Producers: Marc Platt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, John DeLuca and Rob Marshall Director: Rob Marshall Screenplay: David Magee Cast: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Jessica Alexander, Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Disney continues to ransack its catalogue of classic animated films for new revenue through “live-action” remakes (the quotations are appropriate since much of the footage is inevitably computer-generated). The results have been largely mediocre to poor, and this big, blowsy reworking of the 1989 movie that inaugurated the second “Golden Age” of the studio’s animated features continues the disappointing trend. That sad fact should perhaps not be unexpected, since an attempt to turn the piece into a Broadway musical stumbled back in 2008. What this “Little Mermaid” mostly does is encourage you to pop a DVD into your home entertainment system to remind you of what you enjoyed way back when.
The first point to note is sheer length. The 1989 movie clocked in at eighty-three minutes, while this one plows through a hundred and thirty-five. That wouldn’t matter if the expansion brought dividends, but it doesn’t. New songs by original composer Howard Ashman and new lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who perhaps is spreading himself too thin) are undistinguished and instantly forgettable, and new characters (like Prince Eric’s adoptive mother Selina, played by Noma Dumezweni) are superfluous. Meanwhile episodes one remembers fondly—like the chef’s failed attempt to cook the crab Sebastian—are jettisoned. Go figure.
Otherwise this version follows the beats of the first film fairly closely, though at a more languorous pace and with lots of CGI. Under veteran Rob Marshall’s capable if uninspired direction (and with the help of an army of effects specialists), it offers renditions of old crowd-pleasers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” that are cheerful and vigorous, even if they don’t match the effervescence, visual and musical, of the 1989 ones.
The film also boasts a fine heroine in Halle Bailey, whose beautiful singing voice matches her lovely appearance. As Ariel, the mermaid fascinated by humans, much to the annoyance of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, under his thick beard looking more than ever like Anthony Quinn, whose scowl he mimics here as well), she might not entirely efface the memory of the animated version voiced by Jodi Benson in 1989, but proves an excellent replacement in every respect. Unfortunately she’s paired with the colorless Jonah Hauer-Eric, who plays Eric, the prince of the unnamed Caribbean island whom Ariel rescues after a shipwreck and falls for, leading her to enter a misguided contract with wicked sea witch Ursula (voiced by Melissa McCarthy, who certainly pumps things up with her brassy delivery) by which she’s turned into a human but given only three days to get Eric to reciprocate her affection and kiss her—or else. There’s another proviso: Ariel must give up her voice, so that she can’t charm her intended with song.
Ariel is accompanied on her journey to the human world by the usual suspects from the original: swinging calypso crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), who’s been assigned by Triton to watch over his daughter; Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), the empty-headed bird (originally a seagull, here a gannet); and Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a sweet little fish. Try as he might, Diggs doesn’t match Samuel E. Wright’s cheery exuberance, but Awkwafina manages a decent gender change from Buddy Hackett (though the film could have done without Scuttle’s new song), and Tremblay is, by name alone, an on-the-nose choice as the trembling Flounder.
Ariel’s also shadowed by Ursula’s evil eels, and when they report that she and Eric are getting very chummy indeed—much to the concern of his mother, though his butler (Art Malik) helps the relationship along—Ursula herself comes ashore in the guise of Vanessa (Jessica Alexander), and, equipped with Ariel’s voice and singing ability, quickly lands him for herself. Ariel seems doomed, but of course wickedness does not triumph.
As you’d expect of a Disney franchise, this is a lavish production in all respects. The production design (John Myhre) and costumes (Coleen Atwood) provide an eyeful, and the effects team do yeoman work in the visuals on land and beneath the swirling waves. Cinematographer Dion Beebe’s images are impressive, though the ones underwater can’t help have a darker, gloomier look that might remind you of the relatively dim one characteristic of 3-D movies you watch with the glasses on.
But while one can’t deny the effort that’s gone into this new, more expansive “Mermaid,” the fact is that it lumbers rather than soars. It will probably score with an audience always looking for new family-friendly movies, but the littler “Little Mermaid” remains by far the better of the two.