By Allyson Johnson | Film | May 23, 2023 |
By Allyson Johnson | Film | May 23, 2023 |
Of all the live-action remakes that Disney has churned out over the years, only a handful have truly justified their existence. One such gem was Lily James’ radiant performance in Cinderella, a film that dared to stray from the original by giving Prince Charming more depth and characterization. And who can forget the enchanting adventure of The Jungle Book, a bit of old-fashioned storytelling combined with a stellar cast that breathed life into beloved characters.
But let’s face it, beyond these rare treasures and a few glimmers in Aladdin, most of these remakes have been shameless cash grabs, preying on our nostalgia while failing to capture the essence of their animated counterparts. Films like Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Dumbo, and Pinocchio stumbled along the way, either misinterpreting the original story, suffocating it with simplistic humor, or lacking the magic and whimsy that made the originals classics.
Unfortunately, the latest installment, Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid, falls victim to the same trap as its predecessors. It attempts to infuse photo realism into the sea creature supporting cast but instead creates an uncanny valley of expressionless faces attempting to convey personality. It’s a jarring experience that highlights the fundamental difference between animation and live-action.
Animation possesses a unique charm that cannot be replicated in live-action. Filmmakers who understand this wisely choose to honor the medium rather than attempt to recreate it. Just take a look at Jordan Peele’s nod to Akira in Nope, or Christopher Nolan’s incorporation of Paprika in Inception, or Darren Aronofsky drawing inspiration from Perfect Blue for Requiem for a Dream. These directors understand that the references and visual touches are meant to enhance the on-screen experience, elevating their work rather than diminishing the original animated classics.
In a recent behind-the-scenes interview, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) discusses his ambition to bring The Little Mermaid to life and “expand” the story, making it “fuller.” These statements raise alarm bells, as they fail to acknowledge the animated art form’s inherent brilliance and the immense impact of the 1989 original film.
There are certain scenes in the animated classic that remain awe-inspiring to this day, unmatched by any live-action adaptation. Picture the opening sequence as we soar above the gray waves, only to dive beneath and discover the breathtaking vibrancy of Ariel’s underwater world. Or the shipwreck that brings Prince Eric into Ariel’s loving embrace. And let’s not forget the exhilarating showdown with Ursula, where kinetic energy and tactility combine to deliver unforgettable moments that can only be achieved through animation.
Similar moments can be found in other Disney animated films. For instance, the combination of live-action reference filming and rotoscoping used in Sleeping Beauty (1959) added depth and texture to its visuals. The scene in which the princess becomes entranced as she wanders the halls, the curse having taken hold, remains unsettling to this day.
The haunted woods sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney’s first feature-length animated film, is as chilling as any fantasy film, surpassing all the live-action remakes in terms of tension and genuine fear. This film was the last to employ cel animation until The Little Mermaid.
The film featured the traditional hand-painted cel work, where drawings on celluloid sheets, or “cels,” were placed over painted backgrounds. This hand-drawn style gives films like The Little Mermaid a timeless composition. That’s why a film like 1997’s Hercules, which combined computer animation with hand-drawn artwork before Disney fully transitioned to digital 3D animation, has aged poorly in terms of visuals. The fight scene with the Hydra, in particular, is a confusing experience when compared to another 1997 animated film that utilized minimal computer animation: Princess Mononoke by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. In Miyazaki’s film, the magical creatures still evoke a sense of horror and wonder, sometimes within the same scene.
This isn’t to say that Disney needed to stick with hand-drawn animation to continue building its legacy. Modern films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse prove that embracing current technology can result in similarly spellbinding works. However, the problem lies in the notion that live-action is inherently superior to animated counterparts, which is simply not true.
Perhaps one could argue that there is a stronger emotional connection with a real person on screen than with an animated character. However, no argument can convince me that Emma Watson’s portrayal of Belle in live-action outshone the performance of Paige O’Hara, who brought the character to life solely with her voice in the original film.
None of this undermines the importance of representation that Halle Bailey brings to the role of Ariel in Marshall’s The Little Mermaid or the positive impact it has on young viewers to see themselves in such an iconic character. Bailey’s voice is extraordinary, and she will undoubtedly make a captivating Disney princess.
However, across the board, none of the live-action adaptations to date have managed to elevate or improve upon the original films they are based on. With several live-action films still in development, the concern is how many more stories might be tarnished due to a lack of innovative artistry and creative curiosity. Disney’s assembly line approach to producing these adaptations, which fail to capture the essence of the originals, diminishes the studio’s own legacy while belittling the animated medium by suggesting it can be improved upon in the first place.