It’s not Rob Marshall’s fault that Disney’s latest live-action retread doesn’t really sing. “The Little Mermaid,” a somewhat drab project with sparkles of bioluminescence, suffers from the same fundamental problems as They plagued “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Halle Bailey can be a charming presence and has a magnificent voice that is distinctly different from Jodi Benson’s, but the fins, animals and photorealistic environments they don’t make Disney fairy tales more enchanting on their own.
The essential problem is that live-action movies have prioritized nostalgia and familiarity over compelling visual storytelling. They try to recreate beats and takes from their animated predecessors, defiantly ignoring the possibility that certain musical sequences and elections were charming and vibrant because they were animated, not in spite of it.
There was, in the 1989 film, a sparkling wonderment to everything. The underwater castle. the sirens Eric’s boat. Even Ariel’s bright red hair. Combined with the wonderful songs and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, it’s not hard to see why it helped fuel the renaissance of Disney Animation.
Anyone who has been through Disney’s recent library of live-action would do well to approach “The Little Mermaid” with caution. Still, there’s excitement as the camera takes us underwater to give us our first glimpse of mermaids, even after a somewhat ominous quote from Hans Christian Anderson that opens the film (“But a mermaid has no tears, and so so much, he suffers much more”. ).
You can’t help but hope. But the first siren to come into focus doesn’t evoke as much awe as a flashback to Ben Stiller’s merman in “Zoolander.”
The technology is better, sure, but the result is almost the same. Worse, as we spend more time with them, following Ariel’s multicultural sisters as they rally around her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), it’s hard to shake off a distinctly uncanny valley feeling.
For all her dynamism, everything about this “Little Mermaid” is more muted. Miranda’s new songs are also strange and don’t seem to fit. Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) makes sense—perhaps even Ariel’s mental anthem after she voices herself to Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula—but did Scuttle really need a song, too?
Speaking of Scuttle, the cute cartoons depicting seagulls, crabs, and fish friends of Ariel have been replaced with terrifyingly accurate depictions of said animals.
Awkwafina’s comedy charms can only go so far as she looks just like a real seagull that might be after your fries on the beach. The close-ups of her glowing blue eyes are haunting, though it was probably a good decision to go with blue over gold, which looks a bit demonic even in the cartoon. Sometimes it seems as if the editor is trying to minimize the unpleasantness by quickly cutting Scuttle out.
Flounder (Jacob Tremblay, who also did the voice of Luca) doesn’t have this problem as much, mainly because once they get out of the water, he’s essentially hiding below the surface.
Sebastian, played by Daveed Digg, gets away with it and looks most pleasingly cartoonish.
Visibility is also an issue for more than just Flounder. Sometimes the underwater sequences in “The Little Mermaid” seem too underwater. Things are muddy, boring, and hard to watch, again probably in the name of authenticity, but straining to see what Marshall and the VFX teams have worked on for years is not a pleasant experience. This could be a projection issue – I wasn’t in an especially high-tech theater with color-enhancing upgrades. But that also means that anyone who doesn’t have access to things like Dolby Vision around the world will also have this problem. When Sebastian brings out the most colorful fish he can find for the “Under the Sea” number, you even begin to empathize a bit with Ariel. It is the exact opposite of the “Avatar: The Way of Water” experience.
“The Little Mermaid,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “action/danger, some scary imagery.” Duration: 135 minutes. Two stars out of four.