Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid” was at once a masterpiece of the brand and a somewhat cringey retelling of a very dark Hans Christian Andersen tale. The story of a mermaid who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams, it falls neatly into the Disney canon of plucky, curious teenage women, whose pluck and curiosity mostly end up leading them into early marriage. But it’s also a ton of fun, with a dazzling Howard Ashman/Alan Menken score, an iconic villain in Ursula whose look was inspired by the drag queen Divine and a hilariously menacing sequence about cooking fish.
Disney’s had decades to think about how to update “The Little Mermaid” for new generations of viewers. Which makes the dour, overlong, dimly-lit and still pretty sexist product they’ve just released completely baffling.
They’ve jettisoned the fish song, “Les Poissons,” purportedly deeming it too cartoonish (what?) but given a dull musical number to Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). They’ve obscured the great Melissa McCarthy, playing Ursula, in a murk of bottom-of-the-ocean “natural light.” And they’ve retained the central plot, which confers happy-ending approval on a young woman making bodily-harming sacrifices in order to get the guy. Seriously?
I can report that the children in my small-town movie theater were checked-out at best. More than one kid was wandering among the aisles by the time we passed the 90-minute mark of the 135-minute affair, which begs the question: Who, exactly, is this movie for? Why does it exist?
This latest chapter in Disney’s never-ending quest to impose all of its hits on us again, in live-action format, is a profound miscalculation on almost every level, especially about how to revisit a beloved animated property that boasts some pretty problematic themes.
This feels lousy to say, because I was rooting for a huge success to follow the noxious backlash to the trailer last year: Some people apparently couldn’t handle the audacity of reinventing a cartoon character as a Black actress. But star Halle Bailey, in the role of Ariel, has nothing to apologize for: She’s the best thing about this movie. Unfortunately, that’s faint praise.
A lot of ink and pixels have testified to the value of Black children and their moms being able to see themselves in a Disney heroine, and that’s a powerfully admirable goal – as well as a long-overdue one, given the brand’s still overwhelmingly White majority of characters.
Unfortunately, director Rob Marshall’s approach sets a tone of violence at the beginning, rather than inspiration. The film kicks off with a sequence in which the crew of Prince Eric’s trade ship lean and leer over the edge, throwing harpoons at something in the water. A whale? A mermaid? It’s never quite clear, but the bloodlust certainly is. I can’t believe the kids in my screening had imagined a movie called “The Little Mermaid” beginning this way. Yikes.
Then there’s the running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes. The original was an hour twenty-three. The time expansion is such a comically bad decision, I still can’t get my head around it. Nothing little kids like more than sitting still for over two hours! Most recent Disney remakes have kept it at least under the two-hour mark, with the exception of 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” and 2021’s “Cruella,” both of which were, at least, livelier than this one.
Everywhere you look, a detail about the movie has been slightly altered, but most end up being empty gestures rather than meaningful updates. For example, King Triton (Javier Bardem, who mostly looks bored) still has a bunch of adoring daughters who follow his every command, except now they’re a rainbow of ethnic diversity. So what’s the message here: diversity is good as long as patriarchy remains intact?
When Bailey’s Ariel gives up her voice in exchange for a human body, with three days to kiss the prince, she’s also given amnesia about the kiss part – which handily removes the fun from the original film of having her be an active participant in trying to get the smooch. And in this iteration of Ursula’s show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” they’ve removed the lines in which she smacks down Ariel’s doubts about losing her voice: “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber. They think a girl who gossips is a bore. Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can! But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn, it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!”
As Alex Abad-Santos of Vox tweeted, it’s “quite literally the best part of the entire song that crystallizes cynical Ursula’s worldview and, at the same time, shows us how she’s tricking Ariel.” Menken has said the change was made because the lines “might make young girls somehow feel that they shouldn’t speak out of turn,” which feels fairly patronizing; in my experience, kids are very good at knowing not to take a cartoon villain’s advice at face value.
That’s gone, but Lin-Manuel Miranda has added some new music, notably a rap song for Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle, a number which is brief but so tonally different it brings the scene to a screeching halt. If there’s one unifying quality to all of these tweaks, it’s that they aren’t going to convince any of the 1989 movie’s fans that this one is worth their time or money.
More broadly, Disney’s painted the movie with the broad brush of corporate studios’ vision for What We Think Will Put Butts in Seats, which consists mostly of gloomy, under-lighted visuals (which audiences are, in reality, very tired of) and extensive action scenes. The 11th-hour standoff in which McCarthy’s Ursula grows to Godzilla proportions is so very dark here that you can barely see her, which begs the question of how much bad CGI they’re trying to cover up.
As Hollywood continues to wring its hands about the decline of moviegoing, “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t feel like it’s going to be an asset in that fight – let alone inspire many repeat viewings. (I imagine any parent who’s known the earworm of “Let It Go” from “Frozen” will know this is damning indeed.) Maybe a cool reception will inspire a little more introspection for Disney before next spring’s release of the next remake: “Snow White.” What could go wrong?
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Hans Christian Andersen’s last name.