The scavengers plunder and pillage, leaving misery and suffering in their wake. But these brazen marauders don't navigate the seven seas. Their territory: movie sets, locations and green screens.
Disney Animation's success stories from years past. You could call its latest recycled product “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but that title was already taken.
Disney's new, not improved “The Little Mermaid” asks you to look at this stuff, but it isn't neat. The turgid remake works overtime, and opens up its source material, in an effort to recapture the incandescent spark that drew multiple generations of moviegoers to its siren call. But this is an ill-fated ocean voyage, done in by an overinflated runtime, spotty CGI, murky visuals and its star's hard-sell approach to bringing the iconic maritime dweller to life.
That's a bit of a stretch, considering the flesh-and-blood players here are adrift in a sea of digitally rendered backgrounds.
The story hews close to the 1989 animated musical (too close), itself a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 fairy tale that softened the story's sharper edges to make it more easily digestible for the theme park crowds.
There are a handful of changes in both the story and the song lyrics penned by the late Howard Ashman, here given a ho-hum update by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the narrative spine is the same. Spunky Ariel (Halle Bailey) defies her hard-line dad King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of the merpeople and Disney Animation's very own Aquaman, by signing a devil's-bargain contract with marginalized drag queen, er, sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) in order to pursue a romance in the Above World with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the human she rescued from a shipwreck.
Along for the ride are Sebastian (the voice of Daveed Diggs), Ariel's crabby chaperone, Flounder (“Room's” Jacob Tremblay), her scaredy-fish sidekick, and Scuttle (Awkwafina), her bird-brained, notoriously unreliable winged guide to the human world.
This should have been a celebratory occasion for Bailey, whose somewhat controversial casting aimed to give little girls of color the chance to have a Disney princess who looks just like them. And not just any Disney princess. She's one of the most instantly recognizable ones. Let the purists and, let's not mince words here, racist opponents of having a Black Ariel carp all they want. They're entitled to their poor unfortunate opinion.
It's clear Bailey is right for the part. She nails the personality of the aloof but headstrong redhead who dreams of living up above, beyond the ocean, if it weren't for her multicolored fin and crippling ignorance on both sides of the water's surface. But much like the character she capably brings to life, her voice proves to be a double-edged sword. Bailey's vocal chords are mighty powerful.
The Dolby Cinema auditorium where the film was screened for the press often shook whenever she sang. You end up focusing more on the breadth of her vocal range than on the yearning her character expresses. (“What do you know about longing?” Sebastian the crab asks Ariel at one point, and you have to wonder.) Ariel's plight for a different life should feel delicate, effortless, but the gifted performer lets viewers see her sweat. She's trying too hard.
The film built around her follows suit. As is too often the case for its director, movie musical hired gun Rob Marshall, he takes fertile creative soil and gives it the most unremarkable and earthbound treatment possible. I was going to write “imaginable” instead of possible, but what stands out in the filmmaker's work, even when it's serviceable enough (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), is a conspicuous lack of imagination. And in “The Little Mermaid,” the “Mary Poppins Returns” helmer throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen to see what sticks: A-list cast, extended shots exploring ocean life, handsome production values and state-of-the-art digital imagery.
But if the new “Little Mermaid” shows us anything, it's that bigger isn't always better, starting with a 135-minute running time that, like Bill Condon's similarly expanded take on Disney's “Beauty and the Beast,” attempts to flesh out elements that both the original “Mermaid” and “Beauty” swiftly breezed through in just over 80 minutes.
Marshall doesn't even take advantage of the longer runtime to explore, for instance, what led the tentacled Ursula to be cast out of this undersea society. A broader canvas is all for naught if the additions amount to so much filler.
Will children warm up to it?
Some will, but it's doubtful it will whisk them off their feet like the original did. Part of why these "live-action" remakes connect in such a big way goes beyond the nostalgia factor. In terms of target audiences and size, they occupy a middle ground between the animated features and PG-13 productions like "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. It's very likely the new "Mermaid" might lull younger views to sleep, but there's a chance it will lure children over 6 and tweens under its overproduced spell.
How to describe the film's look?
It alternates between tactility that recalls a nature documentary and drab, muddy lighting that puts needless strain on your eyes. (I feel sorry for moviegoers who end up seeing this film in one of the many, many multiplex auditoriums with dim bulbs and projectors in dire need of maintenance.) Marshall's tug of war between photorealism and strained flight of fancy yields diminishing returns. As for the color palette, it brings to mind Morticia Addams' cutting one-liner in “Addams Family Values”: pastels?
Bailey aside, the rest of the cast is a very mixed bag. Flounder was always a throwaway, a concession to the youngest viewers, only here he's given such a realistic rendering that what little cartoonish glee the character had is all but absent. Let's not beat around the bush about Hauer-King's Prince Eric, who looks and acts like the love child of Hugh Grant and Haley Joel Osment and is nowhere near as hunky as his animated counterpart.
He's sincere, and sincerely dull. Awkwafina turns Scuttle into grating comic relief, closer to “Aladdin's” Iago than the bumbling seagull originally voiced by Buddy Hackett. You wish she'd fly away.
More successful, albeit in fits and starts, is Sebastian, who acts as Ariel's conscience, Jiminy Cricket-style. Diggs lacks the showmanship of Samuel E. Wright, who voiced Sebastian in the 1989 film, but his Jamaican-accented shtick is not unpleasant. Much bile is being heaped upon Bardem, who opts to underplay Triton's fury, but I found his less-is-more turn a comforting counterpoint to the computer-generated excess that surrounds him. As for McCarthy, her theatricality befits a role that was always intended to distill a female impersonator's larger-than-life energy.
But Marshall and his team keep dropping the ball on them, in particular when staging their versions of Ashman and composer Alan Menken's songs. “Part of Your World” falls victim to Bailey's obtrusive vocals (no runs, please: this isn't “Marine American Idol”). “Under the Sea” fails to capture the montage-driven effervescence of its animated counterpart, even with creative input from the Ailey Dance Company. (That sound you hear is Busby Berkeley rolling over in his grave.) And as for the playful “Kiss the Girl,” it all but evaporates before your eyes, much like (spoiler alert) Andersen's heroine dissolves into sea foam at the end of his story.
Miranda has retooled some of the old songs, and added a couple of new ones, to reflect a more tactful modern sensitivity, and while the decision comes from a good place, the “Hamilton” creator's new lyrics are no match for Ashman's nimble wordplay. The changes drain the numbers of their impish charm. You know, the very ingredient that prevented the animated feature from feeling generic. As for the new songs, including Eric's very own “I want” moment, the less said the better. They're just not memorable.
This “Little Mermaid” is all wet, a plodding, stretched-out facsimile of the bubbly treat that launched Disney's animation renaissance. The biggest irony is that its new content, integrated into the text in order to make it feel more appealing to contemporary audiences, is likely going to make it feel more dated.
And yet, there's a message-driven urgency roiling beneath this “Mermaid's” placid surface. What the trailers and promotional materials don't show is how political this new incarnation is. Normally this is the part where this critic rolls his eyes. Not this time. The film's storyline, and more crucially, its imagery invite viewers to imagine a world where the forces that would keep virulent prejudices alive are vanquished by those whose efforts to speak truth to power are too often rendered mute.
A movie like “The Little Mermaid” does not come out in a vacuum, and the context in which it is being released, as Disney is engaged in a bitter, acrimonious and costly battle for the soul of Florida, reveals this text to be a not-so-veiled rebuke of the culture war that the state's current administration is waging for the sake of gaining the upper hand and throwing red meat to its political base. It's not difficult to see McCarthy's casting as a Trojan horse, luring in red state audiences to what is being sold as an extension of the entertainment conglomerate's theme park experience but is at heart a morality play chastising lawmakers who would take away the rights and identities of African Americans, other people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
There's a Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing outside Floridians' homes. He is not going away until he blows it all down. “The Little Mermaid” may not work as a 21st century heir to the animated gem, but as a blunt object with which to stand up to a dangerous bully in power, it's actually more than a little intriguing.
Feel like I'm giving a middling cashgrab too much credit?
This isn't the Mouse's first rodeo. Look at “The Three Little Pigs,” the studio's 1933 cartoon short. Its song, “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” became a hit single that transcended into the culture at large, because audiences at the time saw it as an anthem of the Great Depression.
“Mermaid” similarly shines a ray of hope during troubled times, and does so with a smile and a song. To quote another beloved musical, there's something there that wasn't there before. It may not be the timeless treat its predecessor is, but it encapsulates our current turmoil. It wades into the choppy waters of the current discourse and emerges a lackluster Disney remake with the courage of its convictions.
“The Little Mermaid” starts Friday in wide release in theaters across South Florida, including IMAX engagements at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place and the AutoNation IMAX Theater at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. NOTE: It's also showing in 3-D on multiple screens, but why would you do that to yourself? It's darkly lit enough as it is.