Monday, May 29, 2023

The Little Mermaid (2023): A Review (Review #1717)



If one believes some of the talk surrounding the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, one might see it either as a step forward in representation or a shameless pandering to modern audiences. As is the case in real life, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. Neither an improvement nor a disaster, The Little Mermaid is just there.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), rebellious teen daughter of Sea King Triton (Javier Bardem) dreams of what life is like on the surface. She in particular dreams of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), heir to an unnamed Caribbean island kingdom whom she saved from drowning. Triton is displeased by Ariel's fascination with humans and attempts to prevent more surface visits by assigning his loyal crab, Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to watch her.

Sebastian, though, is powerless to stop her from going to her exiled aunt, the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), for help. Ursula creates a spell to make Ariel human for three days, where she can go to the surface freely. If she and Eric kiss with the kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day, Ariel will remain human forever. If they do not, Ariel returns to being a mermaid and belongs to Ursula.

Ariel cannot rely on her voice, the price for the spell. As such, she cannot speak or sing to Eric, but he's enchanted with this girl nonetheless. The sea witch, however, has a few tricks up her own sleeve in this master plan to take over the oceans, with Ariel as her pawn. Will Eric Kiss the Girl in time? Will Ariel truly become Part of Your World

In another post, I shall compare the 1989 animated version with its 2023 live action adaptation. It is, however, difficult not to because the 2023 adaptation adheres so closely to the 1989 version that it all but prods us to. One major difference is length. While the animated version, minus the closing credits, runs a mere 78 minutes, this adaptation runs 125 minutes.

That is 47 additional minutes to the film, mostly due to three original songs cowritten by the animated version's original composer Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda taking the place of the late Howard Ashman. We get one song for Eric (Wild Uncharted Waters), one new song for Ariel (For the First Time), and perhaps most infamously, a rap number for Diggs and Awkwafina as the norther gannet Scuttle.

The Scuttlebutt is a painful, almost unintelligible number that, while only two minutes long, is something that should have been cut out altogether. This seems more the handiwork of Miranda, who has constantly worked to merge Broadway to hip-hop with varying degrees of success. It really has no purpose in The Little Mermaid. It doesn't advance the plot or express emotion. Moreover, even if it did, it is difficult to make out what is actually being rapped. Add to that Awkwafina's scratchy vocals and you get the most useless number in the film. 

As a side note, those awful quacking sounds Awkwafina throws at us are a result of Skuttle apparently trying to "set the mood" for Ariel and Eric by simulating what appears to be porn music. 

Bow-chicka-waw-waw. Certainly a far cry from when the animated version's Scuttle tried to "set the mood" by sampling a little Tchaikovsky (specifically the Love Theme to Romeo & Juliet). I do not know if parents, if they recognize Scuttle 2023's version of "mood music" will find it funny or horrifying, but there it is.

Prince Eric gets more screentime here, and as mentioned his own solo number, Wild Uncharted Waters. The backstory of his relationship with his adopted mother the Queen (Noma Dumezweni) gets a curious amount of attention in The Little Mermaid, which again lengthens the film. Wild Uncharted Waters is the most "Broadway" of the new songs: big, bombastic and grandiose. While delivered well by Hauer-King, Wild Uncharted Waters is of no importance to the plot (there is a reason why Eric got no solo number to begin with). 

As a side note, I do not know why we needed the strong suggestion that Eric was not the Queen and late King's biological son. Mention is made of when he was "taken in" and "raised as one of their own". I do not know the motivation behind this unexplored plot point.

The third new song, For the First Time, is not a bad song but not a great song either. I would argue that it is technically cheating, as it is sung in Ariel's mind and at one point, sung out loud albeit in a dream-like manner. 

In a curious turn, we get a dance number in this island kingdom with the citizens, Ariel and Eric before they take to Kiss the Girl (which did have the lyrics changed from the original Oscar-nominated song). It seems curious to include just dancing but no singing here. 

The recreation of the 1989 songbook do not fare better. To be fair, Bailey delivers Part of Your World beautifully. I cannot say the same for Under the Sea or Poor Unfortunate Souls. In the former, it was OK but not magical, not full of life. Again, at least it is the brightest number, bright in the "you can see" way. Poor Unfortunate Souls keeps to the dark visuals in The Little Mermaid, but despite McCarthy's best efforts there is not a mix of menace and mirth in it.

When I think of the overall performances, the best one goes to the new Ariel. Halle Bailey is charming and pleasant as our lovelorn sea-creature. She has a lovely voice that gives beautiful interpretations of the songs she sings, old and new.

She also handles the non-singing elements well, if not as well as a more seasoned actress would. One should not be too harsh on Bailey given this is, if not strictly her film debut, her first major leading role.

McCarthy is someone who in my view attempted too hard to do an impersonation of the original's Pat Carroll. She was more comedic than gleefully wicked. This was not a dealbreaker but not something that made me believe she was a genuine threat.

Bardem was curiously disengaged from things, as if wondering how he ended up on the ocean floor after enduring the deserts of Dune. Hauer-King was neither good or bad, a bit of a milquetoast. Again, to be fair to him, Prince Eric was relegated to being almost the damsel in distress while Ariel saves the day, but that is more on David Magee's screenplay than on him.

Diggs' Sebastian was the same as Hauer-King: nothing original or unique. Awkwafina simply should not have been hired: a grating voice and poor line delivery makes for a struggle to hear and see. Jacob Tremblay's Flounder appropriately floundered, as he was barely in the film. It is strange that as long as The Little Mermaid is, Ariel's three animal companions were almost superfluous to the film. 

One more side note: I still think Flounder looks like a recovering meth addict. 

The Little Mermaid has Halle Bailey as perhaps the one major element that raises it from mediocrity. It's a heavy burden to place on her young shoulders but bless her for doing so. Less remake and more recreation, The Little Mermaid is just there. 


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