Monday, May 29, 2023


“Part of Your World” is the greatest Disney song of all time. Howard Ashman’s playful and emotive lyrics are perfectly matched by Alan Menken’s plaintive chord progressions. Together they tell the whole story—and literally nothing that follows can be said to lack the psychological grounding for an audience’s intensely felt sympathies. It’s a song that invites us into a girl’s yearning, in this case Ariel, a teenage mermaid who wants desperately to escape the provincial restrictions of her aquatic kingdom and learn something about the wide world above. “What’s a fire and why does it—what’s the word?—burn? When’s it my turn?…” she sings as the number reaches its emotional and melodic peak, dancing its rhymes around the word yearn without ever quite saying it, in a song that’s lyrically about the character’s lack of the vocabulary to fully express what she knows she doesn’t know. She’s yearning. And so are we. The song never fails to move me. Even the first few notes sets my tear ducts welling. They know what’s about to happen to me. And even though the story itself isn’t my total favorite of the Disney animated musicals, that it springs from this source makes me believe in it fully and completely in that moment. The grand symbolic romantic gestures of its thinly drawn prince and sparsely characterized kingdoms make sense only as outgrowths of this adolescent, and yet universal, need to grow and to know.

It seems to me that if someone’s going to remake Disney’s The Little Mermaid, they’d better get that exactly right. In the case of the company’s newest live-action adaptation of an animated classic, they get it right. Halle Bailey is in the lead role, and sells that need from the inner-most soul, her open, expressive face and reaching body language—paired with her lovely singing voice—communicate that combination of stifled curiosity and hopeful tension. Once that number happens, we’re on her side no matter what. The rest of the movie happens about how you’d expect, with her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, sleepily paternal) lashing out at her human curiosity, which sends her into the devious tentacles of Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy, in a passable karaoke performance). She’s gifted human form to woo the prince of her dreams (Jonah Hauer-King, handsomely anonymous). But the bad deal sends her ashore without her voice, leading to a romantic silent flirtation and much silliness from animal sidekicks, before it’s all resolved on a dark and stormy night. The adaptation lacks in surprise, and extends the story with a few new songs and added texture to the surface dwellers’ characters. But because it’s anchored so firmly to Ariel’s yearning, it maintains a certain dignity and investment.

The movie is, taken on its own terms, a fine fantasy musical. It has a sympathetic lead, a decently appealing romantic interest, and a handful of the best songs ever written for the screen. And yet, it’s difficult to take on its own terms, as difficult as it is to take any of these live action remakes of animated Disney musicals as an individual work of moviemaking. The former wouldn’t exist in this form if not for the latter. That makes it harder to look at the relatively lackluster staging of “Under the Sea” and, instead of enjoying the swirl of photo-realistic anemones and tortoises wriggling to the beat while the vaguely cartoony crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) croons, unconsciously compare it to the ecstatic joys of the zippy, gag-filled, color-explosion chorus number that is the original. Still, one can’t entirely resist the charms of such buoyant musical material, even at three-quarters the energy. (At least romantic classic "Kiss the Girl" has better staging.)

Director Rob Marshall, Chicago aside, usually bungles movie musicals—sorry, Mary Poppins Returns and Into the Woods and Nine, which have their moments, but generally flounder. Here, though, he manages to keep the bland aquamarine sogginess of his underwater visuals out of the way of the focus on the simple fairy tale logic and that core of emotion. Bailey’s Ariel carries it, partly because she gets that great number to get us caring, and partly because she is able to bring something like an inner life to her mute longing. Besides, the new screenplay by David Magee (of Life of Pi), when not dutifully redoing the original, has done some reasonably smart balancing, using a longer run time to flesh out the role of Prince Eric and the kingdom on land a bit. He’s now an explorer, too, and his interests harmonize well with Ariel’s. We can see all the more fully why they’re meant for each other—a good thing, too, since the movie runs nearly a full hour longer than the original. If we’re going to spend more time with it, we might as well believe it. I was brought along by the sturdy structure, and, when Ariel finally finds a way to be part of our world, well, I’m not made of stone.

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