The live-action version of The Little Mermaid has awesome music as expected but the film itself is way too long at 135 minutes.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) finally comes to the screen in live-action. The studio might call it a reimagining but they keep the basic gist of the story. Ariel is the adventurous young daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem). Much like the 1989 film, she is a free spirit and always rebelling against the rules. He forbids his seven daughters to ever go to the surface because the humans killed his wife. In any event, Ariel does go to the surface and falls for Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). But as we all know, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) tricks her into making a deal in order to have three days on land as a human. While the gist of The Little Mermaid remains the same, they extend it by 52 minutes. Is all of the extended run time necessary? Absolutely not–maybe 1:45 or 2 hours max in length, but not 2:15.
There are some changes from what we know about both the classic fairy tale and 1989 film. A few songs are gone and some new ones take their place. Meanwhile, this film places Prince Eric’s kingdom in the Caribbean rather than Europe. We have Sebastian’s (Daveed Diggs) accent to thank for this. I guess it was too much asking audiences to buy into a crab speaking with a Trinidadian accent off the coast of Denmark? Because of the author being from Denmark, it was just assumed that that area of Europe was where the kingdoms were located. I don’t get it either. In any event, the Caribbean setting inspires the look of the castle in the film.
I know there’s a lot of cynicism when it comes to bringing the animated films into live-action. Believe me, Disney has good ones and bad ones. This one is a mostly good one for reasons that I’ll get to here in a moment. But that being said, producer Marc Pratt couldn’t have chosen a better director to take on the job than Rob Marshall. When it comes to this film, you need a filmmaker who can direct musical sequences–something rare in an era where there are fewer movie musicals. While the underwater portion might be a challenge and rightfully so, I’d say that he absolutely rose up to the task.
The problem with transitioning these films into live-action is when they have animals singing. We saw this in The Lion King, which I admit the nostalgia took over in writing my review. The same artists developed the photo-realistic characters in post-production! You know it’s a struggle for filmmakers in a sequence like “Under the Sea.” They try their hardest but more often than not, Sebastian is not facing the camera. Instead, you’re hearing Daveed Diggs singing while Sebastian is either off camera or with his back to the camera. Again, the music is really awesome but it’s harder to sell these sequences with a lifelike crab. In the original classics, the faces were animated. Here, not so much. It’s not just Sebastian but Scuttle (Awkwafina) and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), too, with their designs. Regardless, Diggs is a the MVP of the sidekicks.
Speaking of sidekicks, there are some major changes for The Little Mermaid in 2023.
- Sebastian goes from being a red Caribbean crab to a mix between Cuban Land Crab and White Crab. The accent goes from Trinidadian to Jamaican.
- Scuttle goes from being a seagull to a Gannet
- Flounder is still a yellow tropical fish with a look closer to Timid Damselfish
As John Musker has said about the 1989 version, they didn’t adapt Hans Christian Andersen literally but just what was necessary for the medium at the time. You can say the same thing again right now: what works in animation does not necessarily translate into live-action. Say what you will about the “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” sequences but they work better in animation than live-action. I’m sorry but there is just something about animals singing that isn’t quite working in live-action. Nine times out of ten, the animated film will be better in every way. There’s no denying just how important representation means for this film. It’s going to inspire young children and I expect the film itself will make a few hundred million at the box office.
When visual effects artists are able to perfect the art of animals singing, I’ll be the first to applaud them. But as of right now, they’re not quite there yet. Make no mistake that the music is absolutely amazing but that’s what happens when a film combines the talents of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Menken and Miranda pen three new songs and a reprise for the film:
- “Wild Unchartered Waters” (Eric)
- “For the First Time” (Ariel)
- “The Scuttlebutt” (Scuttle and Sebastian)
- An additional reprise of “Part of Your World” (Ariel)
I don’t have a single bad word to say about the music, even the new songs. The iconic songs are still iconic but that just goes without saying. I think the new tunes will become hits and potential Oscar nominees because of who is penning them. They’re really taking the best of both worlds–Menken/Ashman and Miranda–with their approach to the new music. It’s a daunting task for anyone, even the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, in replacing the irreplaceable Ashman. This includes updating “Kiss the Girl” for a post-#MeToo era. Menken has more film to work with because of 52 additional minutes so there’s more score in the film. The music for “Part of Your World” is a recurring motif throughout The Little Mermaid and this works wonderfully.
Outside of the close-up shots of animals singing, The Little Mermaid couldn’t be more beautiful. I’m not surprised–they go above and beyond when it comes to the production design. Obviously, there’s a good chunk of CGI under the water but once they get to the land, everything is real as it can be–including the castle, which Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre designed for the film. Because of how the underwater scenes look, you couldn’t tell that they were using the dry-for-wet filmmaking technique. One knows something is up because it is impossible for humans to talk at length underwater.
Thinking about this film and it being a game-changer for diversity in bringing animation into live-action is another reminder that the animated films could have more LGBTQ representation. As of right now, it’s going to be a long time before we see proper LGBTQ representation in these films. I’m not just talking about a quick scene here and there that can be cut because of foreign censors but real representation that would make the film not make sense if those characters and their scenes are cut. That’s just some food for thought because Beauty and the Beast was not enough.
DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall
SCREENWRITER: David Magee
CAST: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, with Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy
Disney will release The Little Mermaid in theaters on May 26, 2023. Grade: 3.5/5
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