Before this review gets aggregated by some right-wing algorithm, please know that “The Little Mermaid” remake would have gotten an A+ from me if it had actually tried to function as the clear allegory for a Black trans woman’s experience that it should have been.
This thing is not getting a C- because it is “too woke,” which is a phrase that sounds like the alarm noise from “Kill Bill” when spoken aloud. No, it’s getting a subpar grade due to Sebastian the crab’s violently upsetting eyes and Flounder’s gangrenous color, amid a myriad of other poor unfortunate choices. A CGI bird voiced by Awkwafina does a rap about gossip, and it is easily the best part of the movie.
Adapting vibrant animated classics into dull, drab live-action requires a literal eradication of color and imagination. All of Disney’s “reimagined” cash grabs have this same self-importance, as if we’re watching kiddie Shakespeare and not a movie that had a penis castle on the VHS tape. We all remember! Nobody is going to forget! “The Little Mermaid” is sullen and dark. That last descriptor also applies to its visuals, which are murkier than Taylor Swift sexuality conspiracy theories. The final sequence is so poorly lit as to be unwatchable. How dare they rob this world of a Kaiju-sized Melissa McCarthy in Divine cephalopod drag?
What is forgiven is Halle Bailey, who is mesmerizing in what amounts to a virtuoso singer doing Disney karaoke that lasts well over two hours. How?! The original version was 83 minutes because very, very little happens. They added almost an hour, and only 2-3 minutes contain the seabird rap, which, again, is a straight banger.
If you’ve forgotten, Ariel (Bailey) is a mermaid who fights with her dad, King Triton (Javier Bardem), because she loves humans and he hates them #TeamKingTriton. After she saves the personality-free wet British hand towel that is Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), Ariel convinces an evil octopus sorceress, Ursula (McCarthy), to make her human for the cost of her voice.
With the help of Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina), Ariel must get Eric to smooch her within three days or return to mermaid form and be Ursula’s property. Getting Eric to do anything should be pretty easy, as he 100% would have Googled “How does the got your nose trick work” if they had the internet in swashbuckling times.
Nearly a half hour goes by before a single song gets sung. And when they do start singing, Eric gets his own jam. Because who didn’t want more Eric, right? His song is basically “I wish I were interesting” with more words. The amount of time the film spends away from Bailey’s Ariel is as unconscionable as Rob Marshall directing McCarthy to what amounts to a “straight” take on Ursula. She’s fine, but you can see in her eyes a playfulness that the film absolutely will not abide or allow.
Its relentless dourness and gloom may have worked if it embraced a commentary on the horrifying oppression and mistreatment of Black trans women, who are routinely murdered. Ariel’s journey has long been an inspiration for LGBTQ+ communities, but this adaptation chooses to amplify the original film’s toothless “rebellious teen in hetero love” motivation. It could have justifiably been as serious as it is if it had honed in on Ariel recognizing that a massive physical and social transformation was the only way to live her truth. As trans bans threaten lives, implicit metaphors that you have to squint to read are about as useful as most state legislators.
Marshall, whose whole directorial filmography screams “Eh, this’ll do, I guess” either didn’t have the goods or permission to make “The Little Mermaid” consequential. So all we get are muted palates, dodgy CGI hidden by poor lighting, and a simply fantastic Scuttle hip-hop track. Maybe in 30 years, when they do an animated remake of the live-action remake of the animated film, we’ll get a movie as brave as Ariel’s potential message and as entertaining as Bailey clearly is.
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Danielle Solzman at Solzy at the Movies says “As of right now, it’s going to be a long time before we see proper LGBTQ representation in these films. I’m not just talking about a quick scene here and there that can be cut because of foreign censors but real representation that would make the film not make sense if those characters and their scenes are cut.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “Bailey’s joy is immaculate, no matter how meh the movie as a whole may be. And surely, her tender portrayal will thrill new generations of kids, giddy to imagine themselves as part of the world of these beloved fairytales.”
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at DailyDot says “the real issue is the lack of synergy between the vocal performances (which are mostly great) and what’s happening onscreen. And this doesn’t just count for the songs—it’s a defining flaw for the CG animal characters too.”