This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: The Little Mermaid (2023).
Last Updated: 06.05 AM, May 24, 2023
I remember sitting through Disney's live-action adaptation of The Lion King and thinking: But why? I've never really understood this business of taking old animated classics and turning them into soulless VFX "Look what we can do now!" showcases. It's like storytelling hasn't evolved, so the only thing left is to flaunt the evolution of filmmaking. The novelty of watching those wonderful hand-drawn 'cartoons' was exactly that: The animation. The magic of fantastical worlds and creatures behaving like humans was rooted in the storybook-styled images and free-spirited fairytales.
I don't get the point of making the same stuff look more…real. Doesn't that defeat the purpose? Who is the target audience? Won't kids today have already seen the famous animated versions? Won't the nostalgic 1990s kids prefer those versions, too? At times, I get enraged that film directors just don't know where to draw the line with technology. Just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be done. And if you're going to show off anyway, why not do a James Cameron? Why not create something entirely original so that, for once, the technology is actually the key to the storytelling?
I went through all these strong emotions parading as questions — this endless spiral of rage and resentment — while watching Rob Marshall's The Little Mermaid, the blasphemous and joyless live-action remake of the 1989 musical film. That is, when I wasn't falling asleep during its bloated 135-minute runtime. That is, when I wasn't pondering about whether Javier Bardem — who plays the powerful human-hating King of Atlantica and strict father of Ariel — is going through some quasi-Hollywood Rick-Dalton-esque midlife crisis; this is his second children's musical in quick succession after Lyle Lyle Crocodile, a hybrid movie I loved just as much as Paddington 2.
Let's forget for a second that the original Little Mermaid was perhaps my most favourite childhood movie ever. Let's forget that it still reminds me of those chilly Delhi nights when I'd visit my cousins in their cozy Saket home and slide that VHS cassette into their VCR every night against their wishes. Let's forget that I had a crush on Ariel and swore off fish forever because she was half fish. Let's forget that I looked at every fork as a 'comb for the mouth' after seeing Ariel collect human artifacts from the ocean beds.
Let's forget that the modern makers have gone full-representation on us — I'm all for Ariel (Halle Bailey; a better singer than actress for sure) being a mermaid of colour, but why is Eric, the very white Prince Charming, the stepson of a Black Queen? Why is each daughter of a different ethnicity (Indira? Perla? Karina? Mala? Tamika?)? Let's forget that Sebastian the crab, Scuttle the seagull (or, more accurately, a female diving bird) and Flounder the tropical fish look like dead-action extras from Finding Nemo. Let's forget that underwater looks like a freakishly blue and zero-gravity sky. Let's just forget it all for a second.
I've lost my train of thought. Let's just forget the forgetting. My point is that The Little Mermaid is incredibly unimaginative, stunted and futile in 2023. All that talent — Lin-Manuel Miranda's compositions, Melissa McCarthy hamming it up as the octopus-tentacled sea witch who manipulates Ariel into a weirdly sexual deal, Bardem as the King and Ursula's estranged brother, Awkwafina as the voice of Scuttle, Jacob Trembley as the voice of Flounder, David Magee's screenplay (where's the writing, though?) — adds absolutely nothing to the metaphorical story of a mermaid-man love story. It adds the negative of nothing, if that's possible.
The torrid history between humans and the Atlantica creatures is a footnote. The father-daughter thread is plastic. The scenes are bland and long and awkward, staged as if the makers expect that we already know of Ariel's irrational empathy towards humans. Most of it is staged under the assumption that things like rebellion and love and courage are just words. There's little to no feeling, and genuinely no curiosity about why these characters are so timeless. There's too much reverence to 'update' the creative aspects of the original, too, other than in terms of tokenisms like racial and gender diversity.
If you are somehow one of the eight people in this solar system who hasn't heard of The Little Mermaid (1989), let me quickly walk you through the premise. Better late than never. Ariel, a pretty and spirited mermaid, is one of King Triton's seven daughters. Unlike the others, she doesn't hold a grudge against the human world; she breaks the surface ban to chance upon the sinking ship of Prince Eric, who has the personality of a rich kid masquerading as wannabe explorer. Given that he's the first decent-looking man she's seen, she falls for him while rescuing him from certain death. When he comes around, he is haunted by visions of the mysterious mermaid who saved him.
Ariel pines hard because their worlds are more different than the Montagues and Capulets, and banished sea witch Ursula — who spends the first half of the film yelling at nobody in particular (hey, exposition dumps) — takes advantage of Ariel's emotions. She encourages the mermaid to defy her father and puts forward an elaborate challenge: If a human Ariel, with legs but without her voice (and siren song), convinces Eric to kiss her in three days, then they will be united forever. If she fails to incite that kiss, Ariel will be Ursula's slave forever, which by extension will force the King to relinquish his power to his sister. Oh, also, Ariel remembers nothing of this bet when she's on land in his castle. Her crab, seagull and fish become her cheerleaders and helpers.
The final 'battle' in this film has more cacophony than a Marvel climax. And that's just me being generous. I think the most unforgivable part of this hi-tech live-action remake is that the water is the fakest part of the film. How is that even possible? It's no wonder Ariel is sick of her own world; she wants something more authentic, like, you know, land. I haven't seen a lot of Broadway in my life, but I can bet my memories of Delhi that the air parading as water on the real-world indoor stages looks more convincing than the water in this film. And to think, I didn't even like Avatar: The Way of Water.
Okay, that's enough of H2O for now. This is a slow-motion shipwreck in comparison. I felt like I was drowning in the mediocrity of new-age craft. I felt like I was suffocating in the shamelessness of derivative new-age productions. It's true that I'm upset. But it's also true that The Little Mermaid is as forgettable as an introvert at a speed-dating party. I've seen bathtubs that are more narratively exciting than this film. I may just start eating fish now.