‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: The Renovations Are Only Skin Deep

The new, live-action “The Little Mermaid” is everything nobody should want in a movie: dutiful and defensive, yet desperate for approval. It reeks of obligation and noble intentions. Joy, fun, mystery, risk, flavor, kink — they’re missing. The movie’s saying, “We tried!” Tried not to offend, appall, challenge, imagine. A crab croons, a gull raps, a sea witch swells to Stay Puft proportions: This is not supposed to be a serious event. But it feels made in anticipation of being taken too seriously. Now, you can’t even laugh at it.

The story comes from Hans Christian Andersen, and when Disney made a cartoon musical of it in 1989, the tale’s tragedy and existential wonder got swapped for Disney Princess Syndrome, wherein one subjugation is replaced with another, an even exchange redrawn as liberating love. But the people who drew it had a ball with the hooey.

In both movies, the mermaid Ariel wants out of her widowed father’s underwater kingdom and into the arms of the earthbound merchant prince whom she rescues in a shipwreck. Her father forbids, but that sea-witch, Ursula, fulfills Ariel’s wish, giving her three days to procure a kiss from that prince and remain human or spend the rest of her life enslaved to Ursula. Somehow mirth and music ensue. In the original, that’s thanks mostly to Ariel’s talking Caribbean crab guardian, Sebastian, and her Noo Yawky dingbat sea gull pal, Scuttle.

This remake injects some contemporary misfortune (humans despoil the water, we’re told). It also packs on another 52 minutes and three new songs, trades zany for demure and swaps vast animated land- and seascapes for soundstagey sets and screensavery imagery. They’re calling it “live-action,” but the action is mostly CGI. There’s no organic buoyancy. On land, Ariel can walk but can’t speak, which means whoever’s playing her needs a face that can. Achieving that was a piece of cake in the cartoon. Ariel could seem bemused, enchanted, bereft, coquettish, alarmed, aghast, elated. And her scarlet mane was practically a movie unto itself.

Now Ariel is in the singer Halle Bailey’s hands. And it’s not that she can’t keep par with the original’s illustrators. It’s that this movie isn’t asking her to. It takes the better part of an hour for the flesh-and-blood Ariel to go mute. And when she does, whatever carbonation Bailey had to begin with goes flat. This Ariel has amnesia about needing that kiss, taking “cunning” off the table for Bailey, too.

With her sister, Bailey is half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle. They’ve got a chilling, playful approach to melody that Bailey can’t fully unleash in this movie. For one thing, she’s got two songs, one of which — the standard “Part of Your World” — does manage to let her quaver some toward the end. But what’s required of her doesn’t differ radically from what Jodi Benson did in the first movie. Ostensibly, though, Bailey has been cast because her Ariel would differ. Bailey’s is Black, with long copper hair that twists, waves and locks. Racially, the whole movie’s been, what, opened up? Diversified? Now, Ariel’s rueful daddy, King Triton, is played by a stolid Javier Bardem, who does all the king’s lamenting in Spanish-inflected English. Instead of the Broadway chorines of the original, her mermaid siblings are a multiethnic, runway-ready General Assembly.

The prince, Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), is white, English and now seems to have more plot than Ariel. “More” includes meals with his mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), who’s Black, as is her chief servant, Lashana (Martina Laird). The script, credited to David Magee, John DeLuca, and the director Rob Marshall, informs us that the queen has adopted the prince (because somebody knew inquiring minds would need to know). As the bosomy, tentacled Ursula, who’s now Triton’s banished, embittered sister, McCarthy puts a little pathos in the part’s malignancy. She seems like she’s having a fine time, a little Bette Midler, a little Mae West, a little Etta James. And the sight of her racing toward the camera in a slithery gush of arms and fury is the movie’s one good nightmare image. But even McCarthy seems stuck in a shot-for-shot, growl-for-growl tribute to her cartoon counterpart and Pat Carroll’s vocal immortalization of it.

The cartoon was about a girl who wanted to leave showbiz. She and her sisters performed follies basically for King Triton’s entertainment. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken aimed for the American Songbook’s Disney wing. The voices and evocations were Vegas and vaudeville. Dry land was, entertainment-wise, a lot dryer, but that was all right with Ariel. This new flesh-and-blood version is about a girl who’d like to withdraw her color from the family rainbow and sail off into “uncharted waters” with her white prince.

Melissa McCarthy, as the villainous sea witch Ursula, channels a little Bette Midler, a little Mae West, a little Etta James.Credit…Disney

What’s really been opened up, here? For years now, Disney’s been atoning for the racism and chauvinism and de facto whiteness of its expanded catalog (it owns Pixar and Marvel, too), in part by turning its nettlesome cartoons into live-action corrections. This is important, culturally reparative work from a corporation that, lately, has more steadily inched humanity away from bottom-line priorities; consequently, it has found itself at war with the governor of Florida, where Disney World lives. Onscreen, though, that correctness tends to smell like compromise. For every “Moana,” “Coco” or “Encanto” — original, wondrous, exuberant animated musicals about relationships and cultures Disney didn’t previously notice or treat with care — there’s something timid and reactive like this.

The brown skin and placeable accents don’t make the movie more fun, just utopic and therefore less arguable. Now, what you’ve got is something closer to the colorblind wish fulfillment of the Shonda Rhimes streaming universe, minus the wink-wink, side-eye and carnality. This “Little Mermaid” is a byproduct. The colorization hasn’t led to a racialized, radicalized adventure. It’s not a Black adaptation, an interpretation that imbues white material with Black culture until it’s something completely new; it’s not “The Wiz.” It’s still a Disney movie, one whose heroine now, sigh, happens to be Black. There is some audacity in that. Purists and trolls have complained. They don’t want the original tampered with, even superficially. They don’t want it “woke.” The blowback is, in part, Bailey’s to shoulder. And her simply being here confers upon her a kind of heroism, because it does still feels dangerous to have cast her. Sadly, the haters don’t have much to worry about.

You don’t hire Rob Marshall for radical rebooting. He can do visual chaos and costume kitsch (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Into the Woods”). He can do solid. And he can usually give you a good set piece while he’s at it. This time, it’s the rowboat scene in which Ariel shows Eric how to say her name, a scene that produces “Kiss the Girl,” the calypso number that Sebastian (voiced with an island accent by Daveed Diggs) sings to cajole Eric into planting one on Ariel and unwittingly restoring her voice. (The lyrics have been tweaked to add more consent.) It’s the swooniest things get.

Otherwise, the movie’s worried — worried about what we’ll say, about whether they got it right. That allergy to creative risk produces hazards anyway. I mean, with all these Black women running around in a period that seems like the 19th century, the talk of ships and empire, Brazil and Cartagena just makes me wonder about the cargo on these boats. And this plot gets tricky with a Black Ariel. When Ursula pulls a fast one and reinvents herself as Vanessa, a sexy rival who appears to be white and woos Eric with a siren song in Ariel’s voice, there’s a whole American history of theft and music to overthink, too.

It’s really a misery to notice these things. A 9-year-old wouldn’t. But one reason we have this remake is that former 9-year-olds, raised on and besotted with these original Disney movies, grew up and had questions. In that sense, “The Little Mermaid” is more a moral redress than a work of true inspiration. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing inspired about it. In fact, the best sequence in the movie combines these ambitions of so-called inclusion with thornier American musical traditions. It’s the moment when Scuttle reveals that Eric’s about to marry Ursula.

The song that breaks this news to Ariel and Sebastian is a rap called “The Scuttlebutt” with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And Awkwafina, who does Scuttle’s voice, performs most of it while Bailey looks on in what I’m going to call anguish. Here’s an Asian American performer whose shtick is a kind of Black impersonation, pretending to be a computer-generated bird, rhythm-rapping with a Black American man pretending to be a Caribbean crab. It’s the sort of mind-melting mess that feels honest and utterly free in its messiness, even as the mess douses a conveniently speechless Black woman.

Watching it, you realize why the rest of the movie plays it so safe. Because fun is some risky business. This is a witty, complex, exuberant, breathless, deeply American number that’s also the movie’s one moment of unbridled, unabashed delight. And I can’t wait to see how Disney’s going to apologize for it in 34 years.

The Little Mermaid
Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In theaters.

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