A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince. (from IMDB.com)
By now, there's nothing surprising anymore about Disney continuing to cash-in on their classic animated films by "simply" remaking them in live action form. With varied results, the studio has had some serious hits on their hands by making live action versions of The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book, among others, but probably the most controversial so far has been their remake of 1989's beloved fan favorite, The Little Mermaid.
It's tough to talk about the 2023 remake without ruffling feathers - on both sides of the fence - about the casting of the African American actress Halle Bailey as the lead character, Ariel. For over 30 years, Disney fans have equated The Little Mermaid's Ariel with being a doe-eyed caucassian girl with vivid, bright red hair. Halle doesn't even remotely look the part, even after trying to give the actress orange-tinged dreads to try to pass for "red hair." But while the look for Ariel fails miserably in this new movie, Bailey is a powerhouse vocalist, which probably explains the odd casting choice. But still, despite proving she has the vocal chops to be Ariel, I have to say I think Bailey was sorely miscast in this role.
Culture clashes for the time period notwithstanding, there are several things about The Little Mermaid that don't seem to fit. Changing the seagull Scuttle from being voiced by a man, Buddy Hackett, to female rapper/comedienne Awkwafina is an odd choice. I tend to find her persona kind of abrasive, but I did think her performance in 2021's Raya and the Last Dragon was decent. She seems to be popping up everywhere these days (is she like the female Patton Oswalt or something? Ha!), and I'm not quite sure what the benefit of changing Scuttle to fit her schtick was. Daveed Diggs voices the beloved crab Sebastian, but his Jamaican voice sounds more forced than Samuel E. Wright's did in the original. Sebastian is so lovable in the 1989 film, but there's definitely something that gets lost in translation with Digg's performance and a realistic looking crab standing in for the iconic character. The only animated animal character that seemed to feel "just right" was Flounder, even though, again, it's hard to get a warm feeling from a talking, photorealistic fish.
It's hard to talk about a movie like this without sounding like a grumpy curmudgeon who hates anything that is culturally diverse. However, I am more-or-less a purist when it comes to updates of things in pop culture that weren't broke the first time. We're living in a day in age where - especially Disney - is trying so desperately to be more inclusive with races and cultures that it tends to overshadow the project. I'm all for new stories, like Moana, Coco, Luna, Soul or even Encanto, that spotlight different cultures, but the constant changing of established stories to be shoehorned into other cultures for the sake of representation, isn't necessarily a good thing. Let's just continue to make culturally rich new stories. Why poke the bear by reinventing stories and beloved characters that are just fine the way they are. Even just looking at King Triton, who's now played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem and does a decent job in the role, it actually makes no sense why almost every one of his daughters is a different nationality/race. A comment is made about his wife having passed away, but the reality of just one wife being the mother of all of these women is pretty unlikely. This story also establishes Prince Eric as having been adopted, so his mother is African American. This is fine for the story, but it feels as though this was a change made just so it might make more sense for a white prince to be drawn to a black mermaid. Again, I suppose there's nothing wrong with these racial changes if it works well, but I'm not convinced that it does. And taking into consideration the knowledge that Disney is trying so hard to diversify their programs, it's hard not to feel like these changes weren't even made for the right reasons. It becomes distracting while watching features like these.
Oddly enough, Jonah Hauer-King's casting as Eric seems picture perfect. Eric always seemed kind of bland in the original cartoon - compared to the vibrant world around him - but he served the story well enough. Jonah Hauer-King is about as vanilla as his animated counterpart, and isn't especially interesting or even charismatic, but I admit he grew on me a bit as the story progressed. And the same can actually be said for Halle Bailey's Ariel. It took quite some time for me to warm up to her performance -- seriously, at first, with all its over-abundance of blue screen animation, the movie just felt like a "sweded" version of the 1989 film -- but I actually found her most endearing when she was on land and unable to speak while she was getting to know Eric (that sounds odd, I know). Those scenes were the strongest in the film. The underwater sequences were inconsistent at best, with the CGI surroundings quite often looking very synthetic and unrealistic. The same, however, cannot be said for Melissa McCarthy's Ursula, who certainly looked impressive on the big screen, with menacing, animated tentacles to boot. I've never been a fan of McCarthy in anything I've seen her in, but it actually seemed like perfect casting for her to play Ursula. She not only looks the part, but she clearly had a blast playing the evil sea witch.
The content of the movie is pretty on par with the original cartoon, and Ursula's defeat is even tastefully shown, but I can see her character, as well as her pet eels, being intense for some younger viewers. (Side note: was it really necessary to swap Eric killing Ursula in the '89 movie to Ariel killing Ursula here? Is it really so bad to let a man fight for his girl?) There is no profanity, but some may be turned off by a use of "Lord have mercy" and "Oh good Lord." And the only content that is even remotely sensual is seeing Eric with his shirt torn open and mermaids with bikini tops. Overall, the movie is pretty mild.
Although The Little Mermaid felt a bit long at times (This version is literally almost an hour longer), I was surprised that it wasn't nearly as bad as I was feeling it might be. I took my family to see the movie at the drive-in for my wife's birthday - who really wanted to see it - and it was a nice setting for a movie of this kind. My 12-year-old son initially had zero interest in seeing it either, and he said he enjoyed it a lot. The movie works well enough to get by as its own piece of entertainment, but I personally don't think it really improves upon the original 1989 animated movie. Some added scenes were actually pretty good - like seeing that Eric has a relic room of his own where he keeps things he found while traveling on the sea, much like Ariel keeps things from humans that sink to the ocean floor - but ultimately, 2023's The Little Mermaid just doesn't offer enough to justify its existence. At the end of the day, I think I actually have a greater appreciation now for the 1989 animated film than anything else.
Hotter Under the Water (26:16) - This collection of behind-the-scenes segments are available separately or through a Play All option.
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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