‘The Little Mermaid’ is ‘Avatar’ for fairy tale lovers

CGI is real star of latest life-action remake of Disney classic

The Little Mermaid
Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 135 mins.
When: Fri., May 26
Genre: Drama
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: CGI and pastel-powered art direction raise latest Disney reboot up from the deep.

THE LITTLE MERMAID IS AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER for people who prefer their stories of underwater utopias told as fairy tales rather than science-fiction.

And the crab gets the best songs.

Disney continues to mine its own catalogue, carrying on the uneven transformation of its animated classics into live-action, hit-and-miss remakes. Hit, 101 Dalmatians and Cruella; miss, Aladdin and The Jungle Book.

While the cartoon’s original 1989 release is relatively recent, sensibilities change fast, and many “beloved” Disney flicks are burdened by profoundly outdated qualities when viewed with 21st century sensibilities. The question becomes, what isn’t this remake?

It’s not racist: its managed to have a Caribbean setting and characters without slipping into Jar Jar Binks territory. Sebastian the Caribbean crab is wise, funny and sympathetic. And he does get the best songs. And the “locals” in beach scenes avoid stereotypes. There is even a new BIPOC character, the Queen Mother of the Little Mermaid’s besotted love interest, Prince Eric.

And what about sexism? Well, our mermaid heroine still does give up everything to follow her love interest to the surface, but consent was added to the song Kiss the Girl, which now has the line “Just ask her.”

And what of the songs? As mentioned, the crab rules with Under the Sea even better than the aforementioned Kiss the Girl. In general, the upbeat songs provide director Rob Marshall — who has successfully adapted many musicals to film, including Chicago and Into The Woods — a way to show off the impressive use of CGI to create this film’s undersea utopia. While not quite James Cameron and Avatar level, The Little Mermaid’s underworld CGI is pretty magnificent, better than the recent watery worlds in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Strange World.
The CGI and underworld art direction are true highlights and serve to justify the remake. The pulsating pastels and lugubrious luminescence of the undersea world are a pleasant distraction from some of the blander songs.

There are three new tracks co-written by Lin-Manual Miranda, and two meandering, pointless ballads could easily have been skipped but the rap performed by Awkwafina as Scuttle the seagull is fun.

Halle Bailey as Ariel certainly can sing and is often better than the material while Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is as bland and sexless as most Disney princes. Melissa McCarthy is a sufficiently menacing and malevolent evil octi-Ursula while Javier Bardem’s King Triton seems permanently befuddled by his wavy world.

This is not a movie for little kids; the initial shipwreck scene alone, epic and exciting as it is, would fill tiny tots’ diapers as well as fill the theatre with screams. And the late-film battle scene with Ursula would fit in with the CGI excess of the MCU.

But the generation of Ariels who were named after the Little Mermaid (and perhaps their adolescent children) might find this more modern, less innocent version of the classic tale satisfying.