For whatever it’s worth, I really did try. I tried not to be that guy. I tried not to be the stuck-up killjoy Anton Ego-style curmudgeon critic who trashes a harmless kids’ movie for not being substantial or distinctive enough. I tried to keep an open mind and look for the fun and promise and give credit where it may be due in the latest derivative live-action remake of a Disney animated classic. I tried to fight the impulse to be jaded when we’re introduced to the dullest underwater world we’ve ever come across (forget Finding Nemo, this film makes Aquaman look like a feast of imagination). I tried to fight my inner cynic through the punchable, doorknob characters, the remarkable aversion to colour, and even the weird “cute” VFX fish characters who look somewhere between creepy and oddly edible. But, alas, I was unsuccessful. The Little Mermaid isn’t just the latest empty Disney remake, it’s a soulless slog.
In what feels appears to be an entirely faithful remake of the animated original, the seven seas are ruled by King Triton (an unfortunately sincere Javier Bardem…I hope he got paid a small fortune for this). The good King loves his many daughters but his favourite is Ariel (Halle Bailey, who could well be a talented performer but there’s no sign of that here amidst the suffocating Disney packaging). Ariel is the mermaid who only ever dreams of seeing the surface world, but it’s forbidden by her father who thinks humanity is just the worst (he’s not wrong). When a dangerous storm threatens the lives of the crew of a passing ship, Ariel breaks that cardinal rule and goes to the surface to help. There she saves, and falls for, Prince Eric (a dull Jonah Hauer-King here playing the living embodiment of oatmeal). Desperate to find a way around her father’s rules and spend more time with the Prince she just met that one time, Ariel makes a deal with her evil power-hungry aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy bringing the rare bit of personality to an otherwise lifeless film), who allows her to become human for three days at a severe cost.
This sets into motion a by-the-book rebellious love story about free spirits who just want to love and live as they choose, shackled by their strict, stubborn parents. Except here, King Triton has a point. Through the movie, it becomes increasingly clear that Ariel is a selfish, reckless, gullible and truly idiotic character who dooms people’s lives in pursuit of the dude she has a crush on, while everyone around her is forced to pay the price. Put simply, if you’re watching sea food DDLJ and find yourself siding with the Amrish Puri character, you know something’s gotta be off.
Out to help Ariel break the rules and follow her heart are her textbook band of “adorable talking animal” Disney characters. There’s Scuttle the seagull (Awkwafina), Flounder the fish (Jacob Tremblay) and of course Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs, whose Jamaican accent is supposed to serve as some sort of a punchline). Let’s ignore the fact that these are cutesy comic relief characters who are never cute and rarely funny. The thing is – when you try and infuse personality into photo-realistic CGI fish, they’re no longer all that enchanting. They’re actually pretty damn creepy. Nobody wants a live-action remake of Finding Nemo where all the fish look like…actual fish. That’s just unsettling. But it’s not just them. Somehow even the people look weird. In a post-Aquaman world, you’d think they would’ve nailed the whole people-who-live-underwater-flowy-wet-hair VFX aesthetic. But in the underwater portions, in an effort to mermaid-ify her, Ariel’s appearance looks heavily rendered and constantly in flux (the kind of thing you see when they try to CGI abs onto an actor). It’s yet another distracting annoyance in a film full of them.
Even if you’re able to make your peace with that, there’s the little matter of Flounder, Sebastian, Ariel and King Triton all inhabiting an ocean kingdom created with a spectacular lack of imagination. Director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee are entirely uninterested in infusing any sort of world-building or wonder into life within the seven seas. We have no idea how any of it functions and what the lives are like of the various sea creatures. We literally only meet a handful of them throughout the movie. There is a rare flicker of promise (and colour) during Sebastian’s Under The Sea number (perhaps the only song here that isn’t grating and punchable) where various schools of marine life come together, but that’s about it.
The Little Mermaid is equally a terribly paced movie. It’s truly an achievement that in a story full of magic and talking fish and mermaids and witches, after a point, for long stretches it feels like nothing bloody happens. Particularly after Ariel gets her legs (thanks to Ursula’s devious magic), who steals her voice in the bargain. So, a now mute Ariel must go to the surface world and make Eric fall in love with her (for him, it’s the pinnacle of male fantasy – to mansplain at a woman uninterrupted). But even here, all magic and blockbuster scale aside, the movie is unable to muster even an iota of feeling or spark between Ariel and Eric. No one associated with this appears to have a romantic bone in their body. You feel no connection, only contempt.
Disney’s slew of live-action remakes of its beloved animated titles have always been peak derivative cinema. These are hollow imitations. Success lies not in retelling or reinvention but merely in recreation. Rather than stand on their own merits and be remembered, at their very best, the most these movies make you do is want to revisit the original. And The Little Mermaid is quite possibly the worst one yet.
There’s so much that could have been done with this story. I certainly don’t expect what Greta Gerwig will (most likely) do with Barbie levels in terms of playful subversion. But think of Enchanted’s self-aware charms. Heck, even Frozen subverted the “a man is a woman’s happily ever after” trope. Whereas The Little Mermaid has a scene of two women fighting over the man. In this, the golden age of kids’ movies which are designed to delight adults and little ones alike, what we get is an empty, insufferable flick that trades in any sense of spectacle, substance, and soul for some unnervingly freaky fish.