This article contains light spoilers for The Little Mermaid.
The problem when recreating a beloved, classic movie like The Little Mermaid is that more things can go wrong than right. That’s what happens when the source material is pretty close to perfection. Each change feels glaring, and implicitly comes with a question: Does this tweak actually improve what was there before? If the answer is no, then there’s another question, an existential one: Why does this change exist?
Unfortunately for director Rob Marshall, most of the script and score modifications in his and Disney’s live-action animated remake of The Little Mermaid don’t better its predecessor. Marshall and his crew cleaved away some of songwriter Howard Ashman’s lyrics, added new songs, and sanded down the romantic undertone of the first movie. Examining these choices one by one can make you question the directive that Disney and Marshall were going for. Examined in full, it raises the bleaker question of why this movie exists in the first place.
A shot-for-shot remake would’ve probably been better.
For good or bad, here’s what’s different from the 1989 classic and the 2023 live-action remake:
The Little Mermaid is arguably the best animated musical Disney has created. The movie won two Oscars in 1990 for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Under the Sea,” written by Ashman and composer Alan Menken. Ashman and Menken actually had to beat themselves in the song category, as “Kiss The Girl” was also nominated. And if not for the Oscar rule that limits nominations to two songs per movie, Ashman and Menken probably could have seen nods for “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Part Of Your World.”
Ashman died in 1991, and in his absence his songwriter partner Menken teamed up with Lin-Manuel Miranda to steer the music of the remake. Menken and Miranda have created three full new songs (as well as an additional “Part of Your World” reprise) featured in the movie.
The major songs are “Wild Uncharted Waters” (sung by Jonah Hauer-King, playing Prince Eric), “For The First Time” (sung by Halle), and a rap called “The Scuttlebutt” (sung by Awkwafina as Scuttle and Daveed Diggs as Sebastian). All of the tunes are designed to give the characters more insight, like Eric’s adventurous spirit, Ariel’s inner monologue, and Scuttle’s complete confusion about the human world. The downside is that, despite Halle’s gorgeous voice, they’re all pretty much inconsequential.
Ashman’s lyrics had a way of giving you an entire character’s backstory in a three-minute song, while not sacrificing cleverness or even a sense of daring. Those things are sorely missing in these new songs. “Wild Uncharted Waters” is essentially Eric doing a Les Mis impersonation. Ariel liveblogs her human experience in the musical monologue “For the First Time.” And “Scuttlebutt” — Awkwafina honking and screaming a Lin-Manuel Miranda rap — is aural terrorism.
The nicest thing I can say about the new songs on Little Mermaid is that the songs are songs — words set to music — and they are indeed new.
“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is as vital to Little Mermaid as any song on the soundtrack. As iconic as Ursula — the brooding, busty sea witch — is, she doesn’t really have a lot of screen time. That puts pressure on the song to do double duty; not just move the plot along, but also give insight into Ursula as a character.
Is Ursula smart? Is she a liar or a truth-teller? Why doesn’t Ursula hang out with the merfolk? What does she truly want?
“Poor Unfortunate Souls” (sung by Pat Carroll in the original) answers all those questions, crystallizing the evil but astonishingly shrewd character into a five-minute jaunt. Ashman and Menken’s song is largely intact, but omits a crucial part: the denouement, where Ursula arguably tells a harsh truth about land people.
quite literally the best part of the entire song that crystallizes cynical ursula’s worldview and, at the same time, shows us how she’s tricking ariel. c’monnnnnnnn pic.twitter.com/6LTGik4Ktx
— alex (@alex_abads) May 19, 2023
In the second half of the original song, Ursula goes over the payment of her deal: In exchange for turning Ariel human, she wants Ariel’s voice. This is right after telling Ariel that in order to stay permanently human, Eric needs to kiss her with the intent of true love. Ariel starts to piece together the impossibility of Ursula’s predatory deal — that it would be impossible for her to get her love to kiss her without being able to speak.
Seeing that Ariel isn’t as foolish as she thought, Ursula tries one more trick. She tells her that men who live on land are actually superficial, and that all she needs is — basically — to look hot and “never underestimate the importance of body language.”
“The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber. They think a girl who gossips is a bore,” she sings. “Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can! But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn, it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!”
Ursula’s urging gets Ariel to sign her deal, but it also gives a vivid peek into how Ursula sees the world. Yes, the song and dance operate as a trick on the naive Ariel, making the impossible sound easy and making the sexist way some men treat women seem natural and inevitable. But at the same time, since we aren’t Ariel, we’re meant to acknowledge that Ursula’s grim view of the human world actually has a lot of truth to it — that the world is full of men who don’t value women’s voices or their brains. Ursula and Triton aren’t that far off in their hate for the human world, but Ursula also sees the way their world operates within the patriarchy. (Who could possibly say why this isn’t one of the complaints held by King Triton, who again is a king and controlling father to Ariel.)
Menken told Vanity Fair in March that there would be changes to “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and that it was done because Ursula’s song “might make young girls somehow feel that they shouldn’t speak out of turn.” Scrubbing the lyrics of a song, sung by someone who’s very clearly a villain and has a realistic view of how sexism operates, might not have accomplished all that he and Miranda intended.
In a passing scene, Ursula talks about how she snuck in one secret clause into her deal with Ariel. She cast a spell that makes it so that Ariel won’t remember that she needs true love’s kiss to stay a human forever.
This switch seems to really highlight how villainous Ursula is, making an already-impossible deal even more impossible now that Ariel can’t remember the terms and conditions. But it also seems to function as a way for Disney to make a safer movie.
Now that Ariel isn’t actively seeking out a kiss, the relationship that develops between her and Eric becomes ever that much more organic. Without knowing that the kiss is looming over her, Ariel’s motivation for getting to know Eric as a person is her own. It just so happens that she falls in love with that person. The new plot twist is also reflected in “Kiss The Girl,’’ as the lyrics of the original song have been modified to make Ariel’s desire for a kiss more unsure, and underline that Eric’s pursuit of one is dependent on him asking for consent from Ariel.
The change also allows Disney to elide that the original movie operated with the subtext that this was a sexual awakening for a 16-year-old mermaid. In the classic, she falls in love with Eric because she’s physically attracted to him, seeing him first as a literal statue, not a walking, talking, thinking human man. If you watch that movie, she’s really, really into that statue! By rewriting Ariel’s desire for a kiss, it makes Ariel’s attraction to Eric more wholesome and ultimately less complicated. Disney and Marshall don’t have to explore what Ariel’s pure physical attraction to Eric means.
“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is clearly the standout villain song from Little Mermaid, which maybe lets the maniacal and anti-French “Les Poissons” (sung by Rene Auberjonois who played Chef Louis) fly under the radar. “Les Poissons,” which translates to “the fishes” is all about Eric’s French chef who loves to not only cook fish but to sing, in a whimsical way, about how he loves to decapitate, gut, slice, and eat them — all while chasing Jamaican crab Sebastian.
The bloody fish murder waltz was omitted from the remake, probably because of the movie’s commitment to CGI accuracy. Including “Les Poissons” with real-looking fish, real-looking fish blood and guts, and strangely realistic Sebastian, probably would’ve been a tad too gruesome for audiences.
Every time I re-watch the original Little Mermaid, one of the biggest questions that wiggles its way into my brain is: Why does King Triton, ruler of the seas and perhaps the most powerful being in existence, care so much about his daughters performing in musicals?
The group musical number featuring Ariel and her sisters is the impetus for the primary conflict of the first movie. Ariel has the standout role for which there is no understudy. When she no-shows, this angers King Triton, who retaliates by blasting her special collection cove into smithereens. This sends his daughter into the refuge of an exploitative contract with a frightening marine sorceress.
Having Triton be a helicopter musical theater parent is camp! In a striking blow against camp lovers, that’s all rewritten in the remake.
Instead of being deeply emotional about show tunes, King Triton — through clunky exposition — explains that his daughters don’t live at home but actually throughout the seas.
They return each year for what’s known as the Coral Moon Festival, to tell him what’s going on. Said festival is the one that Ariel skips, upsetting the sea king. Triton is double pissed at Ariel because screenwriter David Magee has added that her mother was killed by humans, though there is no further explanation of why or how that happened.
The changes mirror the new backstory that Eric is given. Previously, he was a prince with a statue, basically end of story. Now, he’s an adopted orphan under the watch of his mother, Selina (Noma Dumezweni), the queen of their unnamed country. Like Triton, Selina forbids Eric from going to uncharted waters because of the danger that lurks. This, of course, makes Eric more curious about the world that his mother doesn’t want him to see.
Despite my love of Triton’s irrational love of Busby Berkeley-esque set pieces featuring his many daughters, this shift actually works within the story. It gives Eric and Ariel a commonality, and their stories make sense together. They’re drawn to each other not just because she happened to save him or even mutual attraction, but because both are attracted to this idea of adventure and feel out of place in the world they’re born into. It’s an addition that’s very much in the spirit of the original movie and, unlike its cohort, maybe even enhances it.