Disney’s Reboot Isn’t So Bad Or So Good: NPR
I haven’t exactly been a fan of Disney’s recent live-action remakes of its most beloved animated titles — a practice that may make business sense, but is increasingly looking like an artistic dead end. Still, I tried to keep an open mind when I heard that The little Mermaidone of my favorite movies in the Disney canon, was getting the remake treatment.
This type of retreading may be unnecessary, but unnecessary does not necessarily mean unpleasant. And with that brilliant score by Alan Menken and those ingenious lyrics by Howard Ashman — and yes, I can sing it all from start to finish — really, how bad could it be?
The answer is: not so bad, but not so good either. Like many of its fellow Disney remakes, this Little Mermaid too often looks like a dutiful cover version rather than an inspired reimagining. The story hasn’t changed much: the good King Triton, played here by Javier Bardem, has banned all mermaids and tritons from visiting the surface of the ocean, warning them that humans are dangerous. But that hasn’t stopped her youngest and most free-spirited daughter, Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, from becoming deeply fascinated by the human world, which she discovers while collecting artifacts from shipwrecks.
When Bailey’s casting was announced last year, she received a torrent of abuse online, slamming her and Disney for recasting Ariel as the dark mermaid. It was a sad reminder of how angry some people are when a remake or reboot doesn’t quite match their childhood memories, and also how easily some can label their racism as nostalgia.
Speaking as a person with no small attachment to the original Little Mermaid I would say Bailey’s casting is one of the few instances where this new film demonstrates fresh thinking. Her singing voice is as beautiful as the role demands, and while it’s not always as lively in its non-musical moments, it keeps you fully engrossed in Ariel’s journey.
The other actors are rather mixed. As Eric, the handsome human prince whom Ariel saves from drowning and falls in love with, Jonah Hauer-King switches between dashing and dripping. Bardem is a great actor, but even he can’t do much with the solemnly bearded King Triton, who struggles with some of the film’s most fake CGI. Melissa McCarthy puts a wickedly mischievous spin on Ursula, the multi-tentacled sea witch who turns Ariel into a human for a hefty price. Too often, however, she laughs easily at the expense of a genuine threat.
But the characters faring the worst this time around are probably Ariel’s loyal creature friends. As Scuttle, the raucous seagull, a bit of Awkwafina’s goofball shtick goes a long way. And Daveed Diggs, of hamilton fame, scrambles to make an attractive sidekick to Sebastian, the restless crab who tries to keep Ariel out of trouble. It has less to do with his acting and singing and more to do with the character design’s lack of appeal. What made Sebastian and Ariel’s fishy friend Flounder so memorable in the original film was their glorious cartoonishness; here they look creepy and dead eyed.
Filmmaker Rob Marshall recently became Disney’s go-to director for musicals, for reasons I don’t quite understand. His film by Stephen Sondheim In the woods struck me as one of the darkest musicals in recent memory, though I’d rather dive back into it than his 2018 effort, the Charmless Mary Poppins Returns.
The little Mermaid, for its part, has charm. His aquatic sequences are no match for Avatar: The Way of the Water, though Sebastian’s big “Under the Sea” number does reach a good level of Busby Berkeley-esque calypso madness. And the story intermittently pops above the water, especially in a few freshly scripted scenes in which Ariel and Eric’s romance takes center stage.
The movie could use more moments like that. The screenwriter, David Magee, tries to put new riffs on old material. It fleshes out long-standing tensions and misunderstandings between humans and merfolk, and it also tries to make Ariel a tougher, more confrontational heroine. Along those same lines, Prince Eric is now a more vulnerable and well-rounded character than before, as we can hear when he voices his desires in a new song written by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The song is a nice touch, but as with so many things in this Little Mermaid, it’s not comparable to anything in the original. The movie is quite enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say it’s worth watching.