REVIEW: 'The Little Mermaid'

Where's the fluke that says 'yeah'?

May 26, 2023

You could make an argument that The Little Mermaid—the original from 1989, not the remake released this weekend—is the most significant movie made in the past 35 years. It changed the course of motion pictures by establishing a market for animated features that had never really existed before. In the decades since, what with Disney and Pixar and Dreamworks and Illumination, the animated motion picture has become the most reliable box office performer the cinema has ever seen. The Little Mermaid single-handedly revivified the Walt Disney Company, which had become inert and hidebound and had been making rotten movies for two decades following Walt's death in 1966. The change in direction was so significant that by 2019, Disney had become without question the dominant force in American popular culture and the most powerful movie studio since MGM's heyday in the 1940s.

The dazzling musical numbers in The Little Mermaid proved to be the secret weapon that launched Disney animation into the stratosphere, with follow-on pictures Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast demonstrating the power of an indelible score. That is what led Disney to try its hand at live theatrical presentations, which revolutionized the Broadway theater and led to the creation, in the stage version of The Lion King, of the single most successful entertainment property in history. It has earned something on the order of $12 billion alone. There would have been no Lion King without The Little Mermaid.

The thing about The Little Mermaid is that it's actually kind of weird. It begins with a ship at sea in a storm, then proceeds immediately into a near shark attack on the title heroine—feeling more like some kind of action picture than a musical comedy romance. The decision to hire the Broadway songwriting team of Howard Ashman (lyricist) and Alan Menken (music) must have come at some point in the middle of the process of making the movie, because their work feels a bit shoehorned in. As a piece of storytelling, the movie doesn't hang together at all, and the odd shifts in tone continue throughout. What's more, there are just five short songs in the entire movie. Ariel, the central character, has one solo. Eric, her love interest, doesn't sing at all. The two showstoppers are given to a secondary character, Sebastian the Jamaican-accented crab.

The thing is, no one remembers the lulls, or the opening 10 minutes, or much of anything else about the movie's story.  What they remember is Ariel's longing to be human, her teenage struggles with her loving but tyrannical father, and how Ursula the sea-witch plays on those struggles. Mostly, though, what made people see the original over and over are those songs and how they were visualized—like Ariel lovingly cradling lost items from shipwrecks as she expresses her hunger to be "part of that world." Like Sebastian setting a romantic mood in the languorous and beautifully seductive "Kiss the Girl." And best of all, the sea creatures of the deep forming themselves into an orchestra as Sebastian tries to convince Ariel to stay in the water where she belongs:

What do they got, a lot of sand? We got a hot crustacean band!

Each little clam here know how to jam here. … That's why it's hotter under the water …

You see The Little Mermaid, basically, to watch "Under the Sea," which deserves consideration if you were trying to pick the most joyous three minutes ever captured on film. The movie is only 82 minutes long anyway, so it's over before you know it.

The new version runs 2 hours and 15 minutes. Mistake.

Now, I have to say it's easily the best of the studio's efforts to turn its musical cartoons into live-action pictures. But that's an amazingly low bar it clears. The Will Smith Aladdin was just awful. The Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast was maybe worse. The Lion King and The Jungle Book—which weren't even live-action, they were just filled with CGI versions of animals rather than drawn versions of animals—were bizarre. Here, director Rob Marshall (who made Chicago) and screenwriter David Magee (who wrote the brilliant screenplay for Life of Pi) really try to take the source material and turn it into a fleshed-out story that offers real stakes and real drama. The sequences of ships in trouble at sea are beautifully conceived. The painstaking special effects work is far better than I expected it would be, although they have the unfortunate problem of following Avatar: The Way of Water in their depiction of a life lived under the surface. Rob Marshall is many things, some of them good, but he's no James Cameron. (Who is?)

They work hard to give the almost nonexistent character of Eric the human understandable motivation and personality—and give him a loving mother who fears the sea as a parallel to Ariel's father Triton, who fears the land. And Marshall really tries to make us fall in love with Ariel by lavishing time and attention and close-ups on his discovery, the gorgeous young singer/actress Halle Bailey.

But come on, fellas. This is a fairy tale for children about a mermaid with daddy issues who goes to a sea-witch to become human. Nobody cares about Eric and what he's like; there's no drama when it comes to Ariel and Eric, just as there never is any drama about a princess and her true love. Nobody needs the stakes raised. Everything added here, every minute beyond 82 minutes, is ultimately superfluous. They're well done. But they add nothing; indeed, they drown what's good in a sea of what's kind of emotionally and dramatically meh.

Still, you have the wondrous Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, and if you haven't heard him doing "Rap Battle #1" with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the cast album, shame on you) as the voice of Sebastian. He knocks "Under the Sea" out of the park, even though the number as a whole—which is staged as a Busby Berkeley dance number with fish—can't compare to the hilarity of the 1989 version, in which we see a fluke be "the duke of soul." And then we hear and see the fluke say "yeah" in a bass voice.

It's my favorite moment in the original movie. There's no "yeah" in the new movie. There, right there, is everything that's wrong with The Little Mermaid in a seashell. I mean a nutshell. It has reduced one of the key movies in history to a creditable but kind of boring piece of work.

Published under: Disney , Movie Reviews