There is an epigraph, at the beginning of The Little Mermaid , which refers to the tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen : “But a mermaid has no tears” reads the introductory sentence, “and therefore suffers much more”.
It goes without saying that Rob Marshall ‘s film is not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale, but a remake of the animated classic that relaunched Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1989 after years of crisis. The tones are substantially the same, and have little to do with that anguished quotation, or with the tragic ending of the original text. Interestingly, however, these remakes often seek to legitimize themselves through a return to literary roots, as if they were more adequate to the standards of live action cinema.The Little Mermaid proceeds in the same vein, and the result does not change: with the partial exclusion ofThe Jungle Book (a film that really tried to change the register), all the remakes aim to reproduce the look of the Disney classics , without major changes in atmosphere .
The language of animated drawings and that of live cinema, however, are not always superimposable, as we have often seen in recent years. Despite the hybridization between real and digital that distinguishes contemporary blockbusters, live action films remain weighed down by an idea of ”likeliness” that animation can safely ignore, even in the way it characterizes the characters. Let’s take the famous “shoulders” of the princess of the moment, which are always animals or anthropomorphic objects: where the drawings guarantee a very strong personality animation, live cinema – while making use of CGI, which is another form of animation – has the obligation to remain credible, anchored to reality. It is also here that the limits of these operations emerge, but it cannot be denied that there is a big difference between The Little Mermaid and The Lion King , just to mention the most sensational case of feral inexpressiveness. The animals here are not the protagonists, but supporting actors: although the realism of Sebastian ( Daveed Diggs ) and Flounder ( Jacob Tremblay ) may not be liked, their role remains subordinate to the human actors, and the shots in full shot during the songs they mitigate the “improbable” effect.
It’s a very trivial speech, but necessary for a film like this. In translating the animated classic into live action, an expert director like Rob Marshall makes very shrewd choices in the construction of the shots, also thanks to the faithful director of photography Dion Beebe , with whom he has worked since his days in Chicago . The backgrounds, for example, are richer in detail, because Marshall knows that the void has a much greater specific weight in live cinema. At the same time, he allows more close-ups of the human characters than in the animated film, to enhance their nuances in speech and musical numbers. The scene where Ursula ( Melissa McCarthy) sings Poor Unfortunate Souls is exemplary in that regard.
In short, the story is what we remember: what changes above all is the way of narrating it. The mermaid Ariel ( Halle Bailey ) is one of the daughters of King Triton ( Javier Bardem ), who rules the seven seas and regards humans as a blight on nature. However, Ariel is fascinated by the surface world, and she spends a lot of time with the little fish Flounder in an underwater cave where she keeps a lot of memorabilia from the mainland. When she rescues Prince Eric ( Jonah Hauer-King ) from a shipwreck, she is captivated, for her young man embodies everything that intrigues her about the world above. A pact with the wickedUrsula , Triton ‘s outcast sister , allows her to become human, but at the terrible cost of losing her voice. Aided by the crab Sebastian , faithful servant of her father, Ariel now has only three days to conquer Eric , and thus avoid the retaliation of the Sea Witch.
In terms of plot, the most significant novelty is represented by Queen Charlotte ( Noma Dumezweni ), the prince’s adoptive mother. However, this is not a whim, nor an expedient to dilute the plot: the addition of Carlotta makes it possible to establish a parallel between Ariel and Eric , both suffocated by overprotective parents who discourage their adventurous impulses ( Eric himself , in fact , is fascinated by the uncharted waters of the seas, like Arielfrom the mainland). Here we confirm a recurring trend in these remakes, which consists in attributing greater depth to characters born to be archetypal, while making explicit what was implied in the original. Compared to an Aladdin , however, The Little Mermaid has the merit of being less didactic, less artificial in the exposition of the dialogues. After all, the symmetry between Ariel and Eric only enriches their relationship, starting a dialogue between their respective dreams, desires, impulses. While they mirror each other, the need for that love becomes more crystalline, because it is rooted in concrete values recognizable by the public.
It is a curious development, child of the times that run. Where Hollywood increasingly tends to infantilize viewers, Disney is well aware that these remakes speak above all to nostalgic adults, and it is to get closer to them that the stories become relatively more complex, the characters more three-dimensional. It is also true that, precisely as a contemporary version of fairy tales, stories like this evolve over time, being influenced by the Zeitgeist in which we live, by current tastes and sensibilities: it is normal for them to change, and for the representation of some characters. Despite the absurd controversy that surrounded her casting, Halle Bailey was simply the best suited to portray Arielin live action, regardless of ethnicity and any accusation of a supposed “forced inclusion”. Just listen to her when she performs Part of Your World to realize it: the young actress sings with her soul in her hands, proves that she believes every single word she says, and puts all of herself into her formidable her voice. Rob Marshall here has the foresight to dwell on Ariel ‘s close-up just enough to undermine our resistance and make us cry, just when we believed that a remake couldn’t give us anything more (or different) than the original.
In this regard, it is clear that Marshall and the screenwriter David Magee tread lightly when dealing with the more problematic aspects of the fairy tale: the pact with Ursula , for example, becomes almost a forcing of the witch, while Ariel proves to be more active and mistress of her destiny in two crucial points of the plot. Even the composer Alan Menken had to intervene on two songs to adapt them to the woke point of view , albeit with imperceptible modifications for anyone who does not remember them by heart. If Kissala ‘s lyrics changed very little, the removal of an entire verse from Poor Unfortunate Soulsdemonstrates how Hollywood doesn’t have much faith in the intelligence of the public: in 1989, no one would have doubted that an antagonist like Ursula could convey negative content in her song, precisely because – as “bad” – even children know that the witch becomes the bearer of controversial values and an unreliable point of view. Now, however, everything must be clean and aseptic, without anything ambiguous.
Fortunately, her wickedness is not justified with some childhood trauma, unlike other similar productions: Ursula is simply a bastard, as it should be in a fairy tale. Melissa McCarthy ‘s over-the-top, vivid performance , however, not only reflects the origins of the character (created from drag queens like Divine ), but counterbalances Javier Bardem ‘s measured performance , instrumental in rendering the emotional nuances of Triton in his relationship with his daughter. The fact that such actors are able to express themselves even under the make-up, costumes and CGI is not at all obvious, and reflects the excellent quality of the casting. Daveed Diggs himselfhe is phenomenal, both spoken and sung.
The efforts to propose a sensible rereading, albeit with the endemic limits of these operations, are therefore very tangible. The three new songs – written by Menken with Lin-Manuel Miranda – are also placed in the right places, ranging from introspection ( Wild Uncharted Waters and For the First Time ) to nice boutade ( Awkwafina ‘s rap The Scuttlebutt ). If The Little Mermaid proves that she knows how to pluck the most sensitive strings, it is also thanks to a reasoned vision of the original, of which she preserves the heart without renouncing to develop the themes, relationships and settings. It’s not Andersen ‘s fairy tale, is not quite the 1989 film, but something partially self-contained that tells its own version of the story.