Walt Disney Animation Studios has always been known for its animated movies. From their first feature film in 1937 titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2022's Strange World, they deliver a quality product that tends to be enjoyed by the whole family. However, they haven't always been the best and suffered a slump in the 1970s and early 1980s. That all changed when, in 1989, they released an animated, musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale called The Little Mermaid. Breathing new life into the Studio, it became a huge hit with memorable songs and paved the way for a renaissance period for Disney Animation.
Then in 1994, Disney Studios decided to make a live-action film of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). The film was a critical and box office success leading the way to 101 Dalmatians two years later and a live-action Dalmatians sequel four years after that. The next live-action adaptation wouldn't be released until almost 15 years later. Still, it began a steady stream of adaptations that continues this week with the Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) directed feature, The Little Mermaid.
The story hasn't changed - Ariel (Halle Bailey; Grown-ish), the youngest of King Triton's (Javier Bardem; Skyfall) daughters is obsessed with the human world, especially a Prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King; Postcards from London). When the king discovers Ariel has been to the surface and saved Eric's life, he destroys her "trinkets". Angry and hurt, Ariel makes a deal with the Sea Witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy; Bridesmaids), who gives Ariel legs in exchange for her voice. With no way to communicate, Ariel has three days to get Eric to fall in love with her, and kiss her so she can remain human forever.
Since the animated version of the film was so successful, the producers and Marshall had the daunting task of adapting the story and characters to realistic-looking and sounding mermaids (Bailey and Bardem), a crab (David Diggs; Hamilton), a flounder named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay; Wonder) and a bird (Norther Gannet to be exact) named Scuttle (Awkwafina; Crazy Rich Asians). While Bailey has the vocal chops to play Ariel, she tries too hard emotionally with the mermaid's inner struggle. Her acting is actually a little distracting. Conversely, McCarthy is well cast as the scheming, tentacled, sea creature manipulating Ariel in an effort to take over Triton's throne, and her rendition of poor, unfortunate, souls is inspired.
Marshall, known for big, theatrical numbers, brings that same enthusiasm to this project. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. The attention to detail of the flora and fauna on the sea floor is admirable but the graphics aren't strong enough to support such close scrutiny and the plants and creatures look computer generated (because they are). New music from Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda pairs well with the iconic soundtrack and the song performed by Awkwafina and Diggs called The Scuttlebutt, will be a favorite of children for years to come.
Disney Studios is approximately 50/50 for successful live-action remakes of their animated features, with, in my opinion, Beauty and the Beast being the best of them all. Sadly, I don't believe The Little Mermaid will be a checkmark in the "win" column for Disney because, while I don't subscribe to the controversy over Bailey's casting for racial reasons, I don't think she has the acting skills to match her vocals and carry an entire, high profile film. This remake is a swing and a miss and only time will tell if Disney's other live-action projects that are in the works will be successful.