The Little Mermaid – movie review

Inspired by the tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, director Rob Marshall’s (Mary Poppins Returns) take on The Little Mermaid is the story of an outsider who is embraced.

Set in the 1830s in and around the waters of a fictitious Caribbean Island, Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a spirited mermaid with a thirst for adventure.  The youngest child of King Triton (Javier Bardem), who rules the oceans from his underwater kingdom, she is the most defiant of his daughters of the Seven Seas.  Frustrated by her life’s confines, Ariel is fascinated with the world above the surface inhabited by humans. But King Triton has forbidden “merfolk” from interacting with them. Ariel spends her time with her aquatic friend Flounder collecting human artifacts from ship wreckage, which she stores in her secret grotto.

Then, one day, she reaches the point where she simply can’t help herself and disregards her father’s rules. She also ignores pleas from Flounder (the voice of Jacob Tremblay) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), a crustacean and the King’s chief steward. She swims to the surface to discover a ship carrying Prince Eric. As the vessel is battered and destroyed by a fierce storm, Ariel rescues the royal. Eric becomes obsessed with finding his saviour, not knowing it is Ariel.

After discovering that Ariel journeyed to the above world, Triton furiously destroys all human treasures in Ariel’s grotto.  Despondent and more determined than ever, Ariel’s desire to learn more about the human world only intensifies.  Desperate, she makes a deal with Triton’s sister, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a wicked sea witch. Ariel gives up her mermaid gifts in exchange for legs and a chance to experience the human world.  But she must receive true love’s kiss before the end of the third day or she will belong to Ursula for eternity.

The Little Mermaid is beautifully rendered; rich and colourful. Beyond that though, I wasn’t sold. The original 1989 animated dual Oscar winner was 83 minutes long. This was 135 minutes. Why? It felt stretched.

Halle Bailey as the exploratory new Ariel is every bit the “nice” Ariel, while Jonah Hauer-King makes a decent fist of the debonaire Prince Eric. Melissa McCarthy cashes in on her villainous role as Ursula, but I can’t say I really warmed to Javier Bardem as King Triton. The “bit” players or sidekicks – Sebastian, Flounder and the seabird Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) – add much needed humour.

Still, The Little Mermaid felt artificial and forced to me. I didn’t find myself greatly involved or invested in this representation. I wonder who the film is aimed at? If it’s a new generation of youngsters, then why not stick with the tested formula of less-is-more? It’s a massive ask of a pre-teen to sit in a cinema without distraction for two and a quarter hours. If this new live action version is targeted at those that saw the original, then why even try, because you’re likely to fall short … as this does.

Alex First

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