Grey is not a good colour on Flounder, but it does sum up director Rob Marshall’s live-action version of the Disney classic, The Little Mermaid. Written by David Magee and loosely based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, the film begins with a quote by Andersen: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” That’s all the warning you’ll get before being submerged for the next two hours in mermaid Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) hopelessness and hormones, as she makes one questionable decision after another.
If you look at their track record, you’d know that Marshall — who directed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) — and Magee — who wrote the screen adaptation of Life of Pi (2012) — are no strangers to rough seas. However, with The Little Mermaid, they seem to have lost sight of the shore. As far as the underwater world is concerned, the bar has been set by James Cameron with Avatar: The Way of Water last year. The Little Mermaid’s computer-generated imagery appears vapid and unimaginative in comparison. Most of the film is faithful to the 1989 original, which is perhaps its biggest folly. The Little Mermaid can’t find a balance between storytelling and virtue-signalling, with the unfortunate result that its attempts at being modern (like with the casting of a young Black actor in the lead role) feel more like tokenism.
In the film, when a ship wrecks in a storm, Ariel saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and swims him to safety. One look at him and she’s crooning. He’s unconscious and she sounds nice enough, but you’ve got to wonder why she bothers. Later, she goes behind her father King Triton’s (an unrecognisable Javier Bardem) back and strikes a deal with her evil aunt Ursula (a delightful Melissa McCarthy). Ariel exchanges her voice for a pair of legs to search for Eric and vows that if they don’t kiss within three days, she will serve her aunt for the rest of her life. Ursula takes ‘agony aunt’ to a whole other level while Ariel remains unaware that having a voice and standing on your own two feet aren’t mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, Eric longs for a life at sea and rebels against a protective mother who wants to confine him to the castle and his kingly duties. If this premise excites you, we suggest you turn your attention to Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. The prince’s chief ambition appears to be to explore “uncharted waters” — is this supposed to romanticise imperialist ambitions? Is it unfair to use such big words for a Disney film? — and no one takes a moment to acknowledge that a prince and his partner, heading out into the great unknown with a boat and without a crew and with no return date in sight, is far-fetched even for a fairytale. After some flipping and flopping, there’s the long drawn-out showdown with Ursula, which ends abruptly with Ariel — not Eric, as in the original — stabbing Ursula with a ship. Evidently, Disney hopes that we will remember this retelling as one in which the girl saved the guy, and not as the version in which Ursula’s exit is unconvincing, dissatisfying and generally embarrassing.
Still, there are some sweet moments in The Little Mermaid, like when Ariel teaches Eric to blow a sea horn (get your mind out of the gutter) or when she tells him her name by pointing to Aries the constellation (she lost her voice, remember?). However, these are not enough to keep afloat what is essentially a cautionary tale for controlling parents and reckless teenagers. Even the soundtrack, by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, doesn't make time go by faster.
Let’s take a moment to look at the black Ariel, who evoked heated reactions from conservative factions of the internet. It feels disappointing that Disney’s attempts at modernising Ariel are just skin-deep (literally). There’s no attempt at going past the cliché of Ariel falling in love with the first man she sees or adding nuance to her decision to exchange her voice for the opportunity to be a conventional woman. If not to portray layered emotions, why make a live-action version at all? It doesn’t help that the sea creatures sound like Daveed Diggs and Jacob Tremblay, but look like dinner.
It is truly a pity that even in 2023, Ariel’s rebellion has to be catalysed by her infatuation and that freedom is not viewed as reason enough to fight. The intent might be to make young black girls feel seen but it begs the question of what exactly are we showing young adults? Surely the youth deserve more than a performance of wokeness?