When ‘The Little Mermaid’ came out in 1989, I was just a ten-year old kid, who grew up on cartoons and musical theater. Watching the original ‘The Little Mermaid’ in the cinemas back when it first came out was a core memory for me: the lush and fluid (for its time) animation, the catchy music and songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the visual romance of the underwater world they crafted and the playful tonal grace that they worked on the first of many new animated series that were based on fairy tales and legends. We hadn’t seen one since ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella.’
‘The Little Mermaid’ is just so iconic and I really thought hard about why anyone would want to turn it into a live action remake. What would a live-action remake of the-already perfect cartoon (in my memory) add to the story? There was an innocence that tempered the shades of teen angst and rebellion that came with the original animated feature film. Yes, Ariel fell in love with a boy she’s only seen from a distance and turned her world upside down to be “a part of his world,” which was acceptable in the 90s and in a cartoon character. In a live action remake, my fears came true: the living, breathing portrayal of these characters wouldn’t be able to survive the same scrutiny as its animated counterpart.
The sequences underwater – probably a mix of live footage and a lot of CGI (so how “live-action” is this film?) – are lush and vibrant with a moving fluid tapestry of sea flora and fauna that tries to recreate the romanticism of the underwater world. Director Rob Marshall, not the most subtle of directors, has a tendency of overdoing every image and showing off his massive budget. When we first see Ariel and later, Flounder, and then Sebastian, we are forced to accept these CGI heavy personas as real.
Sure, Hallee Bailey is really there but there is an effect that their hair underwater takes that makes everything look so unflattering (this most obvious with Javier Bardem’s King Triton). In order to approximate being in the water, Bailey, Bardem, Melissa McCarthy (who plays Ursula) must move in very specific ways to simulate being in the water. It isn’t most graceful look and along with the heavy special effects, it’s more distracting than anything else.
In fact, all the actors who have to perform and act under the water are at their worst. It seems they can’t focus on their scene and the emotions because they are involved in the physicality of their movements. McCarthy has the unenviable task of working with Ursula’s relentless blocking – constantly changing positions, mimicking the movements of Ursula in the cartoon – that she can’t really have a moment to just be in character.
And now that Ariel is a living, breathing person – flesh and blood and not literally drawn up – she is now judged for the lengths that she will go to so that she can be part of Eric’s world. She’s a daughter of Triton, a teen with responsibilities over one of the seven seas, and yet she will bring her friend Flounder to forbidden waters where sharks are (and being told that he can’t swim as fast she can) and endanger his life for her fascination with anything above world.
In the cartoon, all these actions – the hoarding of items found in shipwrecks, breaking the rules – take a form of innocence; but in the live action, they feel real, and dangerous, and foolish and hard to root for.
With Bailey, struggling to keep Ariel life-like and in sync with the physics of being under the sea, she isn’t able to give us her all. It is when she makes her deal with Ursula, and she goes above water that you can see the actress at work. Bailey can act and gives Ariel more passion, more fire. She’s a teen at the cusp of womanhood and ready to break loose. It’s a dangerous thing to see, as the film excuses her rebellion as a romantic ideal – of fighting for allowing children to forge their own path – but not realizing that she’s still a teen and her choices have endangered her best friend, she falls in love with a person she watched from afar and makes a deal with a witch.
In a cartoon, it’s excusable. Live action, with Hailee Bailey right there making these decisions, she comes across as spoiled and entitled and deserves all the trouble that comes her way (except other suffer in the wake of her decisions).
Narratively, this version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ takes all the same beats as the original cartoon – except Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is given more of a backstory and his own song, and they added new songs as well – so they don’t really say anything new about the story. The arc is the same, the ending is the same, nothing has changed but that it’s bigger, that it’s not a cartoon but played out by actual people and what it has done is show how superficial and shallow Ariel’s choices may have been.
There is a parallelism created between Ariel and Eric, two royals whose lives are dictated upon by a parent, and they want something different from what has been planned for them. The film wants the young people to question the paths set upon them by their parents and for parents to listen to their children.
Unfortunately, the film shows us the dangers of allowing teenagers to make grown-up decisions. Sure, everything ended up happily ever after but that’s the Disney touch at work. Even when Ariel gives up her voice to get what she wants, the film gives her two songs that she sings (in her head, to maximize Bailey’s beautiful voice) but what it ends up doing is discrediting the sacrifice that she makes. I actually like one of the new songs, ‘For the First Time,’ but I can’t stand that it invalidates the price that she pays for legs.
Marshall went all out for spectacle and commercial appeal. As subtle as a sledgehammer, he hits all the original beats at their exact spots to appeal to the nostalgia of those who loved the original film and hope the same magic that struck over thirty years ago will happen again with a new generation of viewers.
But judging from the applause and oohs and ahhs of the audience I was with at the cinema, the crowd ate it all up anyway.
THE LITTLE MERMAID is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here