Disney has made billions remaking its classic animated films into live-action versions sanitized so as not to offend modern cultural sensibilities, and by the initial accounts, “The Little Mermaid” is no different.
The much-anticipated remake, which premiered Friday to mixed critical reviews, features a boatload of tweaks to the plot and lyrics intended to bring the 1989 original in line with contemporary social mores.
Scuttle the boy seagull is now Scuttle the female gannet. Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, is Black and hails from a mixed-race family of mermaids and mermen. King Triton checks the environmental box by denouncing humans for polluting the ocean.
Melissa McCarthy, who plays Ursula the sea witch in the remake, told Deadline earlier this month that her performance was modeled — as the original animated character was — on the late drag queen celebrity Divine.
“I just hope to do every incredible drag queen proud,” Ms. McCarthy said.
Then there are the revisions to the songs, always a touchy subject for Disney purists. “Kiss the Girl,” sung by Sebastian the crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs), now includes a line making it clear that Prince Eric needs to obtain Ariel’s affirmative consent before giving her a smooch.
The 1989 version: “Possible she want you too/There is one way to ask her/It don’t take a word, not a single word/Go on and kiss the girl.” The 2023 version: “Possible she want you, too/Use your words, boy, and ask her.”
Songwriter Alan Menken acknowledged the updates. “There are some lyric changes in ‘Kiss the Girl’ because people have gotten very sensitive about the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel],” he told Vanity Fair in a March 31 interview.
Such comments have had conservatives cringing for months in anticipation of a film so woke as to be unwatchable, but right-tilting movie critic Christian Toto of Hollywood in Toto had good news after the screening: It could have been worse.
“The runup to the film’s release suggested another Disney woke-a-thon, but the film doesn’t live down to that description,” he told The Washington Times. “Halle Bailey’s colorblind casting drew its fair share of critics, but she boasts a lovely voice and pleasant screen presence, shushing the doubters.”
Stoking interest in the film’s politics is Disney’s ongoing feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a battle that started last year over the company’s public opposition to legislation banning instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3.
“Yes, the film tweaked a song or two, but the story never stops to lecture us about the patriarchy or other modern ills,” said Mr. Toto. “There’s a brief suggestion of environmentalism, but it’s woven gently into the story’s fabric.”
“The Little Mermaid” has also fueled speculation about a possible nexus to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who has compared herself in the past to Ariel.
In the scene where Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King) tries to guess Ariel’s name, he first says “Diana,” the name of Harry’s mother. Eric then guesses “Catherine,” and Ariel makes a face, raising questions about whether the name was a dig at Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William.
In the original film, Prince Eric guesses Diana, Mildred and Rachel, but director Rob Marshall denied that Catherine was a reference to Princess Kate, calling such rumors “insane.”
“There’s no truth to that whatsoever,” Mr. Marshall told news.com.au at the premier in Sydney, Australia.
‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: Halle Bailey Charms, But Rob Marshall’s Live-Action Remake Nearly Drowns in Déjà Vu https://t.co/a97FsWp6oN
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) May 22, 2023
Another song receiving a #MeToo makeover was “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” in which Ursula tells Ariel that giving up her voice in exchange for legs is no big deal because men don’t like chatty women anyway.
“The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber/They think a girl who gossips is a bore,” Ursula sings in the 1989 film. “They’re not all that impressed with conversation/True gentlemen avoid it when they can/But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn/It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!”
That entire section is omitted in the 2023 remake, according to lyrics reprinted FanSided, a change that fans and reviewers have decried as unnecessary, given that Ursula is the acknowledged villain.
“The reason fans are criticizing changes to Ursula’s song is because they’re saying she’s a villain and villains say mean and manipulative things to get what they want. And Ursula wants Ariel’s voice so it kind of makes sense that she would say those things, right?” said the Rotten Tomatoes review.
“Either way, it’s nice to know that we’re moving away from the boy-obsessed themes of the old and bringing in a more well-rounded approach to the women in this film,” the review said.
Disney built an entertainment empire on animated films about finding true love starting with the 1937 classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” but the company has moved away from that theme in recent years.
Animated hits like “Lilo & Stitch,” “Moana” and “Encanto” focus on the importance of family, not romantic love.
The 2019 live-action version of “Lady and the Tramp” watered down the love story by, for example, changing the lyrics in “He’s a Tramp” to erase the competition for Tramp’s heart between Peg and Lady. There are puppies at the end of the 1955 version; not so in the remake.
Ms. Bailey said she was pleased by the changes to “The Little Mermaid,” calling herself “really excited for my version of the film because we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy.”
“It’s way bigger than that,” she told Edition Magazine. “It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life and what she wants.”
The film’s carefulness to avoid running afoul of the Zeitgeist may have come at a cost of sheer cinematic delight, as suggested by some of the reviews.
“The new, live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’ is everything nobody should want in a movie: dutiful and defensive, yet desperate for approval. It reeks of obligation and noble intentions,” said New York Times film critic Wesley Morris. “Joy, fun, mystery, risk, flavor, kink — they’re missing. The movie is saying, ‘We tried!’ Tried not to offend, appall, challenge, imagine.”
Said NPR reviewer Aisha Harris: “When measured against its origin story, however, Little Mermaid suffers from the same ailments almost all of these remakes have: Being ‘progressive’ while also creatively uninspired.”