Much has already been written about the current state of play at Disney and the shaky ground that may see them pull back on some of their content, particularly on their Disney+ platform, but for better or worse their continued focus on reviving their animated classics with live-action remakes shows no signs of slowing down. And why would they? Thus far, they have grossed over $8billion worldwide (jumping to $9.4billion if you include their early 101 Dalmatians remake and its sequel) with four of those efforts – Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin – all passing the $1billion mark at the global box office. It’s a truck that keeps on rolling but many fans, and, indeed, audiences are wondering whether they need to slow down just a little, particularly in light of the news that Moana, Lilo and Stitch, and The Aristocats are on the horizon.
The question remains: do these remakes/re-imaginings/re-jigs, whatever you want to label them, actually feel worthwhile? In the case of The Little Mermaid, the latest off the assembly line of old classics given a 21st-century make-over, but it’s not for the want of trying. You know the tale – Ariel (Halle Bailey) is fascinated by the human world which lies just above the surface of her watery world. Forbidden by her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) to mess or interfere with life up there, or indeed explore it, she feeds her interest by collecting items from various sunken ships or artefacts lost at sea. One day, however, she helps Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a ship-wreck which only solidifies her desperation to explore up above and, sensing an opportunity to return from the darkness, evil sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) offers her a trade: her beautiful voice for human legs and the ability to be part of their world.
There’s already been plenty of chatter about the film before its even hit cinemas – from the casting of Bailey in the lead role, the lyric changes of Kiss The Girl and the original’s depictions of consent and empowerment to more recent claims of digs at a particular Royal Family member – and it’s already provoked much debate, but, aside from that, is it any good? The original, which helped usher in a “new beginning” for Disney after years of disappointments and failures, is one of the true studio classics in many people’s minds, so why mess with it? Sadly, as much as the film may work as animation, it’s a jarring, emotionless journey as a live-action extravaganza despite the best intentions of its, on paper, winning cast and excellent filmmakers. Rob Marshall, now on his fourth Disney film after Mary Poppins Returns, Into The Woods, and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, is well-versed in such endeavours but here he struggles to bring any energy, life, or charisma to proceedings: even the visual prowess at everyone’s disposal feeling decidedly dull and lifeless with the under-water sequences doing nothing for the imagination bar feeling distracting and odd.
The songs, of course, still maintain their power and the cast on paper is winning enough but they all struggle to make any real impact, hindered by the vacuous visuals and lack of true magic. McCarthy, as Ursula, does her best to re-vitalise it all but, with the limited screen time of the character, still doesn’t get to shine as brightly as she usually does, while Bardem, a consummate performer, seems decidedly uninterested and it’s left to Daveed Diggs to save what’s left with a splendid turn as Sebastian. As for its leads, well Bailey can certainly hold her head high as she performs admirably as Ariel (her voice is truly stunning belting out the classic songs) but Hauer-King struggles under the burden of such a one-dimensional character, and their on-screen romance falls flat almost immediately.
All in all, the film is the quintessential definition of both disappointment and pointless, and if nothing else, solidifies David Lowery’s re-imagining of Pete’s Dragon as the reigning champ of Disney remakes with no sign of it being beaten anytime soon.
Action, Adventure, Comedy | Walt Disney Studios | PG | In cinemas May 26th | Dir: Rob Marshall | Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, Javier Bardem