On May 26th, Disney released The Little Mermaid, the next in the slew of live-action remakes of animated classics. After leaving the screening of the film my friend texted me asking how it was, I responded: “It’s not great in the spectrum of normal film but in terms of Disney live action remakes its good. U get me?” She responded seconds later with an “I understand. Completely.”
The Little Mermaid boasts in colourful visuals and exciting renditions of beloved hits. Furthermore, Halle Bailey’s performance is a genuine star-making turn, she knows how to manoeuvre the planes of her face to draw in expectant audiences, breathing new life into familiar moments. But there is always a sense that these moments are succeeding in spite of the film’s content and context rather than because of it. Even in best moments of The Little Mermaid, there is a creative vacuum that leaves the viewers feeling that they would rather be watching a story with a more original conceit, filtered through an original lens.
Personal nostalgia, for individual experiences you once felt intimately, can be a motivating force that encourages you to engage with something from your past. But nostalgia is also an inherently selfish experience, subjecting people to your own history, locking people in your personal haunted house. Unfortunately, its shallowness is synonymous with a kind of sellable clarity, people easily buy into this marketable nostalgia even if the actual quality of said offering is lacking. It is no wonder that the WGA has been forced to strike. As they try to ensure creatives are fairly compensated for their work, studio heads at places like Disney are investing in their pre-existing material, ignoring any and all requests for fair contracts from people who need them most.
The Little Mermaid shouldn’t bear the brunt of our frustration at corporate machinations, as we have already described the film is laden with these moments of real artistry, but there is a certain detail I can’t shake. In the original film, ‘Under The Sea’ illuminates the vibrant oceanic dance which had previously only been glimpsed in the background. While the live-action version similarly showcases this world, this rendition of the song only features the voices of Daveed Diggs (as Sebastian) and Halle Bailey. Without the background voices alleviating the song there is an unnerving grounded-ness to the song, unwittingly defeating the liveliness of the song’s purpose.
Why weren’t more voices included in this version of the song? Where was the “hot crustacean band”? Not there! Likely due to the cost of paying VFX artists to design a host of singing undersea creatures, the cost of hiring a choir of singers and the cost of mixing them together. That is just an outsider’s assessment with no connection to the production. But regardless of the reason it is a decision that fails to pay off; Ariel’s world in the live-action version is one that isolates her, rather than contextualises her, giving her character weight and meaning.
As creatives it is important to consider the art we consume, and how do we invest in building a creative future that invites more voices into the mix rather than inexplicably, unceremoniously cutting them out (in this case literally.) The answer is not to necessarily avoid watching The Little Mermaid or future live-action remakes, rather it is to seek out smaller projects, ones that will celebrate and reward a medley of different outlooks. Corporations stand to grow richer, and no doubt Disney will gradually reconfigure all their delicately articulated animation into CGI shapes that fall into the uncanny valley, but there are other storytellers, writing new and exciting films ready to be embraced by an audience hungry for newness. Maybe you are one of these creatives! If so, invest in the future of your medium…and in doing so maybe avoid having to bear witness to this new, beady-eyed Flounder.