Disney’s The Little Mermaid has never been a stranger to controversy. When the 1989 original was released on home video the Karens of that time claimed the cover contained a penis. But the controversy surrounding the 2023 live action remake of the beloved classic animated film is of a whole other level.
The center focus of the controversy is the casting of black actress Halle Bailey in the role of Ariel. A red-haired white character originating from North-European folklore. Black people love this change while a lot of white people hate it. At least the vocal ones online, which tend to be the more extremist, racist voices.
Among all the online discourse its up to reviewers like me to judge a movie purely on its own merits
When this movie came out I decided to watch the 1989 animated version first. It’s been at least 20-25 years since I last saw that movie, but I still remember this being somewhat of an event. It was the movie that put Disney back on the map and kicked of the Disney renaissance. This movie would be followed by Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pocahontas. Three of them have already received a live action remake and now it’s The Little Mermaid’s turn.
With the original movie fresh in mind I was kind of curious to see how Disney would remake their own production 34 years later. So far the whole live action remake thing of them has been underwhelming. As of 2016 they’ve been really grinding through their Disney classics and turning them into live action movies. Updating them for modern audiences in the process.
These movies tend to be extremely profitable, with several of them making over a billion dollars at the box office. While adults came out in droves to get their nostalgia fix and introducing their kids to an updated version of their childhood movies, critically these movies were a lot less well received.
Because of their checkered history with things like race and feminism, Disney is cautious and tries to create movies that can stand the test of time. They don’t want another Song of the South in their back-catalogue. Disney plays it extremely safe and probably have sensitivity readers going over the scripts and dailies. This results in remakes that are rather tame and boring.
So The Little Mermaid already was behind before it was even released. But a good movie can overcome those odds with ease. Nobody expected much from Moonlighting’s Bruce Willis starring in Die Hard or 1989’s Batman when it became public that comedic actor Michael Keaton would star as the titular character.
Sadly, this version of The Little Mermaid is a disaster. It makes the same mistakes the previous Disney live action remakes made and even adds some new ones. I quickly became frustrated with this movie which, much to my dismay, has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. By comparison, the 1989 version has a brisk running time of only 83 minutes.
Because the story remains the same the movie tends to drag. Scenes feel, and probably are, more drawn out than they were in the original. Ariel doesn’t become human until and hour into the movie. I never had the idea that the extra running time attributed to the better development of Ariel or any of the other characters.
A part of the extra running time can be credited to the addition of new songs written specifically for this movie. The problem with these songs is that none of them are memorable and the style is wildly different from the original songs. Scuttle even gets a rap, and since he’s voiced by the Akwafina we are treated to some pretty hoarse vocal work. I hope you like the classic “bom chicka wah wah” onimonapia because it’s Scuttle’s catchphrase.
At first the movie is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original, but now with a lot of computer generated visuals. Much like most CGI-heavy movies this isn’t so much a live-action remake, but more of a photo-real remake. Because of the phot0-realistic approach the color palette is much more desaturated than the average cartoon. Colors tend to be much more drab and grey compared to the cartoon counterpart.
The first thing that struck me is that the makers don’t set clear rules for the underwater world. In one scene the physics match how things move underwater, while in the next scene all of those physics are ignored. One clear example is the moment Ariel throws a watch onto a table underwater and the physics ignore the existence of water. There was of course no water in reality, but the special effects artists should replace the watch with a CGI watch that does adhere to the laws of underwater physics.
The same goes for Sebastian the crab. There are scenes in which he’s floating and swimming through the water. Crabs don’t do that by the way, they walk sideways. In one scene King Triton picks him up and drops him on the ocean floor and the water is once again ignored. His fall isn’t being broken by the water and he doesn’t float the least.
In the original The Little Mermaid finds a fork and goes to the surface of the water to show it to Scuttle, a bird, who tells her it’s a dinglewhopper. This scene is almost exactly verbatim in this version, but now it takes place underwater. So there’s a bird underwater for minutes just casually talking to his friends. After several minutes he claims that he needs to go up for air so they still lean into the breathing underwater aspect, even though talking for minutes underwater isn’t a problem.
The entire dinglewhopper scene is exemplary of the terrible quality of this movie. In the original movie this scene was a setup for a later moment in the movie. Scuttle tells Ariel that a fork is called a dinglewhopper and humans use it to comb their hair. When a mute Ariel has dinner with Prince Erik she starts combing her hair with the fork next to her plate. It’s a cute moment where the Prince starts to fall for her because of her quirks.
In the remake the entire scene with Scuttle’s explanation is copied from the original movie. It feels cheap but you understand why they do it, because it will pay off in the second act when they’re having dinner. Except the writers change the second act so it doesn’t. In the remake she comes across a fork on a market, starts to comb her hair with it but Erik isn’t even in the scene. The only people who see it are a market vendor and two random onlookers. So they copy one scene only to render it completely useless to the story because the callback doesn’t include the other main character.
Another problem with these photo-realistic remakes are the animal characters. The Lion King remake looked great for a nature documentary. But a much heard complaint was that photo-realistic CG-animals don’t emote the same way as cartoon animals do. The animal characters in this movie are also photo-realistic, meaning that Flounder, Sebastian and Scuttle are way less expressive than they should. Good luck selling plush toys of these characters Disney.
But the photo-realistic element introduces another problem. There is no clear divide between the sentient animals and the rest. In cartoons there is usually a clear divide between them, by giving sentient animals expressive faces. In the dinglewhopper scene , Scuttle dives into the water to catch a fish and eat it. The fish has the same expressive features as Flounder, yet he’s friends with him. The same goes for a shark later on. The shark is a mindless creature trying to eat the protagonists and while Flounder looks like a random fish he’s totally sentient.
The movie is full of these inconsistencies. They can’t seem to nail the rules of this world and then adhere to it. The reason The Matrix is considered one of the best movies ever made is because the writers laid down the rules of the world and then wrote the story around it. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a good movie because the movie abides by the rules it sets in the first act. The second movie didn’t do that and that’s why people hate it.
Disney seem to be more concerned about being inclusive and not trying to offend anyone than about making good movies. Instead of sensitivity readers they should start employing inconsistency readers.
The water’s only feature is in The Little Mermaid that it makes everything float except when it suddenly doesn’t. The world feels fake which is acceptable in a more cartoon-like environment, but doesn’t in a movie that is trying to sell everything as reality. A reality that is also destroyed by the fake looking movements of most marine animals in the water. Most of their movements look too shoddy for characters who are gliding through the water.
Simply wasted is Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula. While she’s the best thing about this movie, most of her scenes have her monologuing to no one. Most of her scenes consist of her just talking on a set on her own. This works in cartoons, but not in live action. The solution is simple: have her talk to someone else. She has two moray eels, Flotsam and Jetsam, as her cronies. Have her talk to them, make them sentient as well so they can interact verbally with her. Now she’s just giving a monologue as if she’s in a stage play.
Finally I would like to address the elephant in the room since there was no getting around it and the same is already happening with the upcoming Snow White live action remake: the controversy.
While Halle Bailey does a fine job as Ariel it feels as if she’s been given the lead role because of the color of her skin. The movie feels as if its been cast by a diversity officer. The location has been shifted to the Carribean, which serves as an excuse to have a diverse cast. While Prince Eric is white, his mother is black. There is a mention of how they found him on the beach, but that doesn’t quite explain why he’s the prince. Last I checked that whole royalty thing works with bloodlines.
The same goes for King Triton who is played by Javier Bardem. He’s a white actor, yet all of his daughters have a different ethnicity. It’s similar to Fast X where the child of Dominic Toretto and his white wife is black. I’m all for diversity, but use it in the right way. Not in a forced way like this.
There are plenty of black folk stories to be told, but apparently those are deemed to risky. Disney, as well as the rest of Hollywood, is so focused on merely creating new movies based on existing and proven IP’s that they rather put people of color in an originally white property than tell actual black stories.
So in the end The Little Mermaid in an overly long, political correct, unnecessary remake of a movie that was just fine as it was. It delivers nothing new, no radical new approach to the source material, nothing memorable. It’s just another live-action remake with the focus on blackwashing the original movie with the hope it will draw Black Panther crowds to the cinemas. And it even failed at doing that.