Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Part of Our World: Review of The Little Mermaid (2023)

The Kid and I (and friends) saw the live-action The Little Mermaid (TLM) remake opening weekend and I am happy to report that she loved it. I am also happy to report that I enjoyed it (not quite to the point of loving it, but I will explain that). So, ladies and gentleman, I believe we have a hit!

I was thinking that I shouldn't spoil anything with this review, but I also assumed that anyone reading this is someone who has seen the original animated movie enough times to know how it all turns out in the end. (Let's pretend that the other live action telecast exists in an alternative universe.) So, there's no real sense in offering a review without pointing out the major distinctions between the two films; therefore, I will offer a disclaimer instead. If you have not already seen the new movie, come back to this review once you have, okay? Off you go...

Now if you are still with me, then you've seen both movies, so we can talk about what we liked and what we didn't and whether any of that will matter to this new generation of little girls who might be caught singing Part of Your World into a dinglehopper. My guess is that it won't matter because kids like what they like, and what we think is irrelevant (which explains why Bubble Guppies is still on). To be honest, my daughter hasn't seen the original movie as many times as I have, and she has already declared her love for the current film, so there's that.

Prince Eric's Backstory - Definitely a twist on the original, one that makes a lot more sense once you reflect on the absurdity of an orphaned Prince Eric still being referred to as a Prince at the start of the animated movie. We know from watching the British that those titles get upgraded immediately upon the death of the reigning sovereign, so why would the sole heir to the throne of wherever be out seafaring and exploring with no one at home to watch over the affairs of state at the castle? Furthermore, where is home, a question that was never answered in the animated film.

Thus, instead of the old story line of Prince Eric as a Bruce Wayne-bored billionaire heir under the guardianship of Sir Grimsby (or Alfred the butler who is now the Prime Minister), there is a Black Queen Mother and Eric is her adopted son. Which makes this an island kingdom probably somewhere in the Caribbean, and Eric the survivor of a shipwreck who was apparently found as a baby and taken to the castle. Still raises more questions without answers, but now at least there is a living parent to fuss and urge him to get married (like they do in every other fairytale). Since I'm inferring quite a few details here, my guess is that this island kingdom is what came of all those pirates who were gallivanting around with Jack Sparrow once they finally decided to retire. Because this is Disney, they can conveniently omit any references to what was more historically accurate (so no colonialism or slave trading). Instead, everyone is happily living their best lives on one happy island.

The Daughters of Triton - They got rid of the sisters' song from the animated film, but anyone who says with a straight face that they miss it is lying to you. It was never anyone's favorite, wouldn't fit in the new narrative, and I happen to like the new explanation that the daughters represent the seven seas

Evil Auntie Ursula - This movie gave us some familial motivation for the animosity between King Triton and the Sea Witch, not that we've ever needed a backstory for most other Disney villains. I was tempted to compare this to a The Lion King/Hamlet redux, but sibling rivalry is as old as time itself. Therefore, I would be down for a prequel that looks back on how an ambitious and scheming little Sis probably got Mrs. Triton killed by a human, thus setting the stage for a classic revenge showdown.

Javier Bardem seemed like a weird choice for King Triton to me, but he was solid. As for Melissa McCarthy as Ursula--perfection (ditto for Jessica Alexander as Vanessa the voice-stealer)! But the big fight scene was so anti-climatic because it was hard to see the action (one of the drawbacks of the CGI special effects).

The Singing Crab, Stuffed Flounder, and other Scuttlebutt - The CGI did wonders in making us believe that the human characters were actually talking and singing underwater; however, the animation just made the talking animals look weird and seem out of place. Despite the voice talents of Daveed Diggs as Sebastian and Awkwafina as Scuttle (who were perfectly cast, so not up for debate), CGI talking animals only seem to work when we don't expect to see a talking animal, like in a 30-second commercial. Instead of seeming realistic, they just appeared flat or looked like props in extended interactive scenes. Thus, it made sense to nix Les Poissons, sung by the French chef in the animated film, because the CGI just would not have recreated what was so much fun about that scene from the original. Poor Flounder went from being a standout in the animation to the least vibrant fish friend in the entire ocean in this film. I'm not sure why they didn't just pull that classic Jerry tap dancing with Gene Kelly trick because that would have been more believable (that is, if you believe in talking animals).

Some folks on social media were upset that Scuttle was changed into a different species of bird (from a seagull to a Northern gannet) to allow for more underwater interaction with Ariel and the other characters. If the CGI had worked better, that change wouldn't seem that controversial, or maybe it would have made more sense 34 years ago to have chosen a different diving bird (like a pelican). Honestly, why is any of this up for discussion since birds do not talk to people!

Lin-Manuel Miranda - Look, there is no denying that you can always tell when the Kid's Tio Lin-Manuel has been involved with a Disney soundtrack. Without even looking at the song when Disney re-adapts this movie for the stage, I cannot wait to see Awkwafina and Diggs perform The Scuttlebutt live. Thumbs up! 

Because he tends to bring his people along wherever he goes, I hope Miranda puts in a good word for Christopher Jackson to portray King Triton (and maybe find some way to bring on a few other Hamilton alums. Just a thought...)

Once on This Island - I saw that play on Broadway back in 2018 (on my first and only Busy Black Momcation), and darn if I didn't immediately think while I was watching TLM that I have seen some of this before. Hmm...and honestly, it connected once I was reminded that the play was inspired by the fairytale (and is reported to receive its own film adaptation for Disney +).

You've also seen the same kind of diverse casting in other productions such as Cinderella (1997), Descendants (2015), and Z-O-M-B-I-E-S (2018) --that is, if you have a child around the same age as mine and there was a chunk of your life when all they ever wanted to watch were Disney musicals. 

What's the Matter with Kids Today? - No surprise that just like in the animated movie, Ariel gets so obsessed with the human world and Prince Eric that she disobeys her father and jeopardizes the ocean and the humans to get what she wants. And she realizes too late that her father's love for her transcends everything, even his own life. Having seen all of those themes (and critiqued them) in the original movie, all of that hits different when seated next to your own headstrong 8 year-old daughter. Y'all, my eyes got a little itchy.

Perhaps this is the most valuable aspect of the remake for me because it breaks the trance of getting so caught up in the nostalgia without paying closer attention to the story. That animated movie is TLM of my youth, released when I was teenager just a few months before I left the nest for college. This film will be TLM for my daughter and the children of her generation. Thus, to all of the parents and purists who claim to have so many precious memories of the original movie, snap out of it! If you're more upset by what changed than taking note of the real message in this story, then you missed the point. Our kids are going to grow up, they are going to have to make their own choices, and while we might not like those choices, we have to let them be free. And that sentiment is true whether uttered by an animated Jamaican nanny crab, or the CGI version.

A Star is Born - Halle Bailey is phenomenal! I really don't need to say much more about her performance because that is all that needs to be said. Baby girl is a STAR! I caught that sweet symbolic nod from Jodi Benson in the marketplace scene (which has happened in several other films where the originator passes the torch to a younger actress), so there you have it. I refuse to respond to any haters, so anybody who gets on Blue Ivy's internet to suggest otherwise is truly a poor unfortunate soul.

The other star of this film, hands down, is John Hauer-King as Prince Eric. Y'all, we need to admit that Disney has been churning out the same bland guy as the love interests for their heroines, so it is about damn time we got the real deal! The original Prince Eric was meh (his dog Max was more interesting), the Beast was more compelling before he became human again, and Prince Naveen was more charismatic as a frog. Bad boys Aladdin and Flynn Rider were fun, but the other stories that were centered around male leads (such as Tarzan and Hercules) were not as good as the Princess stories which is why the marketing and branding campaigns were built around the ladies. This Eric holds his own, sings his song, and doesn't fade into scenery. And the chemistry between Hauer-King and Bailey is fire!

The Magic Kingdom vs. The Real World - As I stated at the outset, I really enjoyed this film. I can't say that I loved it, not because it fell short of any expectations I had; however, as I alluded to a few paragraphs up, this story hits a lot differently at my age now. This adaptation remained pretty faithful to the animated movie, and depending on one's perspective, that wasn't necessarily an all-good or all-bad thing. Sixteen year old me (same age as Ariel in the film) probably thought it was pretty badass to be so impulsive and determined to make such a sacrifice for love...Busy Black middle-aged Mama me would have needed to weigh her options. 

Which weren't presented to us in the Disney adaptation because they ditched so much of the source material. Ariel was the youngest of six girls (seven in the Disney version), so surely more than one of her sisters must have felt a similar longing to explore the human realm. According to the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, mermaids were granted that privilege once a year upon reaching the age of fifteen, but we don't get any indication if that tradition still was followed or if there was a reason why Ariel was explicitly forbidden to even discuss it with her father. Once you've committed to making a 2-hour live action movie from an 83-minute animated film, I'd say that you had more than enough time to offer a better justification for Triton's refusal to even discuss his daughter's curiosity. 

And that was something else that concerned me now as a parent looking back--King Triton's refusal or inability to communicate with Ariel about her feelings. It wasn't just her father, because NO ONE in her family took the time to talk to this girl or paid much attention to her until she had no voice. Imagine having older sisters and not being able to confide in any of them. Her mother was dead, her father couldn't relate, we didn't meet any other merlfriends, so her companions and confidants were animals: the meddling Nanny crab, a pet fish, and a clueless bird. The only adult who responded to what Ariel wanted was her predacious Aunt Ursula.

That definitely triggered some adolescent memories of feeling unseen and unheard until I made some regrettable mistakes. And I could not help but to think that as we are caught up in this crazy culture war wherein the Governor of Florida has characterized the Walt Disney Company as an enemy of decency that sexualizes children, some of y'all aren't going to wake up until it is too late to save your children (or this country). So caught up in pronouns, rainbows, who uses which bathrooms in public spaces, Second Amendment rights, and the politics of diverse casting...

To See or Not to Sea? - (Yep, I love language puns), but in case I haven't made myself clear, YES! 

Go see it, dress up like mermaids, buy more dolls, sign your babies up for swimming lessons, re-watch the original, go spend a fortune at Disneyworld (or Disneyland if you are boycotting Florida), and if you have a kid older than 12 make sure they see Splash (1984) so that they know that there are alternative happy endings for humans and merpeople. For good measure, also be sure to put the original short story on the summer reading list. Take them to the library to learn more about mermaids from other cultures, such as the water spirit Mami Wata and the legend of Thessaloniki so that they can offer a response to any foolishness that mermaids only come from one mythological source. It was kind of cheeky to have this trailer for Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken (June 2023) air during the previews to TLM, so once again, Dreamworks is trolling Disney like they did with Shrek (and I'm here for it, so take your kids to see that one too). Most importantly, make time to talk to and listen to your budding pre-teens or teenage children, because before you know it, one day you won't be able to nail their fins down--you'll have to let go.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.