written by Dr. Leo Genco
Some treasures are best left under the sea. This familiar Disney formula is only good for one thing: lining the coffers. The Little Mermaid has wonderful, bright, appealing visuals with a few new decent songs, that prove Disney is unable to capture the magic of their 2D animated films. This is unfortunate, because under the sea of this movie is the potential for a great innovative rendition of The Little Mermaid. Why? Well, Disney attempted to provide a newer telling of the original while pandering to the original material. This creates a dichotomy of moral themes in the movie, and it shows. There is a lot to unpack. If you want to skip to what the movie does right, you can skip to the end.
Let’s get the most obvious issues out the way, since they were consistently topics of discussion prior to the film’s release: race, ethnicity, and gender swapping of characters. These changes are typically common to improve diversity, and it can be done. You can look at Nick Fury in the Marvel Comics, or John Stewart as the Green Lantern in the DC Comics. One of the best race change movies is the Preacher’s Wife. The issue with the change here is how the director and writers tried to justify the change. Instead of changing the race of a whole group to maintain consistency, only individuals are changed and are rationalized through a simple bit of dialogue exhibition. Most of the human characters are an eclectic group of non-white ethnicities and races but Prince Eric is still white! The story justifies these differences by changing the location of the kingdom and having the queen adopt Eric into the family. The kingdom is not a port for the mainland but on an island, somewhere in the Americas, and this causes massive changes in the story. The whole scene with the chef and Sebastian was removed. Someone will wonder if the scene was cut because the chef was French. The essence of the original was stripped to justify the demographic changes, which would not be a problem if the movie did not pander to the original material.
The singing varies between songs and actors. The cast of a mix between stage and film actors would do that, but the main problem is how the songs were constructed. For some reason, the director added more characters into the script, but they did not contribute to the songs at all. It is very common in musicals to have the background and side characters sing the chorus and harmony for the lead singer. But this is not true for The Little Mermaid. People are expecting a chorus for Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. This is not coming from a nostalgia perspective of the original songs. Under the Sea is a song about the sea living as a musical band of species. The dialogue before Kiss the Girl called for the various sounds of nature. For both songs we are expecting a strong sound, especially when the chorus hits. Sadly, both songs are reduced to two or three singers max and are sung as a solo piece for the majority. Overall, songs match the deaf tone of the movie.
While the animation of the under the sea creatures on par with the Lion King (take that as you will), I am not talking about the animals but the human actors who had little to not animated faces throughout their dialogue. Only three characters were animated, Queen Selina, Grimsby, and Ursula. When I say animated, I mean that their facial expression, voice, and body language spoke. Everyone seemed stiff, which is weird because Halle Bailey is a stage actor. You would think Ariel would have the most body expression because she can’t talk for half the movie. Ariel needs to be animated the most. Arial did not seem to be a curious, explorative person, but a blank manikin until a scene which required an over-the-top reaction. Luckily, this was not consistent throughout the movie. As I will mention later, the acting in the new scenes was great.
For some movie goers, background context to main characters is essential. I, on the other hand, prefer context to characters that is required to understand the journey of the main character. This means, that background context should progress information for the main character, not for the audience. The early introduction to multiple character’s background hurt the movie in two ways: (1) these small scenes for a backstory break up the pacing of the storytelling, creating jarring transitions between scenes, and (2) too many themes or messages were introduced into the film too fast. When you introduce a backstory, you need to follow through and close that story, and when you give too much information at once, people tend to forget or care about the small stories. On top of that, the movie told Ursula’s backstory but did not provide a satisfying delivery of her end. Overall, the introduction of the characters with backstory was not the best way to start the movie.
Two things carried the movie for me, the new scenes and songs and the queen and Grimsby. Adding new scenes and songs felt real. The acting in the scenes felt genuine, minus the random dancing scene halfway through the movie. These scenes had fresh magic Disney needed, but again, the director pandered to the original movie, and this created a lot of disconnect. The problem when recreating 2D animation as a real-life movie is the expression that comes from drawn imagery. This is why the drawings of human movement are different from how humans move. It allows the animator to create expressions you are physically unable to express but want to. The new scenes of the movie did not have a previous expectation of certain expressions. I believe this element allowed the actors more freedom to act.
God bless queen! Out of all the characters, the two actors who were able to pull it off throughout the whole movie was the queen and her trusty councilman, Grimsby. They were amazing. They had facial and body expressions. I had chills when the queen was on screen. Grimsby was played perfectly and became that comedy relief when the gender swapped bird, Scuttle, failed. I loved these characters, and I enjoyed every minute of screen time with them. While I would put Ursula in this category, her character was written incorrectly. While she was played very well, her lines were the least to be desired. She was written more as a grown woman who throws temper tantrums like a child than the cunning slimy sea witch, she was in the original 1991 movie. So, the queen and Grimsby saved the movie, at least for me.
Dr. Genco is a guest contributor and fellow university colleague. Follow him on Instagram at Leo.Genco.