Cut to the chase: Despite the headlines, “The Little Mermaid” is a magical reimagining, one that may be too long or too scary for young children, but will surprise and delight older kids and grown fans of the original.
Part of their world
There was a seemingly infinite amount of controversy haunting this live-action adaptation from the moment the project was first announced. Halle Bailey’s skin color – a departure from animated Ariel’s pale complexion and bright red hair – was a favorite discussion among the internet’s most savory racist trolls. The CGI rendering of her aquatic friends also made fans question how the creatures would come across in the full feature film, not just the 2-minute trailer that instigated the tizzy.
On both points, I’m happy to report the concern was overblown. Bailey brings to brilliant life to an Ariel who is as spunky and beautiful as the original, with a voice to rival Jodi Benson’s. She handles the physicality of the role as swimmingly as she handles the musical aspect, and I think children will fall in love with her instantly. Rob Marshall, who has directed a handful of big-budget film musicals over the decades, knows exactly how to arrange, frame and present every sequence for maximum fluidity and effect.
The CGI work does feel wonky in the early scenes, and its initial impression is certainly jarring at first dive. As your eyes adjust, it finds its stride. Filming a live-action adaptation at the bottom of the ocean is, naturally, going to have the feel of computer animation. “The Little Mermaid” does not have the luxury of a nondescript countryside setting or quaint provincial town. The water scenes do not have the sophistication of “Avatar: The Way of Water” for example, but after an adjustment period, it establishes itself sufficiently enough.
Deeper in the sea, more expansive on land
“The Little Mermaid” chronicles the story of Ariel (Halle Bailey), the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of all creatures and merfolk in the underwater realm of Atlantica. Somewhat of a lone-tail, her best friends are an angelfish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina). The uptight red crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) is tasked as her overseer, a thankless assignment given Ariel’s spirited, rebellious nature and propensity for sneaking up to the water’s surface.
Humans, the mortal enemies of her people, fascinate the young princess, and despite her father’s dire warning and steely forbiddance, she trespasses above water to take a peek at the human of her heart’s desire: Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), an adopted, sea-faring prince who, likewise, has an affinity for the dangerous ocean that frustrates his weary Queen mother (Noma Dumezweni) and his handler Grimsby (Art Malik).
Screenwriter David Magee, who wrote “Finding Neverland” and “Mary Poppins Returns”, knows how to imbue whimsical, yet still realistic, backstories into the Disney properties he handles. His take on the Hans Christian Andersen classic infuses the House of Mouse adaptation with a mature, nuanced setting, veering the story away from Andersen’s Denmark and into an undisclosed Caribbean Island. (This was yet another source of outrage, but I found this new location made much more sense, ingratiating the film’s story with a historical element. It tracks that the Caribbean would have a steady stream of commerce-carrying boats, that it would be a sailor’s destination, and that locals would have a strong fear of mermaids, given the long-standing prevalence of mermaid folklore in African culture.)
Character strong, but way too long
The evil sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), relegated to a dingy pit in the ocean where she formulates her devilish sorcery, makes Ariel a dangerous offer: her siren voice for three days with human legs. As Ariel explores the human world, she begins to win Eric over without a voice, veering closer and closer to the kiss that would free her of Ursula’s contract. The squid enchantress notoriously takes matters into her own hands to keep Ariel in her grasp and claim her brother Triton’s throne. But she may have underestimated the power and resolve of a little mermaid.
McCarthy stays within the confines of the character created by the genius voiceover of Pat Carroll but adds her own little funny lady spin that is inoffensive, humorous and often delectably scary. The musical numbers are all impressive and given their own unique take. (Yet another uproar was about the changes made to “Kiss the Girl” to imply consent; the alterations are minor and do not detract from the magical sequence.)
Eric is given his own solo song which rounds out his character, transforming him from a filler Disney Prince to a more full-bodied character.
Despite some wonderful aspects of this live-action revival, the 2-hour and 15-minute runtime is 30-minutes too long, putting up a barrier for younger viewers who cap out at an hour and a half. It’s also confusing to the adults who could handily find dead airtime to cut. The target demographic, unlike the animated film, which is beloved by young children, is a bit older and more mature. Hopefully, older viewers will give it a chance, leave innate adult cynicism at the door and allow themselves to become part of this new, magnificent world.
Good to know
MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril and some scary images
Recommended Age: 8+
Runtime: 135 minutes
Nightmare Inducers: My 5-year-old daughter handled the darker moments at the beginning of the film with ease, even Ursula’s musical number and the first big storm. It was the finale that had her expressing some fear. Ursula grows into a giant, her squid-like tentacles flying around as another storm rages. Both Ariel and Prince Eric are in imminent danger, and the chaos of water, flashing lights and the risk of the leads dying were a little much for her age.
Difficult concepts or emotions: The lore of mermaids – in fairytales, they’re known as devious, human-eating monsters – is touched upon, but never fully explained. Like the animated version, this film shows Ariel’s fraught relationship with her father who doesn’t understand her, and highlights her alienation from the “others like her”.
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