The new trailer of "The Little Mermaid" leaves these girls stunned 1:09
Editor's Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer living in western Pennsylvania, USA. The views expressed here are solely his own. See more articles like this on CNNe.com/opinion.
(CNN) -- Disney's 1989 "The Little Mermaid" was both a masterpiece of the brand and a somewhat embarrassing version of a very dark tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
The story of a mermaid who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams, fits perfectly into Disney's canon of brave and curious teenage women, whose courage and curiosity mostly end up leading them to an early marriage. But it's also a lot of fun, with a dazzling score by Howard Ashman/Alan Menken, an iconic villain in Ursula whose look was inspired by drag queen Divine and a hilariously menacing sequence about cooking fish.
Disney had decades to think about how to update "The Little Mermaid" for new generations of viewers. Which makes the harsh, too long, dimly lit and still quite sexist product they just released completely baffling.
They got rid of the fish song, "Les Poissons", supposedly considering it too cartoonish (what?), but gave a boring musical number to Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). They have darkened the great Melissa McCarthy, playing Ursula, in a darkness of "natural light" from the bottom of the ocean. And they have retained the central plot, which grants a happy ending approval to a young woman who makes sacrifices of bodily harm to get the boy. Seriously?
I can report that, at best, the children in the cinema of my small town lost interest. More than one child was wandering the halls as we passed the 90-minute mark of 135 minutes, which begs the question: Who exactly is this movie for? Why does it exist?
This latest installment in Disney's never-ending quest to impose all its successes on us again, in live-action format, is a profound miscalculation on almost every level, especially on how to revisit a beloved animated property that features some pretty problematic themes.
It feels bad to say this, because it was cheering for a huge hit after the trailer's noxious reaction last year: some people apparently couldn't handle the audacity of reinventing a cartoon character as a black actress. But star Halle Bailey, in the role of Ariel, has nothing to apologize for: it's the best thing about this film. Unfortunately, that's weak praise.
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A lot of ink and pixels have attested to the value of black kids and their mothers being able to see themselves in a Disney heroine, and that's a powerfully admirable goal, as well as a long-awaited one, given the overwhelmingly white majority of the brand's characters.
Unfortunately, director Rob Marshall's approach sets a tone of violence at first, rather than inspiration. The film begins with a sequence in which the crew of Prince Eric's merchant ship leans over and looks lewdly over the edge, throwing harpoons at something in the water. A whale? A mermaid? It's never entirely clear, but the bloodlust certainly is. I can't believe the kids at my screening would have imagined a movie called "The Little Mermaid" starting this way.
Then there's the runtime: two hours and fifteen minutes. The original film has a duration of 1 hour and twenty-three minutes. The expansion of time is a comically bad decision, I still can't figure it out. Little children love nothing more than sitting still for more than two hours! Disney's most recent remakes have kept it at least under two hours, with the exception of 2017's "Beauty and the Beast" and 2021's "Cruella," both of which were at least livelier than this one.
Everywhere you look, one detail of the film has been slightly altered, but most end up being empty gestures rather than significant updates. For example, King Triton (Javier Bardem, who mostly looks boring) still has a bunch of adoring daughters who follow all his orders, except they are now a rainbow of ethnic diversity. So what's the message here? Is diversity good as long as patriarchy remains intact?
Halle Bailey in Disney's "The Little Mermaid." (Credit: Walt Disney Studios/YouTube)
When Bailey's Ariel gives up her voice in exchange for a human body, with three days to kiss the prince, she is also given amnesia about the kiss part, which easily takes away the fun of the original film of having her as an active participant in the attempt to get the kiss. And in this iteration of Ursula's spectacular number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls," they removed the lines in which she knocks down Ariel's doubts about losing her voice: "The men up there don't like chatter very much. They think that a girl who gossips is boring. Come on, they're not that impressed with the conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can! But they worship, faint and flatter a withdrawn lady, it is she who bites her tongue that gets a man!"
As Vox's Alex Abad-Santos tweeted, it's "literally the best part of the whole song that crystallizes Ursula's cynical worldview while at the same time showing us how she's cheating on Ariel." Menken has said the change was made because the lines "could somehow make young girls feel like they shouldn't speak out of place," which feels quite condescending; In my experience, kids are very good at knowing that they shouldn't take the advice of a cartoon villain at face value.
But Lin-Manuel Miranda added some new music, notably a rap song for Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle, a number that is brief but with such a different tone that it stops the scene. If there's one unifying quality to all these adjustments, it's that they're not going to convince any of the fans of the 1989 film that it's worth their time or money.
More broadly, Disney painted the film with the broad brush of corporate studios' vision for "What We Think Will Fill Seats," which consists mostly of bleak, low-light images (of which audiences are, in fact, very tired) and extensive action scenes. The last-minute showdown in which McCarthy's Ursula grows to Godzilla's proportions is so dark here that you can barely see it, which begs the question of how much bad CGI they're trying to cover up.
As Hollywood continues to wring its hands over the decline of cinema, it doesn't look like "The Little Mermaid" is going to be an asset in that fight, let alone inspire many moviegoers to rewatch the film. (I imagine any parent who has known "Let It Go" from "Frozen" will know that this is truly damning.) Perhaps a good reception will inspire a little more introspection for Disney ahead of the release of next spring's upcoming remake: "Snow White." What can go wrong?