It will feel familiar, almost instantly. As Rob Marshall’s live-action remake (reimagining? huh, not so much) of Ron Clements and John Musker’s 1989 Disney animated classic “The Little Mermaid” begins, fans of the original gem will likely find themselves accurately predicting every shot , every line, every song, every verse, every feeling. Despite opening with an epigraph harking back to Hans Christian Andersen’s (incredibly bleak) fairy tale that inspired countless “Little Mermaid” yarns, Marshall’s film owes mostly to Clements and Musker’s vision, using it as a model to offer yet another push from Disney on one of the studio’s standards.
But it’s star Halle Bailey, appearing in her first starring role, who best explains why this classic Disney tale needed to be made into a live-action affair. Just look at her face, so expressive and so open, so deeply and beautifully human and alive. There are some things that not even the most lovingly rendered hand-drawn pieces of animation can match, and Bailey’s emotional prowess is one of them. (And her extraordinary singing of hers? Further icing on the “this young woman is a movie star” cake.)
But what about the rest? As with Clements and Musker’s film, Marshall’s version (with a screenplay by David Magee, who previously wrote Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” another dip into the Disney classic) is set in a vaguely colonial time period somewhere vaguely tropical. Ariel is the youngest daughter of the iron-willed King Triton (Javier Bardem) and, despite her father’s repeated requests, she doesn’t even make it to the surface of their vast ocean home, she is obsessed with all things human (forks and telescopes and pocket watches and books, gadgets and gizmos galore, whosits and whatsits galore).
And when she sets her sights on handsome (territory) Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), all of her man-centric dreams focus on this particular human being. He rescues him from a storm, sings him a sweet siren song, they fall in love, you know this fairy tale, and exactly where he’s going next.
When the nefarious sea witch Ursula (played here by Melissa McCarthy, moderately enjoying herself until she goes into her own outfit towards the end of the film) offers the innocent Ariel a seemingly good deal – she temporarily gives up her voice and earns some legs – with important cords attached, she can’t escape the pull of the world above her. She takes the bait, unaware of Ursula’s ulterior motives (this time, Ursula is also the sister of King Triton, a detail that adds little to her character), and heads to the surface, where Eric is still searching for her sweet voice. . girl who saved him and can’t possibly fathom that the dashing mute who has just landed on his shores is so clearly his savior and soul mate (men!).
Yes, it’s often as dark and dark as early previews have implied (listen, we get it, it is Under the sea, but can’t we take some creative liberties for a story that is also about mythical sea creatures?). Yes, most of the musical sequences are taken directly from the 1989 animated film and are less effective, moving and emotional when translated into live action films. (Both “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are bangers, funny and beautiful, but their live-action rendering will probably just make audiences want to run home and seek out the post-hurry animated versions.) Yep, Flounder just came out the flattened fish face is truly terrifying. (One winner in the Enlightened Animal Friends Lottery: Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian the Crab, who remains the ultimate companion in both versions.)
Less fruitful are some of the other changes made to the story, enough to inflate the original film’s zippy 83-minute running time to over two hours (prayers for the kiddos in the audience). Marshall’s penchant for realism also applies to Magee’s screenplay, which magnifies (and sometimes brightens) parts of the original story that have added resonance these days, like the seemingly impassable gulf between humans and mermaids, who both think that the other group is evil, savage and ready to ruin their way of life. There’s also something about ocean health and pollution concerns that should appeal to older viewers who may never kick “FernGully’s” long reach at their childish psyches.
Eric’s backstory is inflated (something about him appearing out of nowhere and being adopted by the loving royal couple is a subplot that feels significant and ultimately goes nowhere), while King Triton’s latent rage and his extreme hatred for humans are connected to the fact that they killed his wife (another subplot that sounds of great importance that is eventually set aside).
Most of Marshall and Magee’s additions and changes are easy enough to understand (of course Eric should have his own song; yes, it makes sense that Scuttle, originally a seagull, is a diving bird), although others seem to be less useful for story and more designed to appease other forces at play (like another new song, a rap for Scuttle and Sebastian titled “The Scuttlebutt,” which could only have been written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and that’s not exactly a compliment) .
So, does it look real? Sometimes, sure, but it’s a strange concern for a story that is – again, Still – about mythical sea creatures. Disney’s obsession with turning some of its most beloved properties into live-action offerings simply for, what, realism? technology? THE money? it stumbles across both flashes of brilliance and moments of sheer absurdity (the latter was more of an issue with the studio’s recent “Lion King” remake than this Marshall joint). This trend will likely continue to hold true for the foreseeable future, but until House of Mouse fixes the real problem, these movies will never become classics in their own right.
That problem: it does Touch True? Not yet, and not even movie stars flip and rap birds and the best of intentions can bridge this divide. For now, “The Little Mermaid” exists outside of the very world it wants to be a part of, one already so lovingly rendered in its predecessor, “real” or not.
Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Little Mermaid” in theaters on Friday, May 26.