“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” The line springs from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and it also graces the opening moments of Disney’s latest feature-length spin on that immortal fairy tale. Arriving amid mighty cascading walls of water and a few notes from Alan Menken’s justly beloved, mildly refurbished score, the quote is a classy if disingenuous flourish.
Much like the studio’s 1989 hand-drawn touchstone, this ostensibly live-action but heavily digitized redo takes a famously tragic story and spins it into a drama of reckless teenage empowerment, populated by colorful under-the-sea critters and set to a rousing calypso beat. It has, in short, almost nothing to do with Hans Christian Andersen, and even less to do with suffering.
Unless, that is, you’re easily tormented by the sights and sounds of a peerless animated classic being padded, mimicked and CGI-fortified into a half-diverting, half-dispiriting retread of itself. Still, insofar as the animated “Little Mermaid” is easily the best movie to emerge from Disney’s late 20th century renaissance (bite me, “Beauty and the Beast” stans), this do-over is not entirely devoid of charm or amusement, including the unintentional kind. A mermaid may have no tears, but I did shed a few laughing whenever a breastplated, fish-tailed Javier Bardem showed up, solemnly peering out from behind a fake-looking curtain of hair and doing his best helicopter-dad grimace.
Bardem plays King Triton, though with his sternness of mien and delivery, he can’t help but channel one of his most famous roles: Call it “No Country for Old Mermen,” with a magical trident in lieu of a cattle gun. Triton is a wise ocean ruler, though he gets along less than swimmingly with Ariel (Halle Bailey), the most adventurous and impetuous of his teenage daughters. To her father’s chagrin, Ariel is obsessed with the human world, all the more so because access to that world is strictly forbidden to her and other merfolk. “I wanna be where the people are,” she sings in her secret grotto, where she keeps a small museum’s worth of human artifacts salvaged from nearby shipwrecks.
That tune, “Part of Your World,” remains one of the glorious highlights of Menken’s song score and — along with the equally singable “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl” — a testament to the enduring brilliance of the late lyricist Howard Ashman. It also serves as the first real test of this movie’s mettle, and especially of Bailey’s performance in the title role. Perched on the ocean floor, her long green tail shimmering and her long rust-red hair flowing out behind her, this Ariel is a familiar but luminous vision — defiantly pro-human as ever, yet also a gentler kind of rebel spirit than her animated predecessor. Crucially, too, Bailey has the set of pipes that every Ariel needs and a gift for modulating her emotions through music, shifting from a rich, confident vibrato one moment to a hesitant quaver the next.
If Bailey is less expressive in her non-singing moments — a flaw built into the story itself, once Ariel is magically divested of her voice — she nonetheless makes an empathetic, eminently see-worthy heroine. Not everyone will agree, which is fine. Ridiculously, some chose to disagree from the moment they heard a Black actor would be playing a character originally conceived as white — a choice that naturally affronted a lot of racists (or, as they’d surely like to think of themselves, purists). The dispiriting torrent of abuse directed at Bailey’s casting has revealed a lot about how rigidly (and yet so selectively!) protective some fans can get about their precious childhood totems. Speaking as someone with no small attachment to “The Little Mermaid” himself, I’m mystified anyone would be more appalled by the idea of a Black mermaid than, say, the complete omission of Chef Louis and “Les Poissons.” Now there’s an outrage.
Otherwise, for the most part, this “Little Mermaid” flows as you’d expect it to — though, at north of two hours (compared with the original’s 83 minutes), it flows a good deal more slowly. Ariel’s anthropological interest in humans morphs into full-blown romantic longing once she lays eyes on the hunky Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, dashing yet drippy) and rescues him when his ship capsizes in a storm. From there, it doesn’t take long for her to tumble into a trap laid by Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the many-tentacled sea witch who puts the poulpe in this fiction. Ursula transforms Ariel into a human, but only for three days (with an option to extend if Eric smooches her), and minus her voice. This bargain, if that’s the word, comes straight from the original movie, though by now it sounds like a challenge straight out of reality TV.
Funnily enough, McCarthy’s Ursula has been robbed of some of her own voice, and not just because her high vocal pitch is a far cry from the great Pat Carroll’s deep, insinuating contralto. “Yes on land, it’s much preferred / for ladies not to say a word,” Ursula once sang in “Poor Unfortunate Souls” — a passage that’s been excised here, likely in response to the ludicrous concern that kids might be swayed by a villain’s anti-feminist rant. That excess of caution is also apparent in the more timid, buttoned-up way McCarthy’s Ursula has been visualized: She’s a far cry from Ursula the memorably Divine-inspired queer icon, with her full red lips, heaving breasts and air of vampily seductive menace.
The problem, to be sure, isn’t that the director Rob Marshall and the screenwriter David Magee (who last collaborated on the misbegotten “Mary Poppins Returns”) have deviated too much from a sacred text. On the contrary, it’s that they haven’t deviated from it nearly enough. What’s on-screen too often feels like wan, second-rate imitation, and the few differences seem motivated less by a spirit of imagination than one of joyless anxiety.
Here and there Magee does attempt something narratively novel, as when he hints at a long history of aggression between Triton’s merpeople and their human adversaries — an underdeveloped thread that nonetheless hints at a deeper mythology. He’s also tried to make Ariel a tougher, more confrontational heroine, and to give Eric a more vulnerable, full-bodied character arc. (To that end, the prince is given a new song, written by Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose title and tune I can’t remember; you won’t, either.) For all that, there’s a genuine warmth and freshness to the moments when Eric begins to fall for the human Ariel, including a charming new scene in which they pore over books and maps in his personal library.
This “Little Mermaid” could afford to take more such liberties. I’d suggest a few brutal ones myself: For starters, cut out or kill off Sebastian the worrywart crab (Daveed Diggs) and Flounder the friendly flatfish (Jacob Tremblay), two visually unappealing reminders that some things — some gloriously cartoonish things — simply don’t translate well into creepily dead-eyed photorealist form. (Exhibit A: the entire cast of 2019′s pointless remake of “The Lion King.”) Awkwafina can stay on as Scuttle the endearingly bird-brained seagull, though her annoying rap number should probably sleep with the CGI fishes.
Marshall has never been a great musical stylist; even “Chicago,” his Oscar-winning debut feature, was a chopped-up eyesore, and his “Into the Woods” was so murky in parts it may as well have been shot under the sea itself. “The Little Mermaid,” as filmed by Marshall’s regular cinematographer, Dion Beebe, has its visually garish moments, most of them in an underwater kingdom that looks like especially thin soup next to the recent “Avatar: The Way of Water.” But down in the depths it does find stray passages of beauty — in the fabric-like plumage of the mermaids’ tails and especially in the pull-out-the-stops staging of “Under the Sea,” still the movie’s most rousing number. Presented as a coral-reef explosion of color and aquatic wildlife that almost approaches the original’s surreal, kaleidoscopic grandeur, it’s a bouillabaisse that Busby Berkeley would be proud of.