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'The Little Mermaid' is the latest of Disney's poor unfortunate remakes

Halle Bailey stars as Ariel in Disney's live-action <em>The Little Mermaid — </em>the studio's latest blatant cash-grab.
Giles Keyte
Halle Bailey stars as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid — the studio's latest blatant cash-grab.

Search for "The Little Mermaid side-by-side," and you'll land upon several user-created videos drawing visual comparisons between Disney's 1989 hand-drawn animated hit and the trailer for the new star-studded "live-action" remake directed by Rob Marshall. Many of the shots – Ariel breaching the water's surface while dramatically tossing her long red locks behind her, for one – are so eerily similar in composition that they almost present as carbon copies.

This is, of course, by design; the studio wants viewers to notice its ongoing commitment to recycling. At this point, Disney has its formula down pat: Take one of its beloved traditionally animated properties, update its sensibilities for modern audiences just a bit, recast it with a bunch of familiar faces and voices, and rehash it all in "live-action"/CGI form. And over the last couple of decades, it's consistently worked, often to the maniacal tune of around a billion dollars at the box office.

To paraphrase Horatio Thelonious Ignacious Crustaceous Sebastian: Disney, hmph! We give it an inch, and it swims all over us!

Time will tell if Marshall's Little Mermaid will make a billion dollars – I certainly wouldn't bet against it – but the rest of the ingredients in this superfluous seafood stew have already been stirred into the pot. The movie stars Halle Bailey as Ariel, the headstrong merprincess obsessed with the human world and who longs to be a part of it, much to her anti-human merfather King Triton's (Javier Bardem) chagrin. So when she falls in love with the handsomely bland human prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she makes a deal with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the slinky sea witch, and trades in her voice to become a human herself.

Halle Bailey as Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric in Disney's live-action <em>The Little Mermaid.</em>
/ Disney
Halle Bailey as Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid.

But there's a catch; a mute Ariel must woo Eric enough to grant her a kiss of true love within three days, or else she'll be back under the sea and under Ursula's control. (In a tweak from the original movie, Ursula slips a mickey in Ariel's spell that makes it so she's unable to remember needing that kiss; I, for one, did not have Ursula 2.0 being even dastardlier on my Disney live-action reheats bingo card.) With the help of her faithful animal sidekicks Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs, who made the baffling choice to keep the faux Caribbean-ish patois), and Awkwafina (who, thankfully, no longer has that Blaccent), Ariel ultimately gets her man, her voice, and her father on her side.

The primary function of this cynical exercise is to induce in viewers a warped combination of nostalgia and déjà vu, so as such, there are only two ways to measure its merits. The first is to stack it up against its peers; in this case, The Little Mermaid 2.0 is not oppressively atrocious in the way Aladdin 2.0 and Pinocchio 2.0 are. Like the decent Beauty and the Beast 2.0, there are a handful of moments and a performance or two that manage to stand out amid the cacophony of uncanny, deadening CGI. McCarthy's Ursula feels both akin to Pat Carroll's indelible voice performance in the original and, at certain moments, stands on its own, especially during the perfect villain song "Poor Unfortunate Souls."

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney's live-action <em>The Little Mermaid.</em>
/ Disney
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid.

When measured against its origin story, however, Little Mermaid suffers from the same ailments almost all of these remakes have: Being "progressive" while also creatively uninspired. Unlike the 1989 version, (mer)people of color abound; Noma Dumezweni plays Prince Eric's mom, and Ariel's sisters appear to be of various races and ethnicities. Much ado has been made about Bailey's casting as Ariel, as she's only the first Black Disney princess since Disney's first official Black princess Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog.

It's certainly lovely and, to a degree, important that a new generation of kids will have Bailey to look to, just as my generation had Brandy in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. Yet while Bailey is charming and expressive, her interpretation of Ariel doesn't fully embrace the edgier, mischievous side of the character that came across so clearly in the 1989 version's animation and as voiced by Jodi Benson. Nor can a Black Ariel make up for subpar renditions of classic songs (the vibrant Oscar-winner "Under the Sea" is dead in the water here) and the cringe-y addition of new songs by the studio's current go-to music man Lin-Manuel Miranda, which include a dull, forgettable ballad for Prince Eric and a ridiculous "rap" for Scuttle and Sebastian called – wait for it – "The Scuttlebutt." Or the fact that the underwater scenes have a flattened sheen reminiscent of video games circa the early 2000s.

Javier Bardem as King Triton in Disney's live-action <em>The Little Mermaid.</em>
/ Disney
Javier Bardem as King Triton in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid.

At this point, I'll note it was awfully difficult to resist playing along with Disney's game and doing a straight-up copy-and-paste of my past lamentations of its remake rut for this review: How "an old wealthy businessman" has seemingly put a terrible curse on the studio, dooming it to an eternity of recycling old properties. How the last century of Disney's massive cultural influence on beauty standards, racial stereotypes, and gender roles will not be magically undone by attempts to "correct" for its past sins in bloated remakes. How it should go after its forgotten/cult films rather than messing with the classics. (Be careful what you wish for because you will end up living in a world where a dreadful Aladdin remake and a Questlove-directed "live-action" The Aristocats co-exist.)

I've barely managed to avoid self-plagiarizing, but this is where we are at this point. The behemoth is so barnacled to this tired playbook that it took less than a decade to announce it will remake the Little Mermaid-inspired 2016 hit Moana. (Come on, at least give the kids of that era a chance to graduate high school first!) So long as the studio keeps churning these things out, the experiences as a viewer will remain the same. But, hey, at least the formula is working well for one of us – Disney, obviously. My nostalgia for the 1989 Little Mermaid, a movie I can quote by heart, has probably never been stronger than it is now. Neither has my wearied sense of déjà vu.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.