Disney’s Live Action Remake of 'The Little Mermaid' is a Sanitized Multicultural Fantasy in Search of a Lot More Soul

A bland, neutered update you're not supposed to criticize, but here we are

click to enlarge Ariel (Halle Bailey) finds a partner in adventure after rescuing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). - COURTESY OF DISNEY. © 2023 DISNEY ENTERPRISES INC.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) finds a partner in adventure after rescuing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).

There’s nothing like watching a live-action remake of a Disney animated movie to remind you how much times have changed.

The Little Mermaid, the Mouse Factory’s latest redo of a beloved cartoon classic, manages to be an even safer update of the G-rated original, which already took Hans Christian Andersen’s sad fairy tale and made it a family-friendly love story by adding some peppy Howard Ashman-Alan Menken tunes and capping it off with a positive outcome.

The 1989 Mermaid is a quietly horny coming-of-age film, with its busty, teenage sea creature getting the itch to be above land, mostly to get closer to the human prince she saved after a shipwreck. She makes a Faustian deal with bitter-ass sea witch Ursula. In exchange for her angelic voice, Ursula slaps some legs on her and tells her she has three days to get a kiss from the dude, or else the mermaid is hers forever.

The remake is more sanitized for your protection, as Ariel (Halle Bailey, the virginal half of the Chloe x Halle twin-sister duo) is portrayed as a rebellious young scamp who just wants to get away from her surroundings and see what the hell is out there. (The live-action Prince Eric, played by Brit Jonah Hauer-King, is more of a kindred spirit than an object of desire, as Ariel eavesdrops on him telling his shipmates that he also wants to explore the world.) Ariel strikes the same deal with Ursula (a slithering, sadly reined-in Melissa McCarthy), but in this telling Ursula wipes her memory of the deal when she gets on land. This makes the courtship of Ariel and Eric seem more like an extended Tinder date, complete with them getting to know each other at a funky island market.

This Mermaid works its ass off at being more inclusive and progressive for today’s audiences. Although the ultimate goal is for our princess to link up with the prince, this version still gives her some good ol’ independent agency. People on social media have already lost their shit about the casting of the cocoa-colored Bailey as Ariel, pissing off those who adored (or even fantasized about) the pale-skinned redhead of the original. Those same people are probably not gonna dig the array of diverse faces that populate this film. Ariel’s king dad is played by that studly Spaniard Javier Bardem, while her fellow sisters (which include Bridgerton/Sex Education castmate Simone Ashley) are a gaggle of gals with different nationalities. It’s also a rainbow coalition above water, as the island is run by a dark-skinned queen (Noma Dumezweni), a.k.a. Eric’s adoptive mother. We also have Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina as, respectively, the crab and the seagull who crack jokes and aid in Ariel’s mission to kiss the boy.

While there is a lot of diversity on screen, there are still a bunch of white guys behind the scenes. Rob Marshall (who previously helmed Mary Poppins Returns and Into the Woods) is once again in charge of another Disney musical fantasy. He uses most of the $250 million budget making the underwater scenes look more convincing than the above-ground scenes, which look like they were shot at an abandoned miniature-golf course. (Just like nearly every studio movie that comes out, this one still suffers visually from looking murky and poorly lit.) He gets Poppins screenwriter David Magee to come up with the dreamy/creamy story and brings back Menken to update some songs and work on new ones with producer Lin-Manuel Miranda (including a rap number Diggs and Awkwafina perform that sounds like something Lil’ Dicky would’ve come up with as a joke).

But since this is a girl-powery flick about a mermaid of color, they couldn’t get Ava DuVernay (has Disney still not forgiven her for the chilly reception to A Wrinkle in Time’s chilly reception?) or The Woman King’s Gina-Prince Bythewood to be in the director’s chair? I feel they could’ve added a bit, shall we say, soul to the proceedings. Despite all the flavors in the cast, the movie is still disappointingly vanilla.

By making The Little Mermaid a multicultural fairytale, Disney is practically ensuring that anyone who talks foul about it is a racist sumabitch. Well, I’m Black, and I still think the film — as proudly all-embracing as it is — is a bland, neutered pat-on-the-back for Disney. The Little Mermaid is basically two hours and 15 minutes (the cartoon ran at a brisk 83 minutes!) of a major media conglomerate assuring the audience they’re not racist.

Hell, they could’ve just saved their money and did what most billion-dollar corporations do: send out a really supportive tweet during Black History Month.

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