“She’s like me!” a young Black girl exclaimed when the iconic Disney character Ariel appeared at the end of the teaser trailer for the live-action remake of the 1989 animated classic, The Little Mermaid. She was one of several Black children whose parents uploaded videos of their kids’ faces lighting up when the titular sea siren was revealed to be played by Halle Bailey — Disney’s first Black princess since Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog.
These reactions show that representation matters and it’s important for kids to see people from various ethnicities on screen, especially considering earlier Disney films are awash with white characters. In that sense, The Little Mermaid is valuable. And it hints at an encouraging message for young people trying to find their voice and identity. If only the film weren’t largely such a slog through rehashed material.
The basic story remains the same. Ariel is unhappy with her underwater life and longs to connect with humans on land. When she saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, love swirls in the air. But when her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids her from leaving Waterworld, she makes a deal with his sister, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the tentacled sea witch. Ariel trades her voice for a pair of legs in the hopes of earning Eric’s affection. (It’s disturbing that she goes mute to win him over.)
At least when she enters the human world, it’s not a matter of her assimilating to white culture. Although Eric is white, his family is a melting pot. So is hers back down under the sea, as her sisters are of different ethnicities. Why not explore their cultures at least a little bit? Instead, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee blandly recycle elements of the original film.
The remake’s rendition of the classic song, “Under the Sea,” sums up the film. Sure, the computer-generated sea creatures are photorealistic in a way that rivals National Geographic, but the realism comes at the expense of creativity. There’s no carp playing a harp this time around.
Given my lifelong phobia of these satanic creatures, I personally don’t want to watch photorealistic eels swimming around and sparking with electricity, and I’m not sure why anyone else would.
Look, Bailey gives it her all, but she can’t save this film. It’s unfortunately too much of an obvious cash grab. She deserves a better film to showcase her talent. Regarding the other performances, McCarthy is … fine. It’s one of those “look at this star having fun” performances. Bardem brings some emotional depth to King Triton, especially as he begins to embrace Ariel’s desire for a different life.
As Ariel changes her body and her sea family rises to the surface to support her, the film emerges as a timely and touching trans allegory. But it also feels like too little too late.
At two hours and 15 minutes, The Little Mermaid feels overstuffed. (Do we really need a rap for the seagull Scuttle, voiced by Awkwafina, called “The Scuttlebutt?”)
Although it often feels like easy money for Disney, The Little Mermaid was also clearly made with noble intentions. Unfortunately, it ultimately comes up shallow.