Released: 25th May
Seen: 25th May
When people talk about the Disney Renaissance, they are talking about a very specific period of time from 1989 to 1999 when Disney released hit after hit with stunning regularity. Ten films over a ten-year period that would revive the Disney brand in a way that basically set the stage for its eventual dominance over the industry today. It could be argued that without the Disney Renaissance, we wouldn’t have the MCU that dominates the landscape today.
Even the worst film in the Disney Renaissance is better than most other films from the same time period, it’s truly a remarkable time in cinema history and it all started with a simple film about a mermaid who wanted to be where the people were… and because Disney has decided exploiting it’s back catalog is a substitute for good film making, we now have a remake of The Little Mermaid, the film that started this Renaissance. In somewhat of a miracle, it’s not actually that bad.
The Little Mermaid’s story should be so familiar that the standard paragraph describing it should be pointless, but tradition calls for it. The story follows Ariel (Halle Bailey), a mermaid obsessed with the humans who walk on land. This obsession causes her father Triton (Javier Bardem) no end of strife and concern – concern which only grows bigger when Ariel ends up rescuing a prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and she becomes somehow even more obsessive.
This obsession is noticed by the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) who makes a deal with Ariel that she can go on the land as a human in exchange for her voice. You know the rest, Ariel and the prince have to kiss in three days otherwise, she goes back to being a mermaid, Ursula does some evil stuff, the Jamaican Crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and a bird named Scuttle (Awkwafina) all tag along for the ride, classic fairy tale stuff.
There is no kind way of wording this but it would be fair to say that this film has one hell of a hurdle to jump over, namely that most of the Disney remakes suck and are completely pointless in every possible way so you better do something actually impressive in order to get over that hurdle. The Little Mermaid actually does something impressive in that, for the most part, it gets what makes the original classic work so well and goes along with it. Sure there are times when it drops the ball, but when it picks that ball back up it manages to impress just enough to make for something genuinely special.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first, Halle Bailey gives an absolute star-making performance out of Ariel. This woman had to step into the role of one of the most beloved Disney princesses of all time (while also dealing with the mouth-breathing morons on the internet who wanted to act like they suddenly cared about mermaids enough to debate what skin colour they should be) and she does it like she’s been planning for this role her entire life. She nails every single element of the character, from her innocent curiosity to her stubborn belief in humans, to the pure romantic that Ariel represents.
She is also a goddamn powerhouse singer, clearly the filmmakers knew this because they find excuses for her to sing even when her character isn’t supposed to have a voice (they do it in her head, it’s one of the more baffling decisions The Little Mermaid makes) but with a voice as special at Halle’s it’s hard not to see why they did it. Frankly, they could’ve made the film into an opera where only Halle sings for everyone and it would’ve been fine… oh and to people who were fans of hers when she was part of Chloe X Halle who knew this already and are currently laughing at how long it took to notice this voice, I’m old so cut me some slack here.
The other big casting issue that a lot of people (including me) had was the casting of Melissa McCarthy as Ursula. Not because Melissa is a bad performer (though lately dear god she has picked some roles that just do not match her talent) but because a lot of people (myself included) thought that the role probably should’ve been filled by a drag queen since Ursula was originally inspired by Divine. Clearly, Melissa is aware of that feedback because she decided that if they weren’t going to hire a currently working drag queen then she was going to deliver a drag queen performance and be the most gloriously scenery-chewing version of Ursula that you could hope for. She provides The Little Mermaid with its first real jolt of life with her appearance, she masters every little quip and glance while also delivering a fantastic version of Poor Unfortunate Souls. It’s a performance that absolutely gets what kind of film it’s in and the insanity of the character and plays to that.
With those two issues resolved, the rest of The Little Mermaid mostly manages to pull off what is needed. Visually it can be hit or miss, thanks in part to the desire for realism that every one of these remakes goes for. Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be perfectly realistic (We’re talking mermaids and magic octopuses, it will never be completely realistic) but when they are able to make a realistic choice the film will make it and it just doesn’t look good. Most people have mocked the design of Sebastian and Flounder with good reason, they look like nightmarish abominations that any loving god would smite upon sight. Sure, they look like the actual animals they’re meant to represent but… who cares? All the under the sea creatures look so real that the mermaids stick out like they don’t belong.
This realism also goes to pretty much any scene under the sea during the afternoon when things get so dark that you can’t make out what the hell is happening. Now, this fortunately isn’t every scene and when The Little Mermaid wants to remember that colours exist it can be quite beautiful (In particular the Under the Sea number looks fantastic, even if they seem to have not listened to the lyrics of the final verse and replaced fish playing instruments with interpretive dance) but when things get dark it’s too dark and murky, which in turn can’t help but just be irritating. Again, a fair amount of the film looks fantastic, mostly the land stuff where they really embrace the colours and contrast for some visual spectacle but again it just feels like another Disney remake that’s afraid to fully commit to a bold visual style.
It also must be said that the new songs written for this movie are just not right for this film. Shocker of all shocks here but Lin Manuel Miranda is a very different kind of lyricist than Howard Ashman was so when Scuttle breaks into a rap that sounds suspiciously Hamilton-esque between the bounty of classic 90s Broadway that Howard Ashman was known for it stands out. When Prince Eric belts out his own number it feels like every other song added to one of these remakes in order to qualify for Oscar nominations. It stands out and just doesn’t fit the tone. Either someone needed to be hired who could write in the style of Howard Ashman (good luck finding someone like that) or the new songs from the Broadway show should’ve been dragged over… but I guess those wouldn’t be Oscar-eligible and that’s the only reason they put new songs in these movies.
Speaking of Prince Eric though, the stuff between him and Ariel is the emotional centre of The Little Mermaid and it’s undeniably where this film excels. Whenever Eric and Ariel are sharing the screen, running through the little town or just floating along in a boat looking at the stars (this films way of getting Ariel to tell Eric her name without her speaking is one of the cutest things ever) the chemistry is off the charts and the romance at the heart of this film makes it work. It’s kind of incredible how effortlessly the two actors make their characters so lovable, a few little gestures and some playful back and forth make their scenes absolutely soar.
It’s honestly just refreshing to be able to say that The Little Mermaid is good, after so many bad remakes it was almost expected that this would be bad as well, but this one actually manages to be quite good. Sure, it would be lovely if Disney would stop this trend of remaking everything they’ve ever done as part of some elaborate scheme to keep the copyright on all of this imagery for another hundred years (not saying that’s why these exist, just suggesting it heavily) and tried to make some new material but considering everything, this is a very good version of the classic story and one that’s undoubtedly going to mean a lot to a large amount of young black girls who get to see a princess who looks like them. It’s good to know that they not only get that, but also get a pretty good film to go along with it. It might not be as good as the 89 film, but it’s still something that should be part of our world.