Movie review: Disenchantment under the sea in live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’
Associated Press | 5/25/2023, 6 p.m.
It’s not Rob Marshall’s fault that Disney’s latest live-action retread doesn’t really sing. “The Little Mermaid,” a somewhat drab undertaking with sparks of bioluminescence, suffers from the same fundamental issues that plagued “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Halle Bailey might be a lovely presence and possesses a superb voice that is distinctly different from Jodi Benson’s, but photorealistic fins, animals and environments do not make Disney fairy tales more enchanting on their own.
The essential problem is that the live-action films have prioritized nostalgia and familiarity over compelling visual storytelling. They try to recreate beats and shots from their animated predecessors, defiantly ignoring the possibility that certain musical sequences and choices were enchanting and vibrant because they were animated, not in spite of it.
There was, in the 1989 film, a sparkling awe to everything. The underwater castle. The mermaids. Eric’s ship. Even Ariel’s bright red hair. Combined with the wonderful songs and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, it’s not hard to understand why it helped fuel a Disney Animation renaissance.
Anyone who has gone through the recent Disney’s live-action library would be right to approach “The Little Mermaid” with caution. For all its pizazz, everything about this “Little Mermaid” is just more muted. Miranda’s new songs are odd, too, and don’t seem to fit. Prince Eric’s (Jonah Hauer-King) makes sense, maybe even Ariel’s in-her-head anthem after she gives her voice to Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula, but did Scuttle really need a song, too?
Speaking of Scuttle, the cute cartoons that stood in for Ariel’s seagull, crab and fish friends have been replaced with horrifyingly accurate depictions of said animals. Awkwafina’s comedy charms can only go so far while looking like an actual seagull who might be after your chips at the beach. Close-ups of its beady blue eyes are unsettling, though it was probably a good call to go blue over gold, which looks a bit demonic even in the cartoon.
Visibility is a problem for more than just Flounder, too. Sometimes “The Little Mermaid’s” underwater sequences just look too underwater. Things are cloudy and dull and hard to see, once again probably in the name of authenticity, but straining to see what Marshall and the scores of VFX teams have labored on for years is not a pleasant experience.
This could be a projection issue — I wasn’t in an especially high-tech theater with color enhancing upgrades. But that also means anyone without access to things like Dolby Vision around the world will have this issue, too.
“The Little Mermaid,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “ac- tion/peril, some scary images.” Running time: 135 minutes. Two stars out of four.