Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 tale of The Little Mermaid has been a “part of our world” for many years now. There was the original animated cartoon, two direct-to-video sequels, a TV series and theme park rides. Most of us can’t even imagine an Ariel not voiced by Jodi Benson. So when Disney decided to create a new live action version of one of the company’s most popular characters, true fans were concerned. Turns out, they had nothing to worry about. The new Little Mermaid film is just as magical as its predecessor.
After the fiascos of Pinocchio and Peter Pan and Wendy, I was beginning to wonder if Disney could no longer pull off a live-action version of their classic animated tales. Over the years, these adaptations have been hit or miss. Some have been better than others. Some have been forgetful. Most were unnecessary. But a few have been standouts with 2015’s Cinderella leading the pack by presenting a solid movie that was just as good, if not better, than the original. This new Little Mermaid falls in that same category.
Personally, I like seeing the different points of view of these classic tales told from different directors. Sometimes, these directors have felt the need to “fix” the “wrongs” in the older movies. But too much reworking of the story makes the final product unrecognizable. Sure, sensibilities change over the years but if a story is a good one to begin with, there shouldn’t be a need to make sweeping changes just for the sake of change.
Rob Marshall’s Little Mermaid honors the 1989 animated film by being surprisingly faithful to the original tale with very little changes to the storyline. The movie however has a number of new and welcomed changes.
The story is set during the 1830s around the waters of a fictitious island in the Caribbean. The underwater scenes are bright and colorful while the above-the-water shots were filmed in the Italian Island of Sardinia. It is all beautiful.
Like the story that you’re familiar with, this movie begins “under the sea” with Ariel (Halle Bailey) going on a treasure hunt for human trinkets much to the chagrin of her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). She’s his youngest daughter, but more difficult than all of the others combined. Her best friends are a flounder, named … Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and a sea bird (Awkwafina). Ariel dreams of what it would be like living as a human and goes to the surface to take a peek. While doing so, she is taken by Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and saves his life after his ship is struck by lightning during a storm.
Well, the king has a fit and forbids Ariel of ever returning. Ariel then makes a deal with Triton’s sister, Ursula, the Sea Switch (Melissa McCarthy) to sprout legs and fall in love with Eric on land. However, there is a catch. She’ll have to leave her voice behind. The two meet, they have a few adventures, Ursula gets upset, Yada, yada, yada…and they lived happily ever after.
The new Little Mermaid is directed by Rob Marshall (who did an excellent job or recreating the world of a certain super-nanny for Mary Poppins Returns). The movie features most of the first film’s iconic songs (minus the royal’s chef song, “Les Poissons”) and adds three new ones by Alan Menken with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. A new scene with Ariel and Eric discovering the countryside has been added to the story too.
There are no new messages or words of wisdom with the new film, but the one theme has been emphasized a little bit more this time around. That is the building of bridges between cultures. King Triton and the mer-people of the sea see humans as savages while the people on land assume all sea creatures cannot be trusted. Meanwhile, the hero and heroine both feel out of the place in their own “worlds”.
Halle slips into her fins perfectly and when she sings the extra high notes of the iconic, “Part of Your World” song near the beginning of the film, you know that you’re in good hands. She is cute, innocent and very likable in the main role. Hauer-King is equally likable and gets his own song. Melissa McCarthy beautifully captures Pat Carroll’s performance of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and maybe even elevates it. Her character actually slithers and moves slowly like a real octopus. It’s creepy and unsettling.
King Tritan (Javier Bardem), Sabastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) and the Queen (Noma Dumezweni). (Walt Disney Pictures)
This time around, Scuttle is a Northern Gannet instead of seagull which actually fit’s the crazy bird’s personality better. She also gets her own song (“Scuttlebutt”) which I can’t decide if I like it or not. It’s pretty catchy though.
All of the animals and sea creatures look more realistic than their cartoon counterparts. This is a little jarring at first, but you’ll warm up to it pretty quickly. And Flounder is less annoying this time. I wasn’t so sure that Javier Bardem was a good choice for King Trident, but his performance began to grow on me as the film went on.
While beautiful to look at, The Little Mermaid is a bit flawed. It is needlessly longer than the original film. The movie might be too intense for some little viewers. McCarthy’s cackle is enough to send shivers down your spine and her big evil finale is just as weird as it is in the cartoon. But most audiences will be able to overlook those things and celebrate what the film gets right. There is a real effort to show Ariel and Eric getting to know each other and building on their innocent love story. I don’t get too emotional watching these kinds of films, but once again, I got choked up watching King Tritan’s willingness to sacrifice his life for his daughter. And I celebrated seeing Jodi Benson getting a small cameo (look for her during the farmers market scene). All in all, this mermaid tale just might stick with us for a long time.
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