At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Little Mermaid “2023”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Little Mermaid “2023”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Musical Fantasy/Stars: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Jessica Alexander, Art Malik, Martina Laird, Emily Coates, Christopher Fairbank, John Dagleish, Lorena Andrea, Simone Ashley, Kajsa Mohammar, Nathalie Sorrell, Karolina Conchet, Sienna King; Voices of: Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay/Runtime: 135 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by just being completely and utterly honest with you dear reader and letting you know that I was very much unsure at first of what to make of the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today. Not because I didn’t think a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid couldn’t be any good. Far from it actually. Nor for that matter did it have anything to do with the lead actress, a Miss Halle Bailey, that was chosen to play Ariel in said live action adaptation. Indeed, she had definitely shown that she has skill as an up-and-coming actress through work on the hit TV show Grown-ish and plus kudos to her for just wanting to put her own spin on this iconic character. Rather, it’s because Disney, with a few exceptions, just hasn’t really impressed me all that much with their output so far in terms of these live-action remakes that they’ve dished out to movie goers across the planet. To be sure, 2015’s Cinderella was wonderfully done and I LOVE 2016’s take on The Jungle Book. As for the others though especially 2019’s Dumbo and The Lion King, 2020’s Mulan, and last year’s Pinocchio (which I am still recovering from by the way Disney thanks a lot) it just felt like the magic and heart that went into making the original animated films didn’t carry over as well as it should have. Thus this more than slightly comedically grumpy film critic went into this slice of cinema with more than just a wee bit in terms of trepidation about what he was about to witness….but thankfully left the theater about 2 and a half hours later (gotta love those 20 minutes’ worth of previews) more than satisfied. To be sure, this slice of cinema is by no means a perfect film so if you go into this expecting that then you should also expect right now to be disappointed by what you get with this. On the other hand, if you go into this slice of cinema with the expectation that it will have its fair share of flaws, but that the majority of the cast and work behind the camera will help to make up for it then you will find a fair bit to enjoy here. Thus, no the 2023 live action remake of the Little Mermaid is most definitely not as great as its original animated source material in the eyes of this critic, but at the same time it is also more than respectable complete with fairly good work behind the camera, a collection of really good support performances in front of the camera, and a lead performance from Halle Bailey that is dynamite in the best way possible.

The plot is as follows: So I must admit that, seeing as about 99.9% of those who might read this review have seen the original Disney animated Little Mermaid movie at least once in their lives, the idea of me doing a plot synopsis for its live action remake does seem a bit on the silly side. With that in mind though, I will remember that there might not be those who have had the opportunity in the over three decades since the original animated film initially came out to see it (or that other .1%) and just simply go from there. With that in mind, the story of The Little Mermaid takes us under the sea to the magical kingdom of Atlantica. Here we are introduced to a young woman by the name of Ariel. A girl who, besides being the youngest daughter of Atlantica’s firm yet caring and wise ruler King Triton, also happens to be (get this) a mermaid. However, unlike her older sisters and apparently the rest of Atlantica, we see that Ariel isn’t all that satisfied with life under the sea. Rather, she would very much like instead to live her days on land and, if she can help it, in the company of a handsome prince she helped save during a horrific storm one night by the name of Eric. Yet, despite her father’s continual insistence that she have no further contact of any sort with the so-called human world, we see that Ariel is willing to do just about anything to ensure that the opposite occurs instead. It is this degree of desperation incidentally that is what soon puts Ariel in the crosshairs (or would it be tentacles?) of a diabolical and sinister sea witch named Ursula who proceeds to make her an offer. An offer incidentally that will soon see Ariel be given the chance to have what she has long wanted with Eric, but in the process also put her father’s kingdom in the direst peril imaginable. Thus can our heroine, with the aid of her friends Flounder and Scuttle plus her father’s chief advisor Sebastian, fix this grave mistake she has made and get the guy or is all truly lost for both our heroine to say nothing of all of Atlantica? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself…..

Now right off the ol’ fin, I must admit that the work done behind the camera on this slice of cinema is more than just a tad bit on the shaky side. This starts with the fact that, even though this film carries a reputed price tag of 250 million dollars (why it cost this much I have no idea), the vast majority of it doesn’t work in terms of how it looks especially in the moments underwater. I mean what does it say dear reader when the Atlantica levels from the Kingdom Hearts games look more than a tad convincing than this?! To be sure, the fish that don’t talk do appear realistic as do some moments underwater including a scene involving Ariel and a shark. However not only do the speaking sea critters, despite admirable efforts from the vocal cast, look like complete and utter nightmare fodder, but when the various merpeople engage in the simple act of movement underwater the way their hair and bodies move with the “water” doesn’t seem realistic and instead might remind you more of some of Hollywood’s early stabs at engaging in mo cap back in the early 2000s. Worst of all is the effects revolving around the character of Ursula. I mean I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure making Melissa McCarthy’s face look like it was transplanted onto an animated body wasn’t exactly the best creative choice that could have been made here. Fortunately, we see that the film more than makes up for that once the story comes ashore (literally). Indeed not only does film helmer Rob Marshall do a fantastic job of recreating some of the original’s more iconic moments, but we also see that the cinematography department is able to insert some truly beautiful shots into the mix to place our cast of characters into that look less like still shots from a movie and more like portraits you might put over your fireplace or see in an art museum. Of course, perhaps one of the key elements behind the camera that definitely helped to ensure the original slice of cinema has been such an iconic part of so many lives over the years is the fact that it was the blessed recipient of some truly beautifully done songs from iconic composer Alan Menken with such notable examples including “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, and “Kiss the Girl” respectively. Therefore, I guess it should go without saying that one arena behind the camera that this slice of cinema desperately needed to work in was in the music department. Thankfully, I am here to tell you that by and large this slice of cinema is successful in that front as not only are the songs you know and love from the original in this, but the cast all do an amazing job at their renditions of them as well. With that in mind though, there is one caveat to that which I feel I must mention. That being that whilst the songs carried over from the original animated film are still as magical as ever here, this film also brings some new tracks into the mix as well. To be fair, this is hardly surprising since this is a practice which permits the studio behind the film to try and get the movie attention for awards and such. Tragically, we see that the new songs don’t really add anything to the movie in the way that the old ones are still able to do. Indeed not only does Prince Eric’s song “Fathoms Below” feel disjointed, but the less said about “The Scuttlebutt” which is a duet between the characters of Scuttle and Sebastian the better. Yes, in the element of fairness, Alan Menken did work with this film’s composer, one Lin-Manuel Miranda on these new tracks, but they just don’t fit in all that well with the soundtrack that is present in the rest of the film though not for lack of effort.

Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that a review for this live action remake of a timeless classic just wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t talk about the performances in front of the camera as well. In that regard, I guess I should say it now that whilst yes Jodi Benson will always be the OG Ariel for people in my generation, I am fairly impressed with the work done here by Halle Bailey. Indeed not only does she give us a take on the character that respects what came before, but it also manages to be its own delightful interpretation as well. To be sure Bailey is convincing both when showcasing Ariel’s desire to be on land rather than under the sea and especially when she sings in this (I mean her take on Part of Your World definitely left this grown man shedding a tear I’ll say that much). Yet it is in the back half of the film where Bailey’s take on the character becomes something truly special. This is because it can truly be quite the hurdle for any performer, save for Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to showcase who their character is without uttering a word. Yet remarkably Bailey does a phenomenal job at just that and manages to showcase who Ariel is through no more than brilliant usage of both movement and facial expressions in equal measure. As a result, not only does Bailey convey every emotion she is feeling flawlessly, but this in turn allows the audience, alongside co-star Jonah Hauer-King who, as Prince Eric, proves to be a surprise in his own right, to become enchanted by her and the performance she gives here. Besides the wonderful work done by the two new kids on the block, we also get some terrific work from some of the veteran players as well. This starts with Melissa McCarthy who manages to do really freaking good here as the always spine-tingling (yet also delightfully over the top as well) antagonist Ursula. No she doesn’t stray too far, narratively speaking, from what was done with the character already, but why mess with a good thing when you got it?  On the other side of the coin though is Javier Bardem in the role of King Triton and at first I must confess I did have my doubts that he could pull it off. Not because of Bardem’s acting abilities, but because I wasn’t sure he was the right choice for the part. By the end of the movie though, not only does Bardem skillfully showcase Triton’s distinct authoritarian manner, but he also gives this film it’s last pathos-driven moment. A moment that will most assuredly result in more than a few tears all around. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in a pair of fairly good vocal performances from Daveed Diggs and Jacob Tremblay who I felt were really terrific casting choices for the roles of Sebastian and Flounder respectively as well as a live-action turn from Art Grimsby who is brilliant in the role of Eric’s butler/confidant Grimsby to name but a couple one thing becomes clear. That being that there might be issues with the work behind the camera, but the work in front of the camera is more than willing to help make up for it.

All in all and at the end of the day is the 2023 live action take on The Little Mermaid a complete and utter shipwreck? In all honesty that is definitely not the case. At the same time though, would I be willing to watch this over the 1989 animated original any day of the week (excluding Monday of course)? Sadly no, but hey to each their own and all that. Rather, I will say that this slice of cinema is a more than commendable attempt to try and recreate one of the House of Mouse’s most iconic classics that the newest generation of movie goers is sure to enjoy and the older generation is not likely to want to unleash their entire rancorous fury and unbridled hostility at. Suffice it to say that yes the majority of the work by the visual effects department will definitely leave you with more than a few unintentional (I hope) nightmares to be had and yes the new songs that have been added to the soundtrack for this film don’t work as well as I am sure Disney was hoping that they would. With that in mind however, the visuals do improve in the second half, the iconic songs from the original are treated with the respect and dignity that they rightfully deserve, the supporting cast of players in front of the camera all, more or less, manage to do at the least good work with their respective characters, and Miss Halle Bailey in the lead role is no less than a bonafide star in the making and I can’t wait to see where her career goes from here. Thus no the 2023 Little Mermaid is not an instant classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not the poor unfortunate soul that a lot of us, myself included, were afraid that it would be either. Make of that what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Little Mermaid “2023” a solid 3.5 out of 5.