In 1989, The Little Mermaid delivered the kiss of life to Disney’s floundering animation studio, ushering in a period now fondly thought of as its creative renaissance. Now its live-action remake is arriving at a time of falling profits and uncertainty about the studio’s future. Talk about synchronicity. But the differences between The Little Mermaid of yesterday and The Little Mermaid of today, as with many of these remakes, are really the differences between what the industry once was and what it now is. This is a Little Mermaid robbed of its voice – its choices ruled largely by fear, rather than the thrill of creative risk.
That said, there’s a glimpse of a Little Mermaid that could have been in the casting of Halle Bailey, one half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, one-time proteges of Beyoncé. She’s our new Ariel, the mermaid princess who trades her voice for a shiny pair of legs and the chance to live blissfully on land with her beloved Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) – having paid no thought to the fact she’s just made an irreversible deal with a sea witch (Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula) afflicted by a persistent maniacal cackle.
We’ve spent the past three decades bullying poor Ariel for risking it all for a guy whose only green flags are that he likes dogs and sea shanties. But Bailey offers up the best defence possible – there’s such a luminous quality to her desires, and an intensity to her desperation, that she digs down deeper into Ariel than anyone ever has before. And that voice! Her version of original Ariel voice actor Jodi Benson’s classic “Part of Your World” features a spectacular key change – it’ll soon be butchered at every karaoke joint in the land.
But there’s a real stink of obligation to everything that exists around Bailey and her star-making turn. There are two pretty but inconsequential new ballads, and a rap performed by Awkwafina’s Scuttle that is somehow a real Lin-Manuel Miranda rap and not, from what it sounds like, a parody of one. The animals are all now, of course, photorealistic. It’s odd to think they spent so much money on making Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) look like a real fish when they could have just bought a Big Mouth Billy Bass and achieved the same range of facial expressions.
The film’s oceanic sequences exist in some ugly, dimly lit netherworld, too fake to be real and too real to be fun. Prince Eric has been de-himbofied, and is now primarily interested, like the Star Wars prequels, in trade disputes – Hauer-King makes for convincing royalty, but an unnecessary plot point about him being the adopted son of a Black queen (Noma Dumezweni’s Selina) does beg the question of whether the studio chickened out of casting two Black leads.
McCarthy, as Ursula, offers her best tribute to the character’s original inspiration, the drag queen Divine. It’s a commendable performance that will make you wonder what might have been if Disney had the guts to feature an actual drag queen in the role. But it speaks to a wider issue here: Bailey aside, this Little Mermaid is yesterday’s fish served up dry and inedible.
Dir: Rob Marshall. Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy. PG, 135 minutes.
‘The Little Mermaid’ is in cinemas from 26 May