Will a time ever come where Disney’s ongoing string of live action reboots or remakes reaches an abrupt stoppage point? It’s still the dream. But the realistic goal of tapping into the nostalgia well vaults over any lingering idea of reason. And thus the cavalcade continues, with hype building for that next link in the chain. And somehow, it’s now as weak as one would fear. Merely, a tad rusty. The Little Mermaid didn’t exactly need a live action reimagining, elements of which prove that with only a few frames. And yet, a talented, crafty, near-visionary director like Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) can make even the awkward appear spectacular with a Broadway flair. It’s all in his training, but even some obstacles can’t be fully crossed in what amounts to a cinematic mixed bag.
The mark isn’t completely missed, it may just skew out of focus in David Magee’s (A Man Called Otto) script. Lifting appropriately from the 1989 original – and some from Hans Christian Andersen’s book, we see mild similarity with certain touches lightly improving antiquated ideas and invoking a multicultural flair. It’s often at the sacrifice of tighter pacing, with the second act slowing the same way a stage production would to absorb the moment. How Mermaid begins is well on par with its animated predecessor, though not exactly shot for shot. Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the headstrong, rebellious seventh daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem).
Defiant to his rules of not engaging, or even observing, with the presumed enemy humans above water, she builds a vast collection of surface oddities, but wants more. That curious desire leads her to a chance encounter with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), saving him from a shipwreck. Even that’s not enough, nor are warnings from Dad, or his associate Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs). Driven by frustration, she agrees to a deal in blood with the nefarious Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human for three days, and hopefully charm Eric’s affections. Sans voice, of course. And we know where things go from there.
How Mermaid differs runs a rather wide gamut, where at least the tone is still consistent. Marshall, with partner John DeLuca, make it evident they still know how to stage their films like they were meant first for live performance. The story feels a little more robust, until it stumbles flat on its face, before rebounding with lightning reflexes. Exactly like stage pros who know how to keep the energy electric. And that much is true, despite some ideas likely converging late in the development process. Much of what goes on screen is like a rough draft of sorts, focusing first on the seafaring, the mermaid lore, and then the IP.
The former plays like ballet in Marshall’s perspective, or at least an old-fashioned romance novel without the steam, occupying scenic locales and a firm sense of adventure. Anyone who remembers his dabbling in the Pirates franchise will know it’s not too far out of his zone of experience. That angle amounts to serious character growth for Eric, now written as a natural explorer adopted into royalty, but eager not to sink into the trap of a diplomatic family life. He better matches Ariel’s wavelength here, and Hauer-King capitalizes on the material, sustaining a firm head over shoulders. Look past the inherent idea this role was still written too much for Harry Styles, and there’s an infectious joy crossing over.
That alone works great wonders on screen, and when chemistry turns into a valuable factor. Bailey and Hauer-King are terrific together, a natural match judging by mere subtle expression alone. Though more often it’s Bailey who effortlessly steals the show with both vocal prowess and soulful intonation. One would wonder where a performance like this could’ve landed eons ago. The effect is mesmerizing, the ears or eyes can’t stray too far from a consummate professional justifying what’s being aimed as a star-making turn. This is Bailey’s moment, same for Diggs whose comic chops and quick tongue for Sebastian don’t edge past the work of Samuel Wright. More accurately, they serve as a loving tip of the cap. If only I could say the same for Jacob Tremblay’s quietly timid Flounder. Or for Awkwafina’s spin on Scuttle the seabird, now with the snarly, gravelly timbre of a Brooklynite grandmother.
McCarthy’s Ursula makes an overly safe casting decision with questionable singing ability, compensated with a glowing screen presence absent from past roles. To see her deliver on her laurels in the guise of an iconic baddie with flat lighting, it works fair enough to reinforce the evils of the ocean. The same way Bardem can effortlessly invoke authority in the face of unchecked fear, grasping at the idea of distance between land and sea, how those forces oppose. The animated version only could scratch the surface, and while the near threat of an all-out aquatic war, incentivized by the familiar sight of a kaiju-sized sea witch. Magee’s script calls for more in that theme, a bit cheesy but still a welcome inclusion.
Not as welcome would be the insistence on CGI that looks a bit undercooked or uncanny. The effort is no less present, just the appearance hits a drag, similar to Ariel and Eric’s courtship in the middle third. This is perhaps the toughest challenge Marshall and his regular DP Dion Beebe encounter. To make the underwater realm, along with the key animal characters, appear believable when most of it was created in the computer. And all as the human cast swished their tails in large water tanks. There’s genius enough in how Marshall could still frame his musical numbers while blending what was first captured on sight, then created after the fact.
The approach comes off a bit overwhelming, depending on the song. The execution varies even more with the song, with “Under the Sea” perhaps hitting a slight downgrade in energy, trading instruments for dancing jellyfish. The musical artistry of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman remains valuable than ever, with Bailey finding her place and vocal range in the lineage of on-screen princess. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contributions almost sour the story, even if Eric’s new “I want” song does fit well like a glove. Another missed opportunity to, perhaps, consider utilizing the libretto from the Broadway production.
Marshall and Magee hold onto a litany of interesting ideas to carry this retelling of The Little Mermaid along, keeping it engaging from start to finish. I have no doubt of its ability to raise spirits and charm hearts, the familiar classic finding new life with fresh voices. But a near lack of organization nearly leaves the venture scrambling, challenged to keep their vision on a steady current. Awkwardly, the film lands on its fins with some goodwill to spare, and with Bailey taking full charge. It’s plenty passable, and those who are bigger fans of the childhood-defining animated counterpart than I am will be more than satisfied with this unique take. For me, it was very likely one dive, then back out the water. (C+; 3/5)
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters May 26, early access screenings in select locations May 24; rated PG for action/peril and some scary images; 135 minutes.