|When a mermaid falls in love with a human, she enlists the help of an evil sea witch in order to be with him, though the spell contains a few caveats.
|2 hours, 15 minutes
|May 26, 2023
|Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
|David Magee, John Musker (original screenplay), Ron Clements (original screenplay), based on story by Hans Christian Andersen
|Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem
After spending millions on advertising, even displaying a trailer at the Academy Awards, Disney’s live action version of The Little Mermaid has finally hit cinemas. Yet not everyone is keen. Horribly ratioed on YouTube and other platforms, there has been much controversy over the casting of Halle Bailey as the lead role of Ariel, or rather the blackwashing of yet another iconic redhead. Combined with the genderswapping of Scuttle, rumours of key plot changes, the ill-rendered CGI witnessed in trailers, and just Disney’s perceived lack of artistic integrity and general decline, a number of viewers are hesitant when it comes to having hope that one of these live action remakes might actually be good. With so much junk and political warring occurring outside of the film, it’s easy to wonder, once the noise is cut out, whether this movie is actually worth a look.
Violence/Scary Images: For those that have water-related trauma, this is most likely not the best film to watch considering there are multiple instances where characters nearly drown, or are racing for air. Lots of ferocious waves, shipwrecks, and there’s a shark chase sequence. The villain is a squid-based humanoid that drags and traps people with tentacles, and is otherwise surrounded with a creepy, evil vibe. She lives in a giant sea monster’s skeleton. A mermaid skeleton is seen. The final battle involves a giant version of the sea witch and rough seas, which would be scary for the youngest audience members. A few characters are vaporised. A self-inflicted wound on a mermaid’s tail is shown, and some blood from it seeps into the surrounding water.
Language/Crude Humor: No swear words. However, characters do denigrate one another frequently, with comments like “idiot,” “bird brain”, “brat”, or tell each other to shut up.
Drug/Alcohol References: No alcohol. Magic potions are consumed as part of the story.
Sexual Content: Some men are seen topless, and the mermaids don’t wear clothes, though they are covered in scales where it matters. A significant portion of the film rests on the idea that two people must kiss in order to break a spell, where supporting cast heavily influence the couple. There is a scene where a character is naked—nothing is seen due to carefully placed hair and camera angles.
Spiritual Content: Based off a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, which in turn has connections to ancient Greek mythology with characters such as King Triton. The whole film explores folklore surrounding mermaids and sirens, and the concept of a being ruling over the sea, though due to the genre, it’s very much a nominal approach and doesn’t foster a serious belief in such content more so than other fantasy-laden films.
Other Negative Content: The pressure for characters to kiss within a three-day time period feels odd to be seen in a kid’s film given modern sensibilities. Dishonest contractual agreements feature heavily in the film. A daughter frequently disobeys her father.
Positive Content: The story reconciles a father and daughter that are suffering from communication issues. A lot of kindness is shown between the film’s protagonists, and the general message of not immediately judging others by shallow means is told.
Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid is a sweet film that is bogged down with its external politics. Criticism began early with the reveal of Halle Bailey in the main role, not due to any controversy with the actress herself, but rather the act of changing of Ariel’s race. Today’s efforts in casting are a nuanced affair that deserve an essay in itself, but to cover the main essence of the debate, it’s about how to achieve the fine balance between offering suitable representation without falling into the trap of virtue signalling.
Watching back older films from a few decades ago, their racial diversity isn’t as limited as some might assume, however with America’s changing and developing racial makeup due to generations of immigration, movies were no longer seen to be a reflection of the diversity found across the country. This was particularly true with biracial or multi-generational immigrants who found themselves too far removed from their ancestral culture to still feel connected with films produced from their generational homeland, whilst American films rarely addressed the unique issues presented when identifying with two different cultures. Cinema was starting to organically rectify the issue, with narrative storytelling moving away from defaulting to white, however after the OscarsSoWhite controversy, Hollywood effectively enforced changes within the industry by introducing diversity quotas to the eligibility criteria needed to win the Best Picture category. So when Disney race and gender swap several members of their key cast (and end up meeting that quota by doing so), are they making such changes out of the goodness of their hearts, or is it purely a decision from a boardroom devoid of artistic integrity? Critics of the studio believe it’s the latter, where the company is happy to extol a virtuous front though really their actions stem from personal gain.
Yet when it comes to representation there seems to be two main schools of thought. The first takes a colour-blind approach, where if a character’s race (or gender) isn’t playing a crucial part in the role, then the job should go to whoever delivered the best audition. Director Rob Marshall has said this was the case when it came to Halle Bailey’s audition for Ariel. It’s believable. The actress nails the songs, has a gorgeous voice, and also possesses the innocent and naïve wonderment of a mermaid exploring the human world for the first time. As sung in “Kiss the Girl”, there’s something about her. Her performance is genuinely difficult to fault, although there are a few moments where her interactions with CGI characters feel a little off.
Of course, there has been much debate as to whether race is an important factor for Ariel’s character, where some have argued that since mermaids are fictional then it doesn’t matter, whilst others state that since the original tale is mostly attributed to Denmark, then The Little Mermaid’s casting decisions don’t pay homage to the source material. One argument that is hardly mentioned is that Ariel isn’t your typical character—she’s a registered trademark that’s part of the sixth most financially successful media franchise in the world (The Disney Princess franchise), with a dollar worth that’s over forty-six billion. Merchandise is a huge part of Disney’s business, where it earns the company over fifty billion dollars per year, turning Disney into the world’s top licensor that makes the most amount of retail sales compared to others in the game.
So is Disney going to change the look of Ariel—a member of the billion dollar Disney Princess franchise— any time soon? Of course not! Her original design is firmly enshrined in a number of ways across merchandising and theme park appearances. One of the problems with the live action remake is that it’s not a reimagining or a total reboot, where changes to the character could be forgiven. Ariel still maintains every aspect of her iconic design except now she’s a different race, and this instantly puts her at direct odds with the character’s future marketing. As a result, Halle Bailey is not “Ariel”, but rather “Black Ariel”, and it’s a shame that qualifier will exist as the actress truly doesn’t deserve to be caught up in the middle. The recent film won’t be viewed as being as official as the original; it’s a secondary, novelty project. Disney may pat itself on the back for providing representation, but they achieved it in the laziest way possible, by raceswapping a firmly established character, no different from a hand-me-down. This isn’t the first instance of this in media. Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and even Scarlet Witch have generated genuine interest over the years because they are characters unto themselves, whereas She-Hulk, Batgirl, and Supergirl all have that “novelty” hand-me-down factor, as they are based off their better-conceived male counterparts. Some may think it’s a bold choice, though in reality we still haven’t progressed any further than Token’s role in South Park (although he’s really Tolkien).
The second school of thought when it comes to casting originates from the Critical Race Theory movement. They present the idea that race is an immutable aspect of one’s identity, where colour-blindness can never be fully achieved as a person’s race will always carry certain meanings or perceptions whether it’s intentional or not. In some ways they have a point, though Disney has handled this aspect in their casting decisions rather poorly over the past few years. The worst example can be found in their Lady and the Tramp remake where Jim Dear and Darling are now an interracial couple. While it’s refreshing to see Black Americans in affluent roles in the early 20th century, as a foreigner that has gleaned most of her knowledge about American history from cinema, I was yanked out of the experience, finding myself confused over my understanding of that time period, as Loving told me a different story. I ended up having to ask my fellow GUG associates as to whether there were any states that allowed interracial relationships that early on in US history, only for everyone to confirm that my initial suspicions were correct. It’s bizarre to see Disney constantly insert Black characters in particular into “old timey” settings given the current political climate—activists are working hard to remind society of the racial injustices of the past, yet children’s entertainment is content with ignoring or otherwise misrepresenting these issues entirely. The pendulum is right there, and Disney is too busy pandering to realise they’re the ones swinging it.
Disney’s handling of race isn’t as woefully careless this time around as the setting and context within the world of The Little Mermaid lends itself more towards a forgiving nature from viewers. For the most part it seems that race and genetics aren’t a thing under the sea. The original film scrapped the idea of Ursula and Triton being siblings, but it has been reintroduced here. King Triton’s daughters are also multi-cultural, with each mermaid representing one of the seven seas, which is a cool concept… once adult audiences stop raising an eyebrow over the thought that daddy might be getting hot at the body shop doing something unholy.
It starts to unravel more once the story heads to the surface. By changing Ariel’s race, it now means it’s a story about a silenced Black woman that’s trying to woo a white prince, which brings about several different new layers to the tale. Since the narrative is about two cultures coming together, Disney could have leaned into this new dynamic and gained itself a clever allegory, except it takes the more baffling Pinocchio route and instead produces an “international” vibe. In a world where the ships are still wooden, an indistinct small island nation is ruled by a Black queen living in a European styled castle, surrounded by a vibrant Latina atmosphere that’s reminiscent of Cuba, filled with citizens that come from a vast array of different races. In such circumstances, interracial relationships don’t bat an eye despite the time period. In Disney’s Pinocchio this internationality stripped the story of its luscious Italian roots, opting for the American ideology of lumping all “white” cultures together as one large bland conglomerate, as though the rich heritage of other nations around the world don’t need their own representation in their own right. Viewers rightfully slammed the film for being soulless whilst Guillermo del Toro’s version that operated as a love letter to Italy went on to win Best Animated Picture.
In some ways, The Little Mermaid is more forgivable since the original movie wasn’t as tied down to a specific country, even though the earlier Disney Princess films paid homage to the origins of their Hans Christian Anderson’s tale in more notable ways. It will come down to a matter of personal opinion as to whether viewers feel that Disney missed an opportunity to make a love letter to Denmark through this production. Although this time around it seems the writers wished to transplant the story to the Caribbean, and while that setting may give an explanation as to the European architecture and racial diversity (and Sebastian’s random Jamaican accent), adult audiences are still going to feel the film’s setting is odd as there’s a discrepancy between the seemingly modern demographics and the era that’s explored.
Ultimately this entire discussion about race exists outside of the film. It really isn’t this movie’s biggest problem (of which it has many), though it’s the one that has overshadowed the production since its first trailer. As you can see, there are a lot of different thoughts regarding how diversity and representation can be achieved, and opinions continue to change, and therefore the rules seem to slide about as well, giving the entire topic an element of hypocrisy. Considering Ariel is one of the most iconic characters to be raceswapped in recent times, all of these issues regarding this topic as a whole have come to a head when it comes to this film. However, when you watch the film, the whole issue really does take more of a backseat.
The Little Mermaid’s biggest problem is nothing new; once again it’s a live action remake that doesn’t compare to the spirit of the animated classic. As we know by now, some things that pop in an animated scene are lost in translation when recreated by actors limited by real world physics. Javier Bardem, wet-faced and bobbing in the water beside a boat, looks unintentionally hilarious instead of regal. When mermaids sit on boulders it just looks awkward. The shark chase sequence lacks all tension. The problem is most noticeable with Sebastian, as even though he’s a CGI character, he lacks the comedic timing of the original, and a lot of the lines that have been kept from the old script now fall painfully flat. Yet there are a handful of good decisions in the mix. While “Les Poissons” is arguably the best song in the original (fight me), there is no way this epic animated sequence could be replicated in all of its glory in live action—and if it was, then it would be hilariously horrific for a children’s movie. Understandably, it has been scrapped.
When it comes to the songs, the majority are underwhelming. “Part of Your World” is a show stopper, while “Kiss the Girl” oozes every amount of sexual tension it can appropriately muster for a movie aimed at children. However, “Under the Sea” feels like it’s going through the motions. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” celebrates all of Melissa McCarthy’s hard work and vocal training as it’s a great rendition and impressively pays homage to the original, yet in some ways it would have been nice to see how McCarthy interpreted the character as opposed to mimicking another’s performance.
A number of new songs have been added to fill in a couple of gaps in the action, some serving more of a purpose than others. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is at the pinnacle of his career, leaping off the success of Hamilton, In the Heights, and Encanto, among others. Yet while some love his rapid-fire lyrics and quips, personally I find the songs too muffled and chaotic to enjoy. His style clashes with the original songs in The Little Mermaid; fast-paced lyrics with little in regards to tune in amongst classic melodies that soar. Considering he also wrote the songs for Moana, it’s disappointing he didn’t strike gold in this film as both Princess movies share the same core spirit.
It’s difficult to see what the aim was behind the creation of this movie (aside from making money). The very act of shifting animated characters into something more realistic causes problems. The animals in the original—that were once brightly coloured creatures vaguely reminiscent of certain species—now have to be properly assigned in the live action remake. Yet because the production doesn’t commit to a particular setting, the species chosen to represent Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle don’t make a whole lot of sense. In one scene, Ariel plays with guppies in amongst the saltwater reef. It broke my brain; you need to shut it off in this area for this film. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the deeper one goes underwater, the less colourful things become; a scientific truth which directly conflicts with a children’s movie’s need for vibrancy. Unlike The Jungle Book and The Lion King which had more freedom to move into ultra-realism, it doesn’t work with The Little Mermaid where it seems to want to be both somewhat realistic and also fantastical with its world. The CGI does well to bring some of it to life—there are times when the animals look gorgeous—although the transitions of movement are often blurry, unpolished, or unnerving to watch.
However, the most unbelievable aspect to this film is the idea that Prince Eric and Ariel don’t simply kiss each other later on in the night. If there’s one thing this film does right, it’s Prince Eric. With a longer runtime, it means the characters get more fleshed out, and Eric’s character benefits the most from this change. The first half of the movie feels phoned in, but once the story heads to the shore, it really does gain its legs. The reason is most likely that the script isn’t so beholden to the story beats of the original in the second act; it finally has the freedom to develop its own identity and become its own thing. It turns into a sweet romance between a mermaid and a human prince, and it’s genuinely cute and enjoyable to watch them fall in love. Parents beware—a lot of thirteen-year-old girls are going to experience their first screen crush in this movie!
When it comes to additional content, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. There’s more siren mythology mixed in now which is interesting. But they also added in more complications, particularly with Ursula’s spell, which only convolutes the story and character motivations. Some are saying the film is Woke, but surprisingly those claims are rather unfounded—there’s no LGBT+ content, Ariel isn’t a total girl boss as she’s still naïve and has life lessons to learn, and the film doesn’t completely shy away from its romance roots. Basically, there are more Woke Disney films out there, to the extent that The Little Mermaid barely registers on the scale. It does suffer from some basic storytelling issues though, where it tends to tell and not show in places. For instance, Ursula wishes to obtain Triton’s trident yet the audience hasn’t seen its power to understand why it’s a wanted item. Or that every character seems to tell Ariel that she’s in love, though it’s questionable whether she actually loves Eric or is merely in love with the idea of being human. It’s muddy. These are simple problems that would have been addressed had the production had the freedom to move away from the confines of the original, which is why a total reimagining of the story may have been a better choice (provided the die-hard fans would have allowed it).
The performances are strong and every actor tries their hardest, though with all the other issues regarding the narrative, music, CGI, soullessness, and external politics, The Little Mermaid ends up being an enjoyable B-grade film, which wouldn’t be bad except for the fact that Disney tried to bring their A game this time. Since it is in the B-grade territory, Christians may want to avoid all the spell casting plot for their children and instead opt for watching last year’s mermaid film, The King’s Daughter. It also features a weird father and daughter dynamic, but the story refreshingly features positive Christian messaging and role models. But if you wish to stick with Disney, The Little Mermaid is still entertaining and worth a look at some stage.
+ Acting and vocals
+ Some wise changes
+ Character development
+ Prince Eric and cute chemistry between the leads
- Just goes through the motions when copying the original
- New songs don't fit the style
- Doesn't commit to a setting
- Controversial casting
- Unpolished CGI in places
- Classic comedic scenes fall flat
The Bottom Line
Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid might be overwhelmed by external politics and criticism, but despite its many flaws, it’s a simple B-grade romance.