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The Little Mermaid

"The Little Mermaid" by Ken Keisel

Grade: B+

"Less Poisson"

Fans of the Broadway Musical will have much to love about Disney's new live-action version of "The Little Mermaid", but those only familiar with the original film may find themselves scratching their heads. Among the live-action adaptations the Mouse has released over the last decade, this one has by far undergone the biggest story transformation. Disney took great liberties with the original literary source material when they released their hit 1989 film (for one thing,, she lives). That film, Disney's first under the leadership of Roy O. Disney, launched a new golden era for Disney animation and a re-birth of the animated fairy tales that had been his father's trademark, but in recent years fans have taken offense to a plot point of "The Little Mermaid". More on that later.

Among the new film's changes is a larger cast. Like the musical, the film introduces us to Arial's six sisters. In the stage musical the six sisters, identifiable by their six hair colors, serve as a Greek chorus between acts, adding some mean-spirited observations, and commentary, Here they mostly serve as a warning. Examples of "good girls" who do as they're told and fail to find happiness. They're meant to be an example to younger audience members that sometimes you have to take risks, and even defy your parents on occasion, in order to find yourself and your true path in life.

If both films have a message, it's to never let anyone or anything talk you out of finding happiness, which is a far better message than the "selling your voice for a man" take that many feel is the problem with the original film. More on that later.

The casting is flawless (with one major exception). The new version adds ethnic diversity, but isn't distracting about it. Each of the seven sisters represents one of the Seven Seas, with Ariel representing the Caribbean Sea, one presumes, since the location has been moved from Denmark, to an island somewhere in the Caribbean, It's a colorful switch, and the end result is a pageantry of Caribbean and Central American costumes and designs to compliment the beautiful Avatar-like coral reefs and sea life dancing below the waves.

Fans of the songs (and seriously, who doesn't love "Part of Your World" or "Under the Sea"?) will have to wait a bit longer for them in this version, The first song doesn't' show up until 17 minutes into the film (an eternity for a musical), allowing the film to spend some extra time developing Prince Eric. In all honesty, the fact they gave him any personality at all is an improvement, but in recent years the Mouse has been trying to make something of its prince charmings, if only to give the occasional boy in the audience someone to aspire to. This time Eric is not just good-looking and heir to a throne. Young ladies aren't falling for that anymore. He has a side-story about climate change and sea erosion thrown in, though sadly left undeveloped.

Early on we also see one of the film's biggest missteps when we're introduced to Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, in a performance hurt by distracting CGI). We see Ursula twice before "Part of Your World" is heard., These brief but unnecessary scenes are mostly exposition to show how tricky the Sea Witch can be, and to help explain why Ariel is so quick to sacrifice her voice. More on this later. It slows down an already too long opening act.

Unlike the animated original, this time around the scenes on the surface are the film's best moments, and the ones underwater the most problematic. "Under the Sea", the original's show-stopping number that Disney would spend the next decade trying to top ("Be Our Guest", "Never Had a Friend Like Me, and so on)", isn't as grand and captivating as in the original. The visuals are all there but for some reason the emotion seems missing, Ariel isn't as caught up in the music as she should be. It's a problem that will run throughout the film. Even "Kiss the Girl" seems scaled back.

Part of it I attribute to Aquafina, who continues a career of not being funny. She was never more than annoying in "Raya", and here she takes annoying to a new level, one few can surpass. Why not cast someone like Tina Fey or Amy Poller who already know how make a character both funny and loveable? Then I remember that this is the company who replaced Robin Williams with Will Smith.

Okay, now it's time to talk about the voice issue. Disney knows that they're dealing with a more enlightened and empowered young women today than they were back in 1989 when "The Little Mermaid" first came out. Over the last 34 years, there's been a lot of angry talk about Ariel giving up her voice, her most precious possession, just to win a man. I agree with that, it's not a good example for young women today, and probably one of the main reasons "The Little Mermaid" has taken a bit longer to become a live-action film.

It's not as big a problem as in the original book, where she sacrifices much more than her voice for love, but still it's something that had to be addressed. To address it the film uses the same switch as the stage musical. I don't agree with it. I feel it runs the risk of disempowering the character, since this is a decision she should make with her eyes wide open and deal with the consequences. I've always felt it was unrealistic to expect every Disney princess to be right all the time. They should be allowed to make mistakes on occasion. It makes them more realistic and more Human, which only makes them easier to identify with. Sadly, it's a notion that Disney hasn't embraced yet, and so the film's solution seems like a cheat.

I recommend the film. Do go to see it. It's one of Disney's most beautiful live-action films. Sing along with all those memorable songs (except "Les Poisson" which for some strange reason was cut), and cheer when it pays tribute to the late Alan Menkin at the end, who gave us a childhood filled with beautiful songs.

Ken Keisel is a local actor and playwright. He is a regular guest as K. G. Kline on WCBE’S It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics. Contact him at