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little mermaid disney.jpeg

Review: 'The Little Mermaid' Offers a Glimpse of a Bleak Movie Future

By Melanie Fischer | Film | May 30, 2023 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | May 30, 2023 |


little mermaid disney.jpeg

Once, in college, I was in a lab class where we did a study that involved giving male betta fish Prozac. Betta fish, as anyone who has owned one knows, need to live alone because they are aggressive little punks. If you hold up a mirror to the side of their tank, they will try to attack their reflection.

Unless you give them Prozac, which is precisely what we did. However, once the fish were sufficiently drugged up, it struck me that they did not appear to be keeping the peace because they were happier or had suddenly discovered the meaning of friendship, but because they had been sapped of all energy—they simply no longer cared, and could not be bothered.

It is these lethargic, tranqed-out fish that kept coming to my mind watching the “new” The Little Mermaid, and not just because the memeably pathetic-looking Flounder’s (Jacob Tremblay) vaguely dazed aura screams “fish on drugs” (not the fun kind). The entire film feels lethargic and tranqed out, arguably the most artlessly formulaic of all the Disney live-action remakes to date—a noteworthy achievement considering that particular subgenre, on the whole, is a collection of films so lifelessly regurgitated that calling them “remakes” feels an insult to other remakes.

It’s a servant of two incompatible masters, a self-destructive degree of deference to the original Disney film on one hand, and an inexplicable quest toward verisimilitude on the other. While a more grounded approach has worked in some of the past live-action remakes, perhaps most successfully in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, the new Little Mermaid tries to take such an approach while also keeping all the talking animals. It’s a bad combination that only draws attention to the many things about the story that make no sense, particularly since the visuals—uninspired at best, downright ugly at worst—hardly distract from such ruminations. We’re a long way from the early promise director Rob Marshall showed in Chicago, and with The Little Mermaid following on the heels of uninspired Disney sequel Mary Poppins Returns, it is the early promise that seems the outlier.

The one element of The Little Mermaid that does feel somewhat inspired is the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. She’s got the voice to pull off a stellar rendition of “Part of Your World” and the acting chops to believably carry the tail (for the most part). Bailey’s career to date has primarily been on the small screen, most notably a main cast member role in the first three seasons of spin-off sitcom Grown-ish. Here, in her first starring film role — taking on one of the most iconic characters in the Disney universe to boot — she demonstrates her ability to not only lead a massive studio movie but effectively carry it on her back with somewhat limited help.

Melissa McCarthy gives an adequately flamboyant performance as Ursula, from what little can be seen of it in the dimness of her cavern. Javier Bardem gives the most “I’m here for a paycheck” performance of his career as King Triton, with a generally vacant gaze and stilted delivery frequently laced with a hint of upspeak, like he’s not fully sure of the line — or perhaps he’s simply confused about how he ended up in this movie.

The princes are rarely a main selling point for the Disney canon, and even of that bunch Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) has never been a particular standout, but in the new film, he hits new levels of mediocrity despite clear efforts to build out the character more. He even gets one of the songs written for the film by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Lost at Sea,” an almost comically generic love song not helped by the fact that Hauer-King does not appear to be much of a singer. It might be the worst thing Miranda has ever done, which is, as someone who has never been the biggest fan of his work, not something I claim lightly. And if it’s not, a rap entitled “The Scuttlebutt,” sung later in the film by seabird Scuttle (Awkwafina) and crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), definitely is. Even in terms of looking the princely part, the results underwhelm—how this film manages to strip all the sex appeal from the billowy white shirt and tight pants combo is a mystery for the ages, but indeed it does. Across the board, the costumes here are the most uninspired, cheap-looking things that have ever been attributed to Colleen Atwood’s name.

The Little Mermaid is, in general, as inexplicably dark and colorless as the promotional material suggests, leaning so heavily into an underexposed, aggressively teal and orange color palette there are points where one almost anticipates the action will be interrupted by an intertitle pronouncing, “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car.” “Under the Sea” is one of the few moments where the film lets itself be a bit lighter and more colorful, both visually and narratively, with a Busby Berekely-esque number of dancing, kaleidoscopic sea creatures. To be clear, in any universe, this film would still be a fundamentally uninspired cash grab, but still, it could have been a whole lot more fun.

In an era where the WGA is on a strike partially motivated by the potentially existential threat of A.I. to screenwriting as a livable career, The Little Mermaid is a dank, lethargic cash grab that feels like a glimpse of that bleakest possible future. While David Magee (A Man Called Otto, Mary Poppins Returns) gets credit for the script here, it’s the kind of film that could easily be written by a ChatGPT type program in that terrible scenario where valuable IP could be repackaged and regurgitated by studios more or less on autopilot.

It’s also a film that will, undoubtedly, make an ungodly amount of money, encouraging even more of the same.

The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.