Just a few days ago, an announcement went out about an upcoming “feminist retelling” of an iconic novel. It doesn’t matter which one. And maybe tons of people will read it and love it. Just like the many people who have probably preordered their tickets to see a “reimagining” of a beloved Disney animated film — this time with a Black female lead and in live action.
Retreads, pitiful as they often are, have increasingly become a staple in entertainment.
Just this year alone, the new Fatal Attraction series takes both the erotica and the thriller out of an otherwise very satisfying 1987 movie for so-called “feminist” purposes. Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies takes an effervescent, sneakily subversive 1978 classic, diversifies its cast, and makes it utterly unwatchable on the small screen.
Amazon’s Dead Ringers is an awkward, female-forward remake of the 1988 body horror movie that is so far from the original you wonder why it didn’t just exist on its own measly accord.
Then there’s this year’s The Little Mermaid which comes on the heels of the aforementioned mess and brings us barreling, once again, to the big question of why.
Months leading up to its release, a flurry of promotions hyped up the fact that director Rob Marshall’s new movie now has a Black actress, Halle Bailey, playing princess Ariel as opposed to Jodi Benson, a white voice actor, in the superb 1989 original.
There was a feeling that Disney, like so many remake campaigns before theirs, assumed that that alone could give the film a uniqueness and progressiveness far beyond its predecessor. Yes, to have a Black princess in a major Hollywood film is, sadly, forward-thinking in 2023. But there is nothing innovative or reformist about what happens in this movie.
As Angelica Jade Bastién of Vulture put it, “This Little Mermaid only provides the skin of progress, not the bone, marrow, sinew, and guts necessary to change a story on a deeper level.”
Certainly nothing that happens in it justifies its bewildering two hour, 15 minute runtime — nearly an hour longer than the 1989 movie.
Like in directors Ron Clements and John Muskers’ film, Bailey’s Ariel, a mermaid, longs to be part of Prince Eric’s (Jonah Hauer-King) human world after encountering him once, when he was shipwrecked and unconscious, and sharing nary a word with him (in true, idealistic Disney fashion).
Also like the 1989 movie, The Little Mermaid 2.0 finds Ariel at odds with her overprotective father King Triton (Javier Bardem), who worries Ariel or one of his other daughters might be captured and killed by humans, like their mother was.
Villain Ursula the Sea Witch (this time played by Melissa McCarthy) still has her slithery pet eels and lurks at the bottom of the sea, waiting for another poor, unfortunate soul like Ariel to enter her trap — and the mermaid doesn’t disappoint.
She makes Ariel an offer she can’t refuse (granting her legs and a tiny window of time to woo her human crush in exchange for her pristine singing voice). And Ariel’s animated seawater pals Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle (voiced now by Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina) still try to keep her out of trouble.
The biggest musical numbers from the first film are also retained in this outing: Ursula’s Poor Unfortunate Souls, Ariel’s Part of Your World, Sebastian’s Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl, his collab with Flounder and Scuttle, are also here.
So, what is the point of this new Little Mermaid if it basically does the same thing as the original? That answer isn’t clear. As much as it might be unfair to compare the two films, it’s impossible not to do that when one of the few things that makes the new film watchable is anticipating the next moment it rips off from the 1989 version.
And even that is largely unsatisfying. McCarthy certainly has the comedic timing and charisma to pull off certain aspects of Ursula. But what she doesn’t have is the bodaciousness, horrifying malevolence or vocal chops Pat Carroll had just through her voice in the cartoon.
While Tremblay is serviceable as a strangely morose Flounder that had much more vitality in the earlier work, Diggs’ Sebastian and Awkwafina’s Scuttle are both audibly awkward, but for different reasons.
Scuttle, previously voiced by actor Buddy Haskett, gets a major transformation through Awkwafina, whose over-the-top cadence and delivery are so jarring to a role that is already feather-brained though lovable. And like predecessor Samuel E. Wright, Diggs dons a Caribbean accent for Sebastian, but can’t seem to endow the character with as much texture.
While both actors manage to deliver laughs true to their characters, the bar is just too high for that to really make a mark.
It is only Bailey’s buttery vocals and sugary sweet and earnest performance of a curious, teenage mermaid caught between obligation and desire that keeps the movie from dissolving into the treacherous ocean. But just barely.
Because as much as this Little Mermaid tries to coast on being purely a shoddy replica of the previous film, it still has to justify the extra 52-minute runtime. And, whew boy, does it find new ways to fail there.
Social media users have already disemboweled the new and immediately ill-fated Scuttlebutt rap collab between Scuttle and Sebastian, no doubt from the mind of producer and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, so there’s no real need to say anything more about it. Well, except that it is even cringier watching it inside a cinema that had an otherwise very interactive audience until this song came on and most were dead silent while others laughed nervously.
But Scuttlebutt is part of the newness in The Little Mermaid, which is supposed to validate the movie’s existence. It joins an array of half-baked updates that include Prince Eric’s song, which is as bland and forgettable as Hauer-King in the role.
While several of the musical renditions should have probably been dubbed over by actual singers, they at least share the movie’s essence. Hauer-King’s voice belongs to a contemporary boy band, not an old-money helmsman.
Then there is the matter of the new narrative and dialogue elements, which are a struggle to find amid so much copy and paste here. Chiefly, this Little Mermaid is somehow both heavy-handed and hesitant about what to do with the fact that its heroine is now Black.
While the movie explores a female teenager’s longing for independence, it centralises a culture clash between humans and sea creatures. There are several instances when Eric’s mother Queen Salina (Noma Dumezweni), who is Black and adopted him as a child when he washed up from the ocean, chastises him for his obvious love for beings that are considered other.
Meanwhile, King Triton never fails to criticise the humans who savagely stole the love of his life and left his children without a mother. You can’t trust them, he reiterates.
If there’s something Disney wants its audience to feel about this messaging, that remains puzzling. The narrative in this regard is so paper-thin that it’s easy to just flit right past this hollow rhetoric. But the entire marketing machine around this movie made such a big deal about the race of its star that you’d think the movie would actually acknowledge it somehow.
Instead, there’s a Black actress cast opposite a white romantic interest, whose characters don’t share their parents’ races but they’re taught not to respect one another.
And the screenwriter David Magee (with an assist from the original scribes Hans Christian Andersen and Ron Clements) concocts a decidedly luminous new scene where Eric brings Ariel to a Caribbean market largely filled with Black people.
The Little Mermaid goes out of its way, literally incorporating a whole new sequence, to show both Ariel and Eric experiencing and engaging with a Black humanity that is foreign to each of them, but stops short of actually dealing with that.
Though the scene features the best cinematography in the whole movie, with little dialogue it comes up empty.
This is all easy to write off as expected Disney gloss, except that the studio made a huge diversity push around this movie, making it seem like it was going to deepen Ariel’s identity in a new way. Instead, Blackness and the diversity buzzwords the marketing machine peddled around for months are mere set pieces in a story that is still confined inside a fundamentally white gaze.
So then, what was the point of this exercise?