It’s Only Skin Deep With ‘The Little Mermaid’

Halle Bailey stars as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake, which has noble intentions but little fun.

The new, live-action “The Little Mermaid” lacks the enjoyment, excitement, and creativity we expect from a movie. It reeks of obligation rather than genuine enthusiasm. Every element feels forced; the singing crab.

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Rapping seagull, and humongous sea witch are all done in such a way that it almost appears they’re defending themselves from being taken seriously – but unfortunately you can’t even laugh at them. It seems like an attempt to please everyone yet ultimately ends up pleasing no one.

In 1989, Disney turned Hans Christian Andersen’s story into a cartoon musical, swapping its tragedy and existential wonder for Disney Princess Syndrome, in which one subjugation is replaced by another, an even exchange that is redrawn as a liberating love. However, the people who drew it had a blast.

In both movies, Ariel aspires to leave her father’s watery kingdom in order to join the arms of a merchant prince whom she saves from a wrecked ship. Despite her father’s refusal, Ursula grants Ariel three days to get a kiss from the prince and remain a human or be cursed for all eternity. Unconventional hilarity and music transpire in the original version thanks mostly to Ariel’s Caribbean crab guardian Sebastian and her oddball sea gull companion Scuttle.

This updated version contains modern day issues (humans wrecking the water ecosystem, for example). It’s also longer by 52 minutes, and features three new songs – but it boasts a more reserved feel than its predecessor and is based in soundstage sets and computer-generated imagery rather than vivid landscapes both on land and sea. Despite being classed as “live-action,” most of the action is CG. This means that whoever plays Ariel needs to be able to express emotion with their face alone – something which is much easier to do with animation. Ariel had to demonstrate an entire range of emotions in the original, from wonderment to grief; her red curly hair was iconic in itself.

Now Ariel is in the singer Halle Bailey’s hands. And it’s not that she can’t keep up with the original’s illustrators. It’s that this movie doesn’t ask her to. It takes a good half hour for the flesh-and-blood Ariel to go mute. And when she does, whatever carbonation Bailey had before goes flat. As Ariel has amnesia about needing that kiss, Bailey loses interest in “cunning.”

Along with her sister, half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, Bailey contributes to the chilling and playful melody. She performs two songs, though it is the standard “Part of Your World” that allows her to let loose a bit. Compared to Jodi Benson’s interpretation in the original movie, Bailey’s approach is not drastically altered. Rather, she has been given the opportunity to portray a black Ariel with copper hair in waves and locks which opens up and diversifies the whole movie. In addition, King Triton who addresses Fatherly sadness is now portrayed by Javier Bardem and English tinged with Spanish inflections whereas mermaid siblings take on a runway ready form through its multiethnic cast.

Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King) is portrayed as a white Englishman with more plot than Ariel. Queen Selina, played by Noma Dumezweni alongside her chief servant Lashana (Martina Laird), has adopted the prince – much to the curiosity of viewers – and Melissa McCarthy takes on the role of Ursula who is now Triton’s banished sister. McCarthy puts a little pathos into Ursula’s characters, with many noting her performance as reminiscent of Bette Midler, Mae West and Etta James. The sight of her rushing towards the camera in a flurry of arms is another particularly memorable cinematic moment. Despite this unique take on the character, however, it remains true to Pat Carroll’s original interpretation.

The animated version was about a young lady who wanted to abandon showbiz. She and her siblings were performing for King Triton’s amusement. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken created music that fitted perfectly into Disney’s place in the American Songbook. The voices and impressions brought to mind Vegas and vaudeville spectacles. Ariel was content with the dryness of land, entertainmentwise, but this current flesh-and-blood adaptation is about a girl who would prefer to withdraw her color from the family rainbow and take off into “uncharted waters” with her fair prince.

For a long time, Disney has been attempting to redeem themselves for the discrimination, sexism and whitewashing throughout its portfolio (which also includes Pixar and Marvel). It is an admirable effort on their part to prioritise people over profits, even if it means they are in conflict with the governor of Florida where Disney World is located. Regrettably, these reconciliatory efforts tend to lack a certain enthusiasm. One can see this in contrast with original movies like Moana, Coco or Encanto that have these qualities – joyous musicals that celebrate cultures that were previously neglected or disregarded by Disney.

The presence of brown skin and placeable accents doesn’t make the movie much more entertaining, but it does lend a utopian feel to it, making it hard to dispute. This presents a more or less colorblind version of Shonda Rhimes’ streaming universe; however, the hint of spice is notably absent here. That said, this modern-day Little Mermaid isn’t quite as radicalized and racialized as some might imagine – true to its roots as a Disney movie, the main character’s race has simply been switched up. Pursuers have argued against the remodelling of the original material, desiring that its form stay untarnished; they don’t want it “woke”. In this context, Bailey bears some responsibility for any backlash she receives. Her very involvement in this project is itself courageous due to societal prejudice; nevertheless, hating mobs may be relieved to know that their efforts were largely wasted here.

Rob Marshall isn’t known for taking a departure from convention in his productions. His films like “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and “Into the Woods” are usually visuals of chaos and costume kitsch, but he delivers on producing solid works with welcome set pieces. This film is no different – the memorable scene where Ariel demonstrates to Eric how her name is pronounced provides the opportunity to play out “Kiss the Girl” featuring Daveed Diggs’ calypso vocals with new lyrics that emphasize consent more strongly. It’s easily one of the most charming moments in the movie.

This film is clearly anxious to please the audience – but what will we think? Has it been done justice? Such a lack of creative boldness can still present difficulties. I’m intrigued by the fact that it features so many Black women in a setting that appears to be Victorian, discussing sea voyages and colonies such as Brazil and Cartagena – what could be on these ships? Furthermore, there’s a particularly clever twist when Ursula takes the form of Vanessa; a white woman who tries to charm Eric using Ariel’s vocal talents. It raises an interesting query about music piracy in American history – something to contemplate further.

It’s really depressing to notice these things. Kids of 9 wouldn’t even consider them. But the reason why this remake exists is that a generation that was raised and enamored with these Disney movies as kids have grown up and began to wonder about things. Therefore, this movie can be seen more as a type of moral remuneration instead of something that was truly created out of inspiration. It doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that comes from inspiration in it though; the best scene in the film interlaces its ambitions for “inclusion” with some more complicated American music genres – this is when Scuttle realizes Eric is about to marry Ursula.

In the Song “The Scuttlebutt”, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are brought to life by Awkwafina who steals the spotlight, while Bailey looks on in apparent distress. It is a thought provoking mix of styles and ideas, wherein an Asian American artist portrays a computer-generated bird while being rapped to by a Black American man – both characters being improvisations of traditionally Caribbean personalities. While the clash of cultures is audacious and exciting, it comes at the slight cost of rendering one Black woman voiceless.

As you watch it, you realize why the rest of the movie takes it so lightly. Because fun is some risky business. This is a witty, complex, exuberant, breathless, deeply American number that’s also the movie’s one moment of unbridled, unabashed delight. I am eagerly anticipating how Disney will apologize for it in 34 years.

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