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Disney’s Gloomy ‘Little Mermaid’ Remake Couldn’t Dull Halle Bailey’s Shine

Unfortunately, as tends to happen when a copy is copied, Disney completely distorted the movie and ‘updated’ the film in dysfunctional ways.

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The release of the live-action “Little Mermaid” completes Disney’s recapitulation of its early ’90s animated renaissance. It’s interesting that of the big four (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King”) it saved the one that started it all for last.

The original animated musical exploded onto the world in 1989, becoming probably the second most important film in the Disney canon. In many ways it accomplished what “Snow White” had done exactly 50 years before, reestablishing Disney as a pioneer of entertainment storytelling, distinctly for families.

Like “Snow White,” part of the incredible success was due to loosely adapting Germanic fairy tales. These stories are broadly well known, so audiences have some idea what they’re getting, but Disney always changes them significantly. Sometimes, as is probably the case with the 1989 “Mermaid,” the changes improve the fairy tale. This actually puts them solidly within the Germanic tradition of fairy tale storytelling, because fairy tales are almost always compiled and edited from older traditions.

This time, though, they adapt themselves more than Hans Christian Andersen. Unfortunately, as tends to happen when a copy is copied, the final image is, to put it mildly, distorted. The 1989 “Mermaid” is an absolute masterpiece of animated and musical storytelling, due in no small part to the genius of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. From start to finish, no moment is wasted, and nothing is dull. It’s a masterclass in how to make a film.

Sadly, the 2023 “Mermaid” is not. The undersea scenes in particular lack vibrance. The original portrayed a colorful fantasy world full of whimsy, while this time around we get the sense that we don’t actually want to be underwater. It’s a dour place, full of darkness. The scene that suffers the most from this is, of course, “Under the Sea,” one of the three central musical numbers from the original.

In the 1989 version, we truly believe that Ariel comes from a sea that is a good and wonder-filled place. Here it feels like Sebastian is trying to pull a fast one, almost needing to trick himself into loving this barren wasteland. The physical staging of the actors within the FX-laden environment feels stilted and awkward as if no one (except Halle Bailey, more on her later) is actually comfortable in his scenes. This becomes particularly noticeable when contrasted with the actors above ground. Those scenes, mostly forming the second half, are easily the best in the film. 

Many of the updated aspects simply don’t work as well as the original. The usually hilarious Awkwafina feels crammed into a cringy part as a now-female Scuttle. The original was, of course, the legendary Buddy Hackett. But the best thing about this film turns out to be what looked to be initially the most controversial.

Halle Bailey as Ariel is absolutely mesmerizing. Every time she’s on screen, any cinematic sins fade away into the background. She’s desperately earnest without ever feeling schmaltzy. There is absolutely no irony or self-awareness in her, and she delivers every line laden with genuine emotion. She completely out-sings the legendary Jodi Benson, who played Ariel in 1989. But because this time out is live-action, Bailey is asked to do a lot more than Benson was, and that’s where the real magic happens.

If you’ve seen the original, you know that Ariel loses her ability to speak and sing in exchange for a human body. The second half of the film has her trying to earn a kiss from the prince to get her voice back and stay a human forever. This is where Bailey truly shines. Despite losing her amazing voice, she still steals every scene, mostly with her eyes. It’s something to behold, and she brings the character of Ariel to a whole new level of emotional depth. By the end, she actually had me in tears. It’s the rare case where an inferior film contains a superior performance that almost makes the rest bearable.

As good as Bailey is, though, she can’t completely overcome the “politics” of her casting. Disney was clearly going for a racially technicolor cast, while also trying to ride the wave of nostalgia from the original film. This means that while Bailey’s performance is superior, her costume design falters, adding to the production design problems from the undersea portions. There’s no way to tell whose fault this was, but Rob Marshall, the director, is ultimately to blame. It should have been obvious from the get-go that the film didn’t work visually. Someone should’ve called James Wan for help: His underwater take from “Aquaman” would’ve fit this film perfectly.

The original Ariel is iconic in part because her color palette is so perfectly in balance. The extreme red of her hair and the bright green make Ariel distinct among the Disney princess canon. Bailey’s singular beauty should have been highlighted and complemented, but they opted for forcing her into the original design. They should’ve started from the ground up and designed a completely new Ariel, one that looks like Bailey does not try to make Bailey look like an animated white girl from 35 years ago. The red hair in particular simply looks bad; it adds to the uncomfortable darkness of the undersea color palette. In my opinion, it would’ve made more sense to go with her natural hair color, which is dark and rich, and complemented that with a purple body instead of the original green.

At the risk of sounding woke, I actually think this highlights just how white (in this case synonymous with metropolitan liberalism) and impractical Disney’s thinking is about almost everything. From a Christian and broadly conservative perspective, the reason racism does so much violence to the image of God in us is that our ethnic differences are valuable and beautiful, not something shameful to be utilized for any evil end, such as slavery or political ideology.

Bailey is black, and her blackness should have been celebrated and highlighted in the design process. The final product leaves her ethnic beauty muted and almost schizophrenic. I’m surprised that this take hasn’t been promoted by corporate media. I think the reason is that regime media worship race politically, and anything that gets racialized in a way they like — for example, replacing a white Disney princess with a black one — can only be celebrated, not criticized. But ironically, what has happened with Bailey’s Ariel smacks of colonialism. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating ethnic diversity; God clearly made us beautifully diverse. But idolizing racial politics leads to ideological blinders.

In the final analysis, what’s most impressive is that Bailey is so overwhelmingly gifted by her Creator with physical beauty, acting talent, and remarkable vocal ability that she can’t be held back by all the film’s problems. Nothing about this film works very well, except for her. Even scene transitions often feel amateurish; punch lines from many of the jokes don’t quite land. Yet there’s Bailey in the center burning like a star in the darkness.       


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