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In Review: 'The Little Mermaid,' 'About My Father'
Hollywood leans on past hits this week as Ariel the mermaid becomes part of a live-action world and Robert De Niro meets the parents.
The Little Mermaid
Dir: Rob Marshall
On the drive home from the new “live-action”—the scariest of scare quotes there—version of The Little Mermaid, I found myself in Reasonable Critic mode, considering the positives of one of my least favorite directors making one of my least favorite kinds of movies. As Ariel, the defiant young mermaid who bargains away her tail for human legs, Hallie Bailey is arresting and of fine voice, adding a little more Broadway oomph to Jodi Benson’s Ariel from the 1989 animated version. The 45 minutes of extra running time is a drag, but it certainly beefs up the Prince Eric character, who was the blandest of Disney blandlings in the original. And you certainly have to admire Javier Bardem’s versatility: Who knew he could hold his breath underwater so long?
But then I came back to that fundamental question: Why? Why does this movie exist? What is interesting about converting an animated film into a live-action film that’s primarily motivated by replication rather than revision? Because so much of The Little Mermaid takes place underwater, the conversion gets even stranger: Why turn a hand-drawn animated film, a medium where anything is possible, into a CGI-animated film in which there are serious limitations? Are audiences being treated to a department-store demo here? Do we really need to take stock of how far Hollywood cinema has fallen into the uncanny valley? One begins to suspect that these live-action remakes of Disney favorites are just craven, soulless cash-ins ordered up by risk-averse studio executives!
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The Little Mermaid even offers its own inadvertent metaphor in the second act, when Ariel trades her mermaid’s tail for human legs, only to get laced into a bodice and squeezed into tight-fitting heels. Did she really give up the freedom of the open sea for these suffocating garments? By and large, the film does seem more comfortable out of the water, where its pretty screensaver imagery is tarnished by the unsettling interaction between talking sea creatures and human actors not-so-seamlessly tucked into CGI mermaid get-ups. But in expanding the story from an 83-minute bauble to a 135-minute behemoth, it takes far too long for Ariel to emerge from the lower depths.
The basics here are largely the same: Ariel has a fascination with humans, despite her widowed father King Triton (Bardem) forbidding his mermaid daughters from ascending to the surface. Despite tuneful pleas from her water buddies Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina) to stay put, she strikes a bargain with the sea-witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to trade her voice for feet. She has her eye on the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who’s been obsessed with her since she saved him from a shipwreck, and the two are united on dry land. The one major catch is that Ariel has three days to get “true love’s kiss” from Eric in order to stick around, but Ursula has used her powers to make her forget this part of the agreement.
Rob Marshall cannot direct a musical sequence to save his life. This did not keep his debut feature, Chicago, from winning Best Picture, which then made him the go-to guy on one turgid, incoherent, insipid musical production after another, including two more Broadway-to-screen disasters, Nine and Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns. Traditional animation lent itself well to the timing on big numbers like “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea,” because there were no limitations on rhythm and movement, but the choreography is so sluggish in CGI that it feels like rendering speed was somehow an obstacle. On land, Prince Eric belts out the clunkiest of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original numbers, “Wild Uncharted Waters,” with the camera swooping drunkenly across the seaside and the action weirdly shifting to a ship, despite Eric’s mother expressly forbidding him from sailing.
There are some finer points of The Little Mermaid that may or may not be worth thinking about, like whether the incongruity of Miranda’s songs in relation to the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman classic introduce a welcome new flavor or an irritating distraction. (The tipping point is a Hamilton-style rap number, “The Scuttlebutt,” with Awkwafina and Diggs, but I’m ambivalent on the issue.) Or maybe we should be inspired by the film’s progressive, love-is-love message about people from other worlds and of other races setting aside their suspicions and coming together harmoniously. But let’s not get distracted from the core issue with The Little Mermaid (or the live-action Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin): This movie should not exist. — Scott Tobias
The Little Mermaid is now in theaters.
About My Father
Dir. Laura Terruso
Sebastian Maniscalco has carved out a highly successful stand-up career offering befuddled observations on modern life from the perspective of a no-nonsense Italian-American everyman. His comedy is the opposite of alt—a routine entitled “The Crazy Internet” from his 2015 album Aren’t You Embarrassed?, for instance, takes that premise to entirely predictable places—but he’s funny, a solid throwback to an older stand-up style whose popularity makes a lot of sense. With About My Father, Maniscalco tries to port that persona over to a feature film that’s just as much a throwback via a culture-clash comedy in which parents are met and slobs face off against snobs, before ultimately concluding, hey, snobs and slobs are both pretty cool in their own way!
Maniscalco stars as Sebastian, the Chicagoland-born son of an Italian immigrant father named Salvo (Robert De Niro), a hair stylist decades deep into a career making the women of the north suburbs feel stylish (a detail taken from Maniscalco’s own life). The manager of a boutique hotel, Sebastian has decided it’s finally time to settle down with Ellie (Leslie Bibb), the woman of his dreams. And why not? Salvo loves her. Ellie loves Salvo. The only possible sticking point: Sebastian has never met her extremely rich East Coast family. Another possible sticking point: Salvo wants to meet them too. So off they fly to spend the Fourth of July in a gated community unused to Sebastian and (especially) Salvo’s plain-talking, salt-of-the-earth ways.
There they encounter Ellie’s parents (David Rasche and Kim Cattrall, solid vets doing solid vet work with weak material), and her brothers: the materialistic yuppie Lucky (Anders Holm) and Doug (Brett Dier), a check-out space case whose interests include kombucha and corresponding with an African girlfriend who may actually be an email scam. (Most of the film’s references feel at least five years out of date.) What follows alternates between the broad and the maudlin. As usual in such films (see also The War With Grandma), De Niro makes his scenes feel more emotionally real than they have any right to. Also, as usual, it’s a wasted effort. A key scene hinges on Salvo’s ability to improvise an amazing pasta dinner, but the film never aspires to be more than egg noodles and ketchup. — Keith Phipps
About My Father opens in theaters tonight.
Also of Note: Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus opens this week. I saw it as part of Sundance earlier this year and can highly recommend it, but did not get a chance to rewatch it for a review here. Consider it endorsed.