariel’s life underwater, and there’s magic in these parts of the film. Bailey sounds angelic when she sings “Part of Your World,” with a different sense of nostalgia from Jodi Benson, who voiced 1989’s Ariel. Daveed Diggs, who voices Sebastian, brings a reliable stream of humor to the cantankerous crustacean in charge of protecting Ariel. His rendition of “Under the Sea” is accompanied by a delightful montage of aquatic life that possesses the same vitality as Disney’s Strange world.

When Ariel takes her above ground, it’s hard to build a case as to why she had to leave. The 1989 version of The little Mermaid it didn’t have the most robust narrative, but it did offer some entertaining moments. Remember Chef Louis trying to cook Sebastian? That subplot helped take some of the pressure off Ariel and Eric’s story. The lovers have a lot more time in the new movie, which I’m not convinced is a good thing. Prince Eric’s Island pales in comparison to Ariel’s world, and the difference in charm between the two performers makes it hard to be captivated by the rest of the film.

If the start of The little Mermaid – which includes Ariel’s dealings with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, who enjoys) – pays homage to the original Disney version, the middle and end parts are pastiche at best. There’s a tension here between building a new worldview and trying to stick to the original script. Consistency suffers in this tug of war. This Mermaid takes place on an unnamed fictional 19th-century Caribbean island where, in the trend of today’s regency TV shows, the queen is black (Noma Dumezweni) and time is running out. Her son, an adopted white man, wants to explore the world and bring new technologies back to their isolated community. We experience the island through Ariel and Eric’s rendezvous: a buzz of laughing children, market stalls, historical obfuscation, and inhabitants whose purpose is to add texture to the film’s vague, generic atmosphere.

As Ariel moves through the castle, pursued by Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) and Sebastian, who are trying to help her get a kiss, the viewer may wish to go back under the sea. Live animation techniques are weaker on land, such as when Ariel and Eric spend the evening in the lagoon. The inert quality of these scenes make Ursula’s next appearance to wreak havoc more welcome than it probably should. Finally, I thought, a more vibrant reminder of the world our little mermaid has left behind.