WASHINGTON — It’s not Rob Marshall’s fault that Disney’s latest live-action retread doesn’t really sing. “The Little Mermaid,” a somewhat drab undertaking with sparks of bioluminescence, suffers from the same fundamental issues that plagued “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Halle Bailey might be a lovely presence and possesses a superb voice that is distinctly different from Jodi Benson’s, but photorealistic fins, animals and environments do not make Disney fairy tales more enchanting on their own.
The essential problem is that the live-action films have prioritized nostalgia and familiarity over compelling visual storytelling. They try to recreate beats and shots from their animated predecessors, defiantly ignoring the possibility that certain musical sequences and choices were enchanting and vibrant because they were animated, not in spite of it.
There was, in the 1989 film, a sparkling awe to everything. The underwater castle. The mermaids. Eric’s ship. Even Ariel’s bright red hair. Combined with the wonderful songs and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, it’s not hard to understand why it helped fuel a Disney Animation renaissance.
Anyone who has gone through the recent Disney's live-action library would be right to approach “The Little Mermaid” with caution. Still, there’s excitement as the camera takes us underwater to give us our first glimpse of the mermaids — even after a somewhat ominous quote from Hans Christian Anderson that begins the movie (“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers much more”). You can’t help but be hopeful. But the first mermaid that comes into focus doesn’t so much evoke wonder as it does a flashback of Ben Stiller’s merman in “Zoolander.” The technology is better, sure, but the result is about the same. Worse, as we spend more time with them, following Ariel’s multicultural sisters as they gather around their father King Triton (Javier Bardem), it’s hard to shake a distinctly uncanny valley feeling. It’s like gazing in on a roundtable of AI supermodels with fins.
For all its pizazz, everything about this “Little Mermaid” is just more muted. Miranda's new songs are odd, too, and don't seem to fit. Prince Eric’s (Jonah Hauer-King) makes sense, maybe even Ariel’s in-her-head anthem after she gives her voice to Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula, but did Scuttle really need a song, too?
Speaking of Scuttle, the cute cartoons that stood in for Ariel’s seagull, crab and fish friends have been replaced with horrifyingly accurate depictions of said animals. Awkwafina’s comedy charms can only go so far while looking like an actual seagull who might be after your chips at the beach. Close-ups of its beady blue eyes are unsettling, though it was probably a good call to go blue over gold, which looks a bit demonic even in the cartoon. Sometimes it seems as though the editor is trying to minimize the unpleasantness by quickly cutting away from Scuttle. Flounder (Jacob Tremblay, who also voiced Luca) doesn’t have this problem as much, mainly because once they go out of the water he’s essentially hidden under the surface. Daveed Digg’s Sebastian gets off easy, looking the most pleasantly cartoonish. But then there’s that Jamaican accent that they decided to carry over (and this in a movie that adds a line about consent to “Kiss the Girl”).
Visibility is a problem for more than just Flounder, too. Sometimes “The Little Mermaid’s” underwater sequences just look too underwater. Things are cloudy and dull and hard to see, once again probably in the name of authenticity, but straining to see what Marshall and the scores of VFX teams have labored on for years is not a pleasant experience. This could be a projection issue — I wasn’t in an especially high-tech theater with color enhancing upgrades. But that also means anyone without access to things like Dolby Vision around the world will have this issue, too. When Sebastian brings out the most colorful fish he can find for the “Under the Sea” number, you even start to empathize with Ariel a little bit. It is the exact opposite of the “ Avatar: The Way of Water ” experience.
“The Little Mermaid,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “action/peril, some scary images.” Running time: 135 minutes. Two stars out of four.