In the Rob Marshall-directed version of the animated Disney classic The Little Mermaid — a culturally, critically and commercially significant piece of film history — the crime of the century is not its hotly debated decisions of racial inclusivity. Rather the real issue is the corporate appropriation of a well-told story.

The original fairytale from Hans Christian Andersen is a depressing tale of a mermaid that falls in love with a human. Its 1989 animated adaptation, by writers-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, distanced itself from the gloom by transforming the fable into a cheery musical of epic proportions, with themes of love, liberation and women’s empowerment, and an immortal soundtrack by Alen Menken and Howard Ashman.

The film spoke fluently to kids and adults alike for decades, and ushered in what is historically categorised as the age of Disney’s Renaissance.

It has been 34 years since The Little Mermaid first splashed on to screens, yet the animated film hasn’t aged a day. Marshall’s version — largely rewritten by David Magee to appear as if it’s not rewritten at all — seems haggard in comparison. The new version lacks a crucial element that made the original work: movie magic.

Rob Marshall’s version of The Little Mermaid seems haggard in comparison to the original Disney classic

Marshall’s film lacks two crucial ingredients any film requires: a sense of wonderment and sincerity.

This live-action film feels less like an adaptation and more like an appropriation of a screenplay that made all the right choices. It is a bad copy that sticks to the original’s scenes with sacrosanct zeal, but utterly lacks the tone or the emotion that made the animated film work.

Throughout the 135-minute runtime of the film (the animated one has a far more effective and tighter runtime of 83 minutes), two idioms about not fixing things that aren’t broken, and too many cooks spoiling the broth, repeatedly come to mind.

Although the original was also very much a product of corporate decisions, those choices didn’t doom the ambience of the narrative. The film that is playing in cinemas right now, however, reeks of scared timidness; at times one feels that the narrative is self-questioning the creative decisions that the makers are staunchly sticking with.

The first off-putting aspect is the visuals of the film. Cinematographer Dion Beebe’s frames and angles are far inferior to the hand-drawn frames of the original.

When one pairs average cinematography with the decision to change the character’s designs and body movement from cartoony to realistic, the result is painful both to the eyes and to the mind.

The thing is, one can’t even close their eyes, because the voice-acting is just as ineffective.

Of the principal set of characters, pale imitations of Sebastian, the loyal sea crab, and the dimwitted seagull Scuttle, come from Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina. Flounder, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, fares a bit better but is relegated to the backseat. Although Sebastian and Scuttle have more dialogues and scenes — the two even have an original moment in the form of a rap song — they seem just as invisible.

Apart from these three characters, no fish or urchin speaks. In the limp version of the hit song Under the Sea, the fish swim around with dead expressions, paying almost no heed to Sebastian’s crooning, until the song reaches its big finish.

The magic, as I said earlier, is nowhere; be it under the sea, on the ground or in the narrative. The Little Mermaid, as one can guess, is weighed down by political correctness and forced diversity.

The bid to diversify the cast with racial inclusivity, and then adding dialogues that legitime said choices, bring an overly defensive feel to the film, which sticks out like a sore thumb. While Ariel’s change of ethnicity has been debated to death — the titular character played by Halle Bailey was once Caucasian and is now Black — the buck doesn’t stop here.

Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, unexpectedly good, but still white) is now an adopted son of Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), the ruler of the Caribbean port-side kingdom, where white skin is in the minority. His aide, Prime Minister Grimsby, once also white, is now, for some inexplicable reason, of British-Indian origin (he is played by Art Malik).

The need to diversify isn’t limited to above-sea-level characters either: Triton (Javier Bardem, acting hard as if he’s trying to nab an Oscar nomination) has seven daughters from every corner of the world. While they collectively bring every colour of skin to the family, one doesn’t see these characters play any part in the expanded running time. These decisions truly make the notion of inclusivity seem skin-deep.

The longer running time doesn’t help grow characters either. Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) is now Triton’s sister, and that, according to the screenplay, makes her reasoning for being evil more fitting.

The acting and tonality of performance by the entire cast feels crude and forced. Actors miss emphasis on dialogues and songs, lessening the impact and effectiveness of those key moments. One is bound to wonder if the actors are trying hard to be different, or not trying at all. Granted that The Little Mermaid is largely dismissible, two small moments in the form of two brief new scenes bring a radical new thought to mind: would it not have been better if this adaptation was remade from the ground up?

Clements and Musker managed to change the Hans Christian Andersen fable into a classic, contemporary children’s story three decades back, so it’s not impossible. A fresh story, with perhaps the same songs, could lessen the impact of the crude decisions that hamper today’s films.

I don’t know if that would bring back the lost magic movies once had but, at least, it would not smudge the legacy of the original.

Released by HKC in Pakistan, The Little Mermaid is rated PG-13. I could tell you that its cartoony-fun, but it’s not

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 11th, 2023

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