Live-action remakes. Photorealistic recreations. Call them what you like, but don’t doubt for a second that the recent uptick in these cinematic re-imaginings reflects a thoroughly committed business plan for Disney. And don’t be surprised that they intend to do a lot more of it over the next several years. For almost 30 years now, Disney has mined its animation catalog for opportunities to cash in on the nostalgic affection we have for titles like “101 Dalmatians,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Jungle Book,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and on and on. As long as we keep showing up, they’ll keep doing it.
Out now in theaters, “The Little Mermaid” is the latest Disney cartoon brand to get a live-action makeover. Even if you haven’t seen it yet, you might know about the “controversy” surrounding the choice to cast a person of color in the lead. The only thing I will say here about that is: Dear Internet, please be quiet. Seriously. Shut up. Halle Bailey is an excellent Ariel. She has just the right voice, just the right physical grace, and a highly expressive acting style that works well in a role that requires silence for big stretches of the plot. Her solid performance is one of the film’s best attributes, and she sells the emotional beats of the story in a very genuine way.
The rest of the main cast is solid too. Javier Bardem is appropriately regal as King Triton. Melissa McCarthy does a very good Ursula and the voice acting for Ariel’s CGI companions is effective and funny. The only actor I wish had gotten a little more was Jonah Hauer-King. He plays Eric like a well-meaning but forgettable hunk. There just isn’t much to him. Maybe that’s exactly what he was asked to do, so Ariel could shine brightest, but his limited dimensions were not fair compensation for her narrative sacrifice. Because of that, their romance never really sparks, and surrounding action is perfunctory as a consequence.
Luckily, everyone in this story has a gorgeous world to inhabit. Disney rarely misses when it comes to scene-setting and “The Little Mermaid” is full of glorious color and architectural richness. The underwater world is spare but fetching and the human island above is a place I would happily visit. The shipwreck set-piece, not to mention the boat graveyard we see on the ocean floor, are particularly well done as dramatic offsets to the idyllic nature of Ariel and Eric’s daily realities. My one complaint about the visual style is with the “Kiss the Girl” sequence in the lagoon. It looked a bit like a YMCA pool that was decorated for a prom and it didn’t live up to the rest of the movie’s dazzling eye candy.
Speaking of “Kiss the Girl,” let’s talk about the songs. In addition to fresh versions of the classics like “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea,” three new songs were written by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda for the remake. “For the First Time” is a montage song and it works nicely as Ariel gets used to life on land. “Wild Uncharted Waters” is a power ballad for Eric. It’s fine, but ultimately a little strange contextually since he is so muted as a character. Last is “Scuttlebutt,” a fleet-footed patter number of the sort Miranda is fittingly well known for. People will love it, I’m sure, but I’m starting to wonder if this type of song has reached its sell-by date. After experiencing the entire soundtrack in the theater, I think the old songs hold up well, and they outclass the new ones. That’s true of the entire thing actually. Pound for pound, the original is better.
The biggest question on my mind when I walked out of “The Little Mermaid” was “Did we really need this?” As pleasant as the experience was, I cannot say definitively that we did. I have the same feeling about most of the Disney live-action projects, to be honest. But they make money. I guess I just want them to rehash less and create more. Isn’t that what they do best?