Typically, calling a film a faithful adaptation of its source material can constitute praise. It’s a signal of approval, a fan’s casual imprimatur. It’s a definitive blessing that this new entry has retained enough of the source’s initial look, feel, and spirit so as to be worthy of its name and justify its existence. Calling the Halle Bailey-led The Little Mermaid a faithful adaptation is true on its face, but to say fidelity is a film’s chief creative merit is to unwittingly reveal a lot about how movies are made, viewed, and judged these days. The thing about Disney’s live-action adaptations is that too often they are remakes marketed as reimaginings. Promotional attention goes to the revamped cast, plot diversions, and computer-generated spectacle, the gaudy elements forming the shell of the Trojan Horse that carries what’s ultimately a reenactment of released material. Without any nostalgic connection to the original property, The Little Mermaid is a peculiarly ambivalent experience, all its elevating touches counterbalanced by its new flaws.
This new live-action version of The Little Mermaid pads out the animated original’s runtime by more than 50 minutes. The extra story that amounts to feels partially in service of a narrative ambition, but it also smacks of Disney’s insistence on marketing its remakes as “reimaginings.” Stretching the story means more content, more gags, more dance numbers, more photorealistic crabs and fish that flirt with the uncanny valley, more memeable parcels ready to be plucked and circulated as reaction gifs and first-look film account posts. Still, this “new” content does offer something new, which is noticeable especially in comparison to the retread of story beats often adhered to so slavishly elsewhere. It goes beyond freeze-frame, Spot the Difference discrepancies, or how the imitative editing can conjure such a déjà vu effect that watching the initial descent into Atlantica or experiencing the crescendo of “Under the Sea” can feel like retracing old footsteps. When matters just move along as they’re supposed to, as they were always going to, that predictability numbs. We’re left to sit back in our seats, happy to be on a guided tour, wondering how Disney’s technicians will “bring to life” that thing we know is coming because we already know all the loops on the ride. To their credit, the technicians do their jobs well here. But no matter how immersive the effects or colorful the sets are, any wonder or amusement conjured never really lingers once a scene transitions.
Something essential is lost in the transition from fully animated fantasy to the realm of live-action. Unbounded by reality’s constraints, animated works can possess an elasticity, a dynamism, a larger-than-life ridiculousness that paradoxically is uniquely suited for capturing new expressions of deeply human preoccupations and desires. Put another way, animated characters with their exaggerated faces and proportions can communicate feelings in ways we humans simply cannot. On paper, much of the casting in this version is well thought-out, yet in execution the results are often less than the sum of their parts. Javier Bardem is a stiffer, blander King Triton, lacking his namesake’s imperious grandiosity and balance of harshness and tenderness. Melissa McCarthy is entertaining as Ursula, but never quite nails the character’s expressive range, Ursula’s devious charisma in no small part due to the many terrifying looks she can pull off with her eyes, brows, and lips. The voice work from the likes of Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina is competent across the board, but it’s almost a disservice to inject those voices into lifelike renderings incapable of fully emoting and matching the performances.
At the center of it all is Ariel, portrayed by Halle Bailey in what could prove to be a star-making turn. Bailey has the charm and poise to be instantly believable as the heroine, as well as a voice that could end up giving Jodi Benson’s exceptional work a run for its money in the collective filmgoing memory. Jonah Hauer-King is a pleasant surprise as Ariel’s beloved, Eric, benefitting from this version’s expanded characterization and feeling more like a person as opposed to a conventionally attractive prize Ariel sets out to win. A healthy chunk of the new runtime details their budding romance, fleshing out a section of the original film that is poorly paced, and this version explores further parallels between the two, which works to convince of their chemistry. Ariel — defined by her idealism, rebellious spirit, and cultural curiosity — discovers a true companion who similarly yearns for liberation beyond the borders of their xenophobic empire. But in the end, these added dimensions only serve to fill in some gaps, as come time for the climax, it’s back to the formula.
Sans the cynicism about the film industry and the direction of our cultural appetites, The Little Mermaid is bright and innocuous enough to make the kids happy, as well as those who enjoy resurrecting the feelings they had as kids. It’s not too tough of a bar to clear, and the fact that this is where the bar’s been set might be the most lasting takeaway for viewers after the credits roll.