Gemma Creagh splashes back at Disney remake of The Little Mermaid.
Hungry for adventure, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), just as dapper as in the original, mans a ship laden with cargo that crashes on the waves. While underwater, fellow Nepo-baby and curious mermaid, Ariel (Halle Bailey) is fascinated by the human artefacts that have dropped to the ocean floor. Much to the annoyance of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of Atlantica, Ariel misses an important oceanic board meeting with her mermaid sisters. Her punishment comes in the form of being put under surveillance. She finds herself under the watchful eyes of her father’s right hand crab, the charming Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) – and the supremely confident gannet bird, Scuttle – voiced by the hilarious Awkwafina.
When Prince Eric’s ship gets into difficulty, Ariel comes to the rescue, saving him and his dog – and falling in love with Eric in the process. When her father discovers she’s been interacting with the human world, he becomes enraged. Fearful due the death of Ariel’s mother years back, he flies into a violent rage, destroying her collection of objects. Cue, the camp, vamp and fabulous sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). This sultry octopus strikes a deal with Arial to exchange her melliferous voice in order to become human. This allows Arial to enter the world above water and finally spend time with Eric – but as always happens with these things, there’s a catch.
This is one for the big screen. The uncanny valley of the CGI characters is unnerving in the beginning, and takes a moment to settle in as a viewer to the physics of this undersea world. For instance, how can people sing, or speak? The classic musical numbers we all know and love are interspersed with new additions. The movement and the spectacle provide a modern take on an old Hollywood feel. Director Rob Marshall began his career as a dancer and performer on Broadway. But adapting established IP has become his bread and butter. His career peaked with the release of Academy darling, Chicago, followed by the resounding hit Memoirs of a Geisha. However, to date, this critical success was something Marshall didn’t replicate, and unfortunately he has to settle for the next best thing: commercial achievements and lots of money. Dance hand choreography has always been at the heart of his work, and Marshall worked with the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation in curating the underwater movement in the more outlandish set pieces.
Those who remember the 1989 film of the same name, will find a lot familiar, especially when it comes to the classic musical hits. However, there have been updates, notably with the standout voice of Lin Manuel Miranda, a producer on the film. Miranda brought three new songs – including Scuttlebutt from Awkwafina and a new number for Prince Eric, Wild Uncharted Waters. Some of the musical lyrics too have been subtly updated to reflect modern day sensibilities, such as women’s roles and consent. I would go as far as to say that Javier Bardem’s empathetic depiction of King Triton normalises domestic abuse, controlling behaviours and justifies his violent outbursts.
The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel, as well as the shift to the tropical cleverly side steps any potential awkward conversations about colonialism, and means the diversity of the performers logistically can’t be questioned. However, with regards to the story setting and subtext there was so much scope for an updated message that was passed over. Environmentally speaking, things have changed a great deal since 1989, and the patriarchal roles within family and romantic relationships remain firmly reinforced.
Ariel’s main driving desire is still to “get the guy”. She sacrifices her dignity, her lovely voice, and her mermaid identity for him in order to live in his world. Taken in context of Disney’s timeline, the 1989 original issued in a problematic time — the arcs are overwhelmingly male-dominated, and give what we now know are rather problematic takes on colonialism, unhealthy relationships, as well as stereotyped gender roles and ethnic tropes. According to recent research, men speak 68 percent of the time in The Little Mermaid; 71 percent of the time in Beauty and the Beast; 90 percent of the time in Aladdin; 76 percent of the time in Pocahontas; and 77 percent of the time in Mulan. This is far less than their more traditional earlier counterparts, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.
The teenage protagonists and lengthy run time might exclude smaller children from the equation, but a fun family film is still on the ticket. The Little Mermaid delivers high calibre magic and is worth the entrance fee alone to see McCarthy give life as Disney’s most fabulous baddie to date.
The Little Mermaid is in cinemas from 26th May 2023.