THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023) – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


THE LITTLE MERMAID (2023) – Review

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As I mentioned last week, nostalgia appears to be playing a big role in this just-started cinema Summer season. The remake of that 1990s buddy comedy may just be the tip of the iceberg (a fixture of the, umm, sea). For this holiday weekend’s big, really big as Ed Sullivan would say, movie release, go back just two or three more years to 1989. That year may be best known for the BATMAN box office blockbuster, but it’s also a watershed (oops, sorry) moment for feature Animation, particularly at the “Mouse House”. Disney feature animation was just beginning to snap out of a creative stupor as the modest successes of THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE and OLIVER & COMPANY began to offset the losses of the fantasy debacle THE BLACK CAULDRON. This is all covered in the superb documentary feature WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. And then two Broadway “whiz-kids,” thought that the company should return to classic fairy tales with a Tony-worthy musical score. To say it made a big (sorry, again) splash would be an understatement. And since Disney began remaking their classic cartoon epics, it was just a matter of time before we dove under the waves for a new spin on THE LITTLE MERMAID. Grab your noseplugs and jump in…

The first image we see is of the ocean along with a quote from the tale’s creator, Hans Christian Anderson. From there the camera pans up to the trading vessel captained by the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). While he deals with rough waves we are sent far below the commotion to witness a meeting of “merpeople”, the royal daughters and their father King Triton (Javier Bardem). They’re preparing for the Coral Moon” celebration, but one member of the family is missing. Ariel (Halie Bailey) and her fish friend Flounder (voice of Jacob Tremblay) are exploring a sunken ship and evading a hungry shark. Meanwhile, Triton sends his royal aide, a crab named Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs) to retrieve her. Naturally, their reunion erupts into a familiar squabble about the “surface people”. Afterward, during a rousing musical number, Flounder tells her of Eric’s ship, which encounters a storm. The prince is knocked out and falls into the depths only to be rescued by Ariel. She brings him to the shore and swims away just as he starts to awaken (her image is fuzzy to him). Later Sebsatian accidentally spills the beans and a furious Triton lambasts Ariels and destroys her cove full of “gadgets and gizmos a’ plenty”, those prized “found” human trinkets. The heartbroken Ariel is accosted by two moray eels, Flotsam and Jetsom, who take her to their mistress, the sea witch, and Triton’s envious sister, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). She hatches a scheme to exact revenge on big brother by offering Ariel a chance to be human for three days in order to be with Eric and receive “true love’s kiss”. Ah, but she must be mute. Can this earn her a fairy tale happy ending or does the tentacled sorceress have a few tricks (new and old) to torpedo the burgeoning romance?

After the whirlpool (sorry again) surrounding her casting and the first released in-character images, I’m happy to agree that Bailey is a delightfully engaging Ariel. She literally hits all the right notes, aside from her superb vocal renditions of the beloved score, as she balances a child-like innocence and curiosity with a yearning, a true longing to expand her horizons and to act on her first sparks of romance. Under the sea or on the shore, she’s splendid. Bailey even Holds the screen alongside the powerhouse work of McCarthy, funny, ferocious, and, well, Divine (wink, nudge) as the slithering enchantress. Somehow she’s snooty, sneering, and vain, particularly in the “laugh-out-loud” moment when she’s called a witch…to her face! As her brother, Bardem is brusk and imposing, though we see that Ariel is his “special spawn”, who can make him regret his intimating bluster and bellowing. The object of Ariel’s feverish desires, Hauer-King as Prince Eric is a swashbuckling “dream guy”, who is slowly charmed by his mute mystery woman. On the vocal front, Diggs delivers the tunes with a bouncing, subtle island lilt, Tremblay conveys all the anxieties and humor of a pre-teen fish, and Awkwafina is a hoarse-throated hoot as the confidently clueless Scuttle. Back in live-action roles, Noma Dumezweni is regally warm and nurturing as the Queen, Art Malik is stuffy and befuddled, though understanding as her advisor Grimsby, and Jessica Alexander is the sultry and sinister Vanessa, who’s a big “roadblock” in the road to “happily ever after”.

Back in the director’s chair, after a five-year-hiatus (rather than a remake he made the follow-up to another Disney classic, MARY POPPINS RETURNS) is the man from CHICAGO, Rob Marshall. He keeps the pace zipping along, though the runtime is nearly an hour longer than the 1989 original. And there’s the big controversy about this as with the glut of recent “live revamps’ of the Disney “treasures”. It’s pointless to go on a tirade against these “marketing masterplans”. Yes, they’re all unneeded and the effort would be better spent on original ideas and concepts, but the titles have “name recognition’ and execs hope this could lead to another “cinematic universe”, like Marvel. So, case closed, they exist and the discussion should be about their quality and merits. Going from the excellent retelling of CINDERELLA and THE JUNGLE BOOK (though Favreau fumbled with THE LION KING) to the tepid DUMBO (there’s a true miss-match with Tim Burton) and PETER PAN AND WENDY, this would rest comfortably in the upper third. The locales and backdrops (that ocean is dazzling blue) are eye-catching, the CGI is seamless, though the more realistic renditions of Sebastian and Flounder take away some of the tales’s charm, and the songs are still superb (the other doc to watch is HOWARD all about the original much-missed lyricist). I was dismayed that two tunes were cut in order to bring a couple of songs (so they can nab a Best Song Oscar nom) that teamed Allan Menken with Lin-Manuel Miranda, as the prince gets his own “I want” ballad and Scuttle gets a riskay rap, really. Dave Magee’s new script adaptation tries to address some of the “concerns” of the original (Ariel now can’t remember that she needs a kiss from Eric), but some of the plot shufflings seem awkward. So though the tinkering can be frustrating for the long-time admirers, little ones new to the fable should be engaged (but that attacking shark may be a bit much for some), since those marvelous melodies and compelling performances prove that with this take on THE LITTLE MERMAID, “what more is you lookin’ for”?

3 Out of 4

THE LITTLE MERMAID is now playing in theatres everywhere

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.