Animated Disney remakes date back to 1994’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. However, the modern cavalcade of live-action editions started with 2014’s Maleficent, reimagining the Sleeping Beauty villain as chaotic good. From there, it was off to the races. The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, over and over and over, the remakes were released with varying degrees of innovation. Now Disney is releasing a remake of the animated classic The Little Mermaid, and unfortunately, there’s nothing in this version that wasn’t already done better in 1989.
The original film had a runtime of 83 minutes, which offered a complete and concise story. However, the 2023 version extends this to 137 minutes in part by adding three new songs and multiple reprises created by original composer Alan Menken and renowned writer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Unfortunately, two new songs, “For the First Time” and “Wild Uncharted Waters,” are forgettable and serve to draw out the film unnecessarily. On the other hand, “Scuttlebutt,” a decisively Lin-Manuel-style song featuring Daveed Diggs as Sebastian and Awkwafina as Scuttle, provides a fun and catchy hip-hop number. Still, its placement in the story is also unnecessary and briefly disrupts the plot’s flow enough to make its presence an annoyance.
The reproduced musical numbers like the iconic “Under The Sea” and “Kiss The Girl” are devoid of the charm that made them such memorable moments in the original film. The songs are still great, but gone is the colorful, cartoonish fun of a group of fish playing instruments and singing along with Sebastian trying to convince Ariel to stay away from the surface. Gone are the sea creatures serenading Ariel and Eric to encourage their first kiss. Instead, those elements are replaced with realistically rendered fish moving slightly along to the beat while never entirely exiting the uncanny underwater valley.
This new film is drenched in cynicism, feeling like a nostalgic cash grab. The characters regularly, awkwardly, recite direct lines of dialogue from the original film. In those moments, the filmmakers appear to want to elicit an audience reaction akin to the meme of Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. “She said the thing,” it seems the filmmakers want us to proclaim excitedly.
This is not to say the performances are bad. They’re not. Halle Bailey plays a very earnest and likable Ariel, and Diggs is memorable as Sebastian. Melissa McCarthy is fine, presenting her best impression of Pat Carroll’s Ursula. Still, none of them bring anything new to the roles besides a decent replication of an already iconic performance.
Watching 2023’s version of The Little Mermaid is like watching a good cover band. The musicians might be playing well, and the instruments are in tune, but at the end of the day, it’s just the same old songs over again with no spark of magic to be found.