NEW YORK – The idea of updating a classic film is always a dangerous one. But, provided there's a better motive at work than mere hubris, it can work.
Updated version of 'The Little Mermaid' is charming
Such, emphatically, is the case with "The Little Mermaid" (Disney), director Rob Marshall's live-action remake of the beloved 1989 animated musical derived from Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 fairy tale. Using technology not available in the waning days of the Cold War, Marshall and his team serve up a charming fresh take on the timeless story.
As before, the action centers on Ariel (Halle Bailey), the sea creature of the title. When Ariel's insatiable curiosity about life on dry land leads her to fall for a human, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the romance causes a conflict with her overprotective father, King Triton (Javier Bardem).
Upset and isolated, Ariel falls prey to the machinations of her estranged Aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a scheming, embittered octopus. Ursula agrees to cast a spell that will temporarily turn her niece into a human being so she can woo and be wooed.
But Ursula's real goal, of course, is not to help Ariel but to use the lass as a pawn in her plot to seize power from her brother Triton. So it will take the aid of Ariel's two closest companions, harried crab Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs) and scatterbrained gannet Scuttle (voice of Awkwafina), to bring about a happy ending.
As scripted by David Magee, Ariel's adventure is too scary for tots, but will delight all others. As children tap their feet to "Under the Sea" and other tunes composed by Alan Menken – the late Howard Ashman's lyrics are supplemented by new ones from Lin-Manuel Miranda – adults will find the themes underlying the movie pleasingly balanced.
Thus dad and daughter learn complementary lessons from Ariel's experience and ultimately demonstrate their enduring love for each other. There's also a message about not drawing negative conclusions about a whole group based on the misbehavior of some. Eric, moreover, is as inquisitive as his sweetheart – and we learn that such openness to new things pays.
These moral points come wrapped in a bright, upbeat spectacle within which a crucial kiss represents the outer limit of passion. There's nothing shopworn about Marshall's skilled and sprightly repackaging – old-fashioned in the best sense, it's a high-quality, family friendly summer treat.
The film contains potentially frightening scenes of characters in peril and of thoroughly stylized violence. The OSV News classification is A-I – general patronage. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
John Mulderig is media reviewer for OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMulderig1.