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The trend toward long movies has a commercial aspect and an artistic one, and occasionally, as in the new live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” they converge. With heavy competition from streaming services and episodic television, movies are under pressure to distinguish themselves, and one way of doing so is with the spectacular dimension that a teeming and extensive story can deliver. This is also the era of backstory—the notion that each individual’s personal history is crucial to the viewer for understanding a character’s present-tense actions and states of mind. The new “Little Mermaid” expands the story from the 1989 movie’s eighty-three minutes to a hundred and thirty-five, and, to my surprise, this longer version doesn’t drag. On the contrary, it’s an authentically fuller dramatic experience, though not a more charming one.
Partly, that’s because of the star power of Halle Bailey, the actress playing the protagonist, Ariel. But, just as important, the screenwriter, David Magee, hasn’t so much added to the original as developed it. Most of the new elements in the live-action rendition of the tale are dramatizations of themes that were already implicit but under-explored in the earlier movie. Which is to say that, for those who are fans of the original (and I count myself in that category, at least vicariously—I must have seen it at home, on VHS tape, with my daughters, a hundred times in the nineteen-nineties and early two-thousands), the new release offers more of the same but understood differently and, indeed, more substantially.
Ariel is a songful adolescent mermaid who’s one of the many daughters of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of an oceanic monarchy of merpeople. She has an obsessive fascination with the world of humans, a realm that she knows mainly through artifacts that she scavenges from shipwrecks, aided by a mild-mannered fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and a raucous seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina), a voluble source of cheerfully oblivious misinformation. Triton abhors Ariel’s attraction to humans, whom he dreadfully fears—because, years earlier, a human killed his wife, the queen. But Ariel, defying him, swims to the ocean’s surface in order to people-watch. She delights in a birthday celebration taking place among the (all-male) sailors of a fishing vessel; when the ship hits a storm and capsizes, she rescues its handsome and courageous young mate, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), heir to the throne of a nearby kingdom. Bringing him to shore, she sings to him. She’s smitten with his grace and valor, he’s smitten with her voice, but, at the approach of other humans, she flees home.
Back at his castle, Eric dreams of a reunion with her. Back under the sea, Ariel dreams of trading her tail for legs and living onshore with Eric. The diabolical sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) offers her a Faustian bargain: granting her legs and a fully human appearance in exchange for her voice. Ariel will have three days to spend with Eric (and to reëntice him without song or speech); if, by the end of the third day, she and the prince don’t exchange the kiss of true love, Ariel will belong to the witch forever. Ursula’s real target, however, is Triton. (In this version, she’s explicitly presented as his sister.) Bearing unexplained grudges and a craving for power, she intends to get at the king through her possession of Ariel and become, herself, the dictator of the deep.
The underlying subject of “The Little Mermaid,” in both versions, is of two kingdoms that can’t mix—a story of exclusions that run on fear and resemble hatred. The live-action “Little Mermaid” considers the two realms with a much greater degree of world-building social imagination. Triton fears fish-eating humans, whereas the sailors aboard Eric’s ship fear and abhor mermaids—they are ever alert to mermaids’ siren song, which lures sailors to their doom. Eric, who stands to inherit the throne of his mother (Noma Dumezweni), the queen of their island nation, has embarked on a sailing adventure not merely for sport but for trade and research. He’s a modernizer who thinks that his island, its government, and his mother are willfully isolated, and worries that his kingdom will be left socially and technologically backward without enriched contact with the outer world. Eric’s internationalism is already in evidence at home—just as Ariel maintains a collection of human stuff, Eric has his own personal collection of aquatic objects, which are as much the target of his mother’s scorn as Ariel’s collection is for Triton.
When the two young royals reëncounter each other, Eric doesn’t recognize the newly two-legged Ariel because he can’t hear her voice. The sequence represents a meeting of two handsome youths whose status is their destiny—but, unlike in the earlier version, it’s also a meeting of the minds. Their similarity, already displayed in their assertively temperamental curiosity, is in material evidence in their collections. Eric, to all appearances, has benefitted from an education that Ariel hasn’t yet received, but his knowledge of the undersea world is no clearer than hers is of life on land. A crucial element of their courtship, and of Ariel’s power to display her personality and her character without the use of her voice, is when she demonstrates to him the essential substance of one of the most meaningful items in his collection.
But the latest “Little Mermaid” is more than the relationship of two young people; it also involves the newfound amity of two peoples. The film portrays the fear and isolation of the human and underwater nations as the result of mutually reinforced misunderstanding and ignorance. (Notably, Triton blames humans for killing the queen; Ariel reminds him that it was only one human who did so, not the whole species.) The ultimate connection between the two kingdoms that arises from the love of Ariel and Eric is depicted in one moment that the movie’s director, Rob Marshall (best known for “Chicago”), handles particularly clumsily. The new movie’s dramatic selling point is in its script, and, throughout, Marshall illustrates it efficiently and clearly, if stolidly. Where the movie falls flat is in any moment that depends on flair and style.
That’s also where the bewildering paradox of the movie’s very creation comes to the fore. It’s something of a misnomer to describe the new “Little Mermaid” as a live-action film, since so much of it is computer-generated. The merpeople are made to resemble fish, and the actors seem to speak and sing and live underwater; moreover, Scuttle and Flounder, as well as the crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), who is Triton’s adviser and Ariel’s minder and friend, are also C.G.I. creations. The movie is half an animation, and its fantasy gives rise to dramatically engaging situations and story lines even as the direction sells its whimsy short. It’s a musical, after all, and its musical sequences excel in their singing and land with a thud in their visual composition.
Most of the songs from the 1989 version, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been retained, and three new ones, with music by Menken and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, have been added. The grandest of the production numbers involves Sebastian’s “Under the Sea,” his explanation to Ariel that there’s no need for her to look further than to what’s already at hand for her life’s satisfaction. The character, as in the original film, is again endowed with a Jamaican accent (but the charm of the character’s original complete name—Horatio Thelonious Ignatius Crustaceous Sebastian—has been cut); as he sings, sea creatures dance in elaborate formations alongside him. And, though members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre were brought in for motion capture to render the movements of the sea creatures’ dances, there isn’t a memorable or witty image that highlights their virtuosity. One added song is for Eric, a romantic ballad that he sings alone, as a soliloquy; it stops the action dead. (I found myself thinking of a similarly action-killing number in “The Pajama Game,” sung alone in an office by John Raitt, which is ingeniously invigorated in the form of a duet for one.) There’s also a catchy new song, for Scuttle, and Awkwafina has a grand time with the comedy of its rapid-fire lyrics.
Above all, the movie belongs to Bailey, and her performance is largely the reason to see it. Jodi Benson, who played the animated Ariel, is a formidable singer but not as passionately expressive as Bailey, whose voice is both precise and powerful, overtone-rich and rhythmically varied, and infuses the movie with the kind of energy and passion that would befit a far more realistic character in a far more grounded and detailed melodrama of love and longing. But it isn’t only her voice that expands the character’s vitality; if the free fancies of hand-drawn animation that were deployed in the original bent the movie toward romantic comedy, the presence of strong onscreen actors bends the romance toward drama that’s leavened with comedy. This “Little Mermaid,” though far from a satisfying or seriously worked-out drama, at least gives its characters and their emotions a semblance of inwardness.
The lead actors are themselves powerful performers, and, furthermore, their range of expression is the diametrical opposite of Disney animations. The matter isn’t one of animation itself (even if only cartoons by Rembrandt could match the tremors and quivers that pass, in real actors, between body and soul) but of a tendency that I’m inclined to call Disney-face: a hyper-legibility of facial expressions that seals out ambiguity and complexity in the interest of clarity, one that’s on view through the studio’s decades of animated productions, all the way back to Mickey Mouse in the nineteen-twenties. If the original “Little Mermaid,” in its effervescent way, talked down to its audience, the new one, bluntly but amiably, talks ever so slightly up to its young viewers. It adds hints of a complicated world beyond the narrow realms of fantasy; it delivers earnest cheer. ♦