“Chicago” director Rob Marshall risks overwhelming audiences with visual effects, but nailing his Disney live-action remake by finding the right actors to reinvent his most famous roles.
Here’s the funny thing about “The Little Mermaid”: Ariel spends most of the movie wishing she were human, wondering what it’s like when she saunters on those…what do you call them? But practically every girl who watches the movie dreams of swimming in reverse — meaning she wants to be mermaids…or be an animated Disney princess. “The seaweed is always greener in someone else’s lake,” the song goes, and the most important thing about remaking this cult favorite for a new generation is to maintain the perception that any of us could be Ariel, when in reality it only takes one talent at A million likes to Halle Bailey for filling in those on-screen flippers.
Every time Disney decides to bring back one of its beloved library titles, a group of skeptics erupt to ask, “Why?” The backlash seemed particularly strong with The Little Mermaid, which wasn’t just an old Disney Toon but kick-started the ’90s animation studio renaissance, launching a string of hits that included “Aladdin,” “The Lion King, and Beauty.” and the Beast, which nearly all received the “live-action” remake treatment (notwithstanding that some of these are as animated as the ones that inspired them – they’re supposed to look like the cartoons came to life).
At least half of Disney’s recent cover releases have been terribly disappointing, turning Americans’ collective childhood landmarks into glowing CG eyes while threatening to taint our memories of the original. Well, good news for “The Little Mermaid”: Halle Bailey is the reason any audience needs a Disney excuse to revisit this classic. Director Rob Marshall found his Ariel, and together they made Bouncer. Just wait until you hear her sing “Part of Your World,” delivered with the conviction of Jennifer Hudson’s career-making rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” A star is born, Marshall seems to permeate our discovery, lays Billy there on a rocky outcrop and crashes a giant wave on her back.
The story you know: Teenage Ariel ignores her father’s orders, explores the forbidden parts of the sea, and is interested in all things human. She keeps a cave full of things that have fallen overboard, even going so far as to save one of these castaways – Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer King) – and swim with him to land. She likes his looks, he’s smitten with her voice, but the two are from different worlds. With a little help (and a Faustian bargain) from octopus-bottomed Aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), she has three days to receive true love’s kiss from Eric, with her soul as collateral and Triton (played by clever choice Javier Bardem) sure to be upset.
There is nothing “little” in Marshall’s “The Little Mermaid.” Running nearly an hour longer than the 1989 toon, it’s a true sea monster of a movie, vastly expanding the worlds above and below the water’s surface in the original Caribbean set, adding songs and characters (e.g., Noma Dumezweni as the Queen) as so much more. From the barnacle to the hull. It also loses some scenes from “The Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons”. Personally, I’m not convinced audiences want all the blockbusters they see to feel bloated, but it certainly comes with territory in this Disney remake. (It was said that this picture cost more than the movie “Titanic”).
Taking a page from “Beauty and the Beast,” one of his “Chicago” collaborators, Bill Condon, Marshall makes the fairy tale unfold in vistas so wide, digitally rendered to within an inch of their lives, that we’re practically drowning in the detail. Ariel’s tail alone—glittering rainbow and free-flowing like the fins of a betta fish—seems to require more computing power than it took Neil Armstrong to reach the Moon. Early teasers shown in the trailers and featured at the Oscars gave the original cause for concern, with the footage looking somewhat garish when taken out of context. Heck, it’s flashy in Context too, but at least there, it seems to be part of Marshall’s ultimate vision.
Through it all, Bailey’s face draws focus from her elaborate contours. She has sparkling Bambi eyes, long butterfly eyelashes, and a radiant princess smile, a strange combination of which suggests a lively cartoon character. While that’s not a prerequisite for these adaptations, it’s a nice contrast to Ariel’s more natural animal companions – tropical flatfish (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), ghost crab Sebastian (David Diggs) and dim-witted Northern Janet (Awkwafina) – who look almost Like the real deal.
Marshall makes the unfortunate decision to apply distracting visual effects to the deep-sea sequences, designed to fool our eyes into believing the actors did their work underwater: flowing CG hair, funny reflections, and a lame filter that looks like “Snorks,” as if everything is being seen through a fishbowl. When the movie works, we don’t even notice it, as does “Under the Sea,” a dizzying sequence of Busby Berkeley-level intricacy that suggests what the live-action “Fantasia” might look like. It’s bold, but not as glamorous as Kiss the Girl, where Marshall simplifies things, so we can follow how Sebastian and company try to bring Eric and Ariel together in this scene.
Eric gets a song for himself with “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which is fine but unnecessary (if anything, Eric’s personality has been scaled back here, making him less of an alpha male hero, so that Ariel can bail him out sometimes). The number sounds markedly different from more traditional ballads along the lines of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, as does the fast-paced, spoken-word new song “The Scuttlebutt,” which finds Awkwafina spitting out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s quick (and very funny) lyrics.
If Bailey was the movie’s big discovery, McCarthy is a no-brainer. The comic star looked like the sister of the evil deity in her glowing green lair, just as delicious as the movie’s deep-sea villain. Her timing is impeccable, and although the part is almost identical to the one Pat Carroll originated from, she goes above and beyond what is required of these difficult adaptations: basically, McCarthy manages to hit every beat Superhero fans have come to expect, while surprising every pause and change. Between Bailey’s wide-eyed hedgehog and McCarthy’s super-eighth hole, the movie comes alive — not in an excited form, like the disastrous Disney re-animated “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio,” but in a way that gives young viewers something magical to identify with, and new mermaid dreams that come to life. aspire to it.
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