Friday, September 15, 2023

The Little Mermaid (2023)

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Jessica Alexander
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of all the recent live-action Disney reboots, The Little Mermaid always had the potential for the most to go wrong. Unlike the reimaginings of Cinderella, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin, much of its story takes place underwater, making a daunting assignment that much more difficult. And whether or not you feel those titles are purely cash grabs, few would argue the weakest aspect in each are the frequently underwhelming CGI effects. 

With a project so dependent on its visuals, director Rob Marshall can't really use the beloved source material for cover like the rest. That's apparent within the first few minutes, as the film's clunky look distracts from the few things it gets right. While every Disney entry will have a rabidly dedicated adult fanbase ready to pounce on any changes made to their childhood favorite, the problem seems bigger this time, since its entirely possible kids will be just as bored.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), a mermaid princess and youngest daughter of merpeople ruler King Triton (Javier Bardem) longs to visit the surface world despite his objections stemming from the murder of Ariel's mother by a human. While Triton enlists trusted advisor Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on her, his evil sea witch sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) has other plans, scheming to exploit her niece and brother's dissension to gain control of Atlantica. 

That opportunity arises when Prince Eric's (Jonah Hauer-King) ship crashes, prompting Ariel to venture above water and bring him to shore, saving his life with her siren singing voice. Desperate to see the prince again but fearful of her father's reaction, Ariel accepts a shady deal from Ursula that gives her the chance for a reunion, even as she must sacrifice her beautiful voice for human legs to finally join the other world she's desperately longed to be a part of. 

Given his big screen musical experience, Marshall wasn't necessarily the wrong choice to helm this and there's more than enough catchy, show-stopping numbers from the animated feature to believe the magic would carry over. Only it doesn't, mostly due to the effects work and art direction in the underwater scenes. To be fair, there aren't many films of any genre that truly capture such a setting, but this attempt is so jarring it's difficult to focus on anything else, as the actors appear supernaturally transposed into sea surroundings that look dark and inauthentic.  

The action does eventually shift above water with the impressive fiery shipwreck sequence, only to head back under for more bickering between Triton and Ariel. Despite a couple of changes that help with character motivations (like a new sibling dynamic between Triton and Ursula), writer David Magee fulfills the plot obligations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and the '89 version, leaving the rest up to how Marshall translate those elements to live action. 

Supporting creatures Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle generally retain their personalities from the original, but despite energetic voice work from Diggs, Tremblay and Awkwafina in the roles, only Sebastian gets enough screen time to make an imprint. The character's popular "Under the Sea" is an expected highlight, but even that's shortchanged by the tune's rearrangement and a flurry of cringy visuals.

Halle Bailey radiates Ariel's sincerity and innocence in the title role, boasting a tremendous singing voice when successfully belting out Alan Menken favorites like "Part of Your World" and "For the First Time." Those songs also don't undergo the lyrical revisionism that plagues "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Kiss The Girl," as certain lines are replaced with supposedly tamer and less offensive lyrics. While not the outright atrocity some have suggested, it does draw attention to a non-existent issue, which is the last thing Disney needs right now. 

When Ursula's curse renders Ariel mute, it robs Bailey of her biggest weapon for a long stretch and leaves the heavy lifting to a bland Jonah Hauer-King. Even by Disney's interchangeable generic prince standards, Eric hardly registers, as he and Ariel's scenes never ignite the sparks necessary to hammer home her massive sacrifice. 

Thankfully, Melissa McCarthy's comically sinister take on Ursula channels the tone of Pat Carroll's classic vocal performance while Javier Bardem subtly dials into Triton's overprotective motivations. And though her appearance is extremely brief, Jessica Alexander makes a strong impression as Vanessa, Ursula's human alter ego disguise.

Crawling to the finish line at an unnecessary two and a half hours, dissenters up in arms over the casting should have instead directed their ire toward the effects and pacing, not to mention just how little fun this is to sit through. Its second half exceeds the first, but even with the same music, characters and story beats as the animated classic, there's a lifeless feeling to the proceedings. Once we arrive at a key turning point halfway through, it already seems like checkout time, confirming this adaptation is more of a chore than the delight it should be. 

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