Here’s a controversial opinion about Disney’s new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid: In spite of all the complaining, the CG animals don’t actually look that bad.
Make no mistake, I don’t think they look good, especially when compared to the original movie. Far from it! But they don’t look as off-putting in the actual movie as they did in some of the trailers. Most of the clips released for promotional purposes were focused on re-creating scenes from the animated classic as closely as possible, which means inserting realistic-looking fish, Sebastian the crab, and other creatures into moments where they mostly react to the human (and mermaid) characters. And realistically rendered animals just won’t have the same evocative expressions as their cartoon counterparts.
Watching a regular, realistic crab respond to a yearning song isn’t all that visually interesting. But watching a realistic crab skitter around trying to keep up with walking humans, while frantically waving his little claws in order to get Ariel’s attention — that’s actually hilarious on screen. The 2023 Little Mermaid feels like it’s close to being self-aware about how funny it looks when an actual human talks to a crab or a fish and expects an answer. When director Rob Marshall and the animation team lean into that absurdity and embrace just how ridiculous their sea creatures look, it works surprisingly well.
The movie works because of those interactions. Some of the bigger set-pieces, like the performance of “Under the Sea,” don’t land as well as the more comic moments, because the focus is on a bunch of animals dancing around without any expressions to indicate that they’re enjoying it, so their behavior comes off as stilted and forced. In this version of the story, the big musical number looks like a high school biology lesson about the parts of a cell. Turns out, when sea creatures don’t have expressive faces, they kinda look like organelles.
That’s the reason the live-action Lion King looked so bad: It was all CG animals, with nothing to play against for contrast. Seeing their stilted, expressionless animal faces as they went through huge tragedy and revival felt like watching a nature documentary with a Donald Glover voice-over. But pairing those animals with humans is actually comedic gold.
It isn’t clear whether those scenes in The Little Mermaid are intentionally hilarious or if it’s just a side effect of the photoreal animals. But the realism is played for laughs often enough that it feels like the former. Javier Bardem’s Triton leaning down to have a serious heart-to-heart with a crab is wonderful. So is the scene where Flounder gasps for air and flops on the deck of a ship while trying to tell Ariel something, until Sebastian, who doesn’t have time to watch over another wayward young person, just shoves him off the boat and back into the water. Scuttle has her moments too, making loud obnoxious seagull sounds and just generally flapping around and getting in the way, as seagulls do.
Somehow, it all works in its own weird way. The live-action version doesn’t feature the gorgeous drawings of the 1989 original. And the animals aren’t expressive in the way modern audiences might expect from an animated film — or even from live-action movies like Sonic the Hedgehog or Alvin and the Chipmunks, where the animal companions are more on the cartoony side, and thus capable of big, expressive emotions. But instead of trying to chase that kind of look, the filmmakers behind the new Little Mermaid carved out their own way of doing talking animal companions. Like with so many things, their approach isn’t actually as disastrous as vocal internet backlash might make it seem.
The Little Mermaid is out now.