It’s really hard to imagine in hindsight, but Disney Animation was sinking fast in 1989, struggling to regain its Golden Age footing after Walt’s untimely death in 1966 with embarrassing flops like “The Black Cauldron” (1985).
Thankfully, “The Little Mermaid” (1989) swam in to save the company just in time, kicking off the proverbial Disney Renaissance of “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and “The Lion King” (1994), a Mount Rushmore of animated masterpieces in a five-year span. The fresh idea was to add Broadway-style musical numbers to the animation, tapping Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman to pen Oscar-winning tunes.
This weekend, the new live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” opens in movie theaters nationwide, once again following the angsty teen mermaid Ariel, who wishes to leave her controlling father King Triton and join the human world. Making a deal with the sea witch Ursula, she trades her voice in exchange for a pair of legs, walking ashore to fall in love with Prince Eric for a much happier ending than Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairytale.
So far, much of the social media buzz has centered around the stupid controversy of casting a Black Ariel. Such complaints are ridiculous — she’s a mermaid for crying out loud! It’s not like we’re casting the role of Eleanor Roosevelt here; fictional characters are fair game (yes, even James Bond). I’m rooting for Halle Bailey to succeed, singing her heart out with extra special meaning to the lyric, “Wandering free, wish I could be part of that world.”
She’s surrounded by an equally diverse cast, namely Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) as Sebastian the Crab, a lovable sidekick who looks slightly less adorable as a digital crustacean than he did in hand-drawn animation. Awkwafina (“The Farewell”) voices the seabird Scuttle and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) voices the fish Flounder, while Jonah Hauer-King (“Little Women”) plays Prince Eric and Javier Bardem (“No Country For Old Men”) plays King Triton.
The late Pat Carroll leaves big tentacles to fill as the evil octopus Ursula, who joins Maleficent (“Sleeping Beauty”), Cruella de Vil (“101 Dalmatians”) and Scar (“The Lion King”) as the best Disney villains. Life’s full of tough casting choices, isn’t it? Melissa McCarthy is an inspired pick, showing range from her slapstick comedy of “Bridesmaids” (2011). Even in dimly-lit underwater scenes, the star of “The Boss” (2016) proves that “the boss is on a roll.”
The live-action remake brings back all of your favorite songs, including “Fathoms Below,” “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl.” It also adds a few new ones with Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) teaming with Menken to pen “Wild Uncharted Waters,” “For the First Time” and “The Scuttlebutt.” It’s a valiant effort, but it’s hard to give the remake credit when its biggest songs are retreads.
Ultimately, you can’t top the 1989 original, which holds a special place in my heart as the first Disney movie I ever saw in a movie theater (shoutout to The Druid in Damascus, Maryland). In fact, I was so obsessed with “The Little Mermaid” that I kept a tiny stuffed animal of Sebastian in my bunk bed and sang along to the VHS tape. I was so convinced that mermaids were real that I raised my hand to say as much in kindergarten. The class laughed at me.
Alas, that was 34 years ago and a new generation deserves a chance to feel a part of that world by going with their parents to witness their own brand of Disney magic up on the big screen. A little nostalgia won’t hurt anybody. Besides, the human world is a mess these days. Life under the sea is better than anything they’ve got up there.
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