One of the musical highlights of the original, animated Little Mermaid is a scene in which Ariel, newly human, tries to get Prince Eric to kiss her. If he doesn’t, she’ll turn back into a mermaid, but because Ariel has lost her voice, her main job is to sit there looking available; the actual seduction is stage-managed by her crab friend Sebastian, who sings encouragement into Eric’s ear:
Yes, you want her, look at her you know you do.
Possible she wants you too, there is one way to ask her.
In the new version of The Little Mermaid, presumably out of deference to our evolving, post-MeToo sensibilities surrounding sexual consent, that line has been subtly changed. In 2023, Sebastian’s advice is: “Use your words, boy, and ask her.”
Not so romantic, but in this case, the question does seem necessary, since Ariel’s feelings are far from obvious. While 1989 Ariel makes it quite clear that she’s keen, our contemporary one, played by the pop singer Halle Bailey, has no thoughts of kissing at all — because, in a truly massive departure from the animated source material, she’s forgotten she needs to in order to win her freedom.
It’s not hard to see how the film’s writers might have talked themselves into giving their new Ariel amnesia: it’s not very feminist to have your heroine spend the bulk of her screen time voicelessly thirsting after a man, after all. But in stripping Ariel of her goal — stay human by seducing the prince — the writers have effectively gutted the character: now, she wanders vacantly through every scene with neither purpose nor agency.
I realise that this is a very adult complaint about a film that is ostensibly for children — but then, I’m not sure children are The Little Mermaid‘s intended audience. Like so many of Disney’s live-action remakes, this movie is for the now-middle aged millennial women who grew up watching (and loving) the 1989 original — only to become scandalised, as adults, by their heterocentrism, their whiteness, their phobias and isms. While Disney World is embroiled in an ongoing conflict with Florida governor Ron DeSantis — a sort of proxy war for the soul of the nation — the Disney content mill is plagued by the same anxieties as much of its adult audience.
The beloved but problematic cartoons from the bad old days remain available on the Disney+ streaming service, but come affixed with a hectoring title card that you cannot fast forward through: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now,” it reads. “Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”
Meanwhile, many of its newer offerings are meant to be part of that future, explicitly catering to progressive sensibilities — and, perhaps equally important, sparking consternation among conservatives. The Little Mermaid — with its vague handwaving in the direction of consent culture, its dutiful nods to the environmental damage wrought by humans on the undersea world, and a black actress bringing the house down in a traditionally white role — is clearly intended to be part of that “more inclusive future”. As is the 2022 movie Lightyear, which featured an, albeit chaste, lesbian kiss, and Frozen 2, which was animated by an anti-colonialist message.
In fact, that heady mix of liberal millennial guilt and Nineties-era nostalgia is an animating force behind much of today’s most controversial entertainment, from the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters to the release of new, sensitivity-edited editions of works by Roald Dahl and R.L. Stine. Kids don’t notice this stuff, but adults do, which is entirely the point: all these choices generated a backlash from the Right, which in turn generated a backlash to the backlash from the Left, which in turn generated months’ worth of frantic coverage from a media establishment that relies on rage-clicks to keep the lights on.
Unfortunately, in the quest to make The Little Mermaid inclusive, Disney seems to have forgotten that it should also be watchable, and the resulting film feels at once bloated and muted. Gone are the fish playing musical instruments, the whispering moray eels who recruit Ariel to Ursula’s lair. Bailey, a phenomenal singer, is miscast as a character who is silent during most of the story’s pivotal moments. And yet, more positive reviews, while noticeably cagey about the quality of the film itself, lavish praise on both her performance as Ariel and on the Disney corporation for selecting her. “If these films are to have any purpose beyond being nostalgia-powered cash-ins, it must be to allow all children — not just the white ones — to see themselves as Magic Kingdom denizens,” suggested the Guardian, while a Variety critic adds that, “the most important thing about remaking this particular favourite for a fresh generation is maintaining the fantasy that any of us can be Ariel”.
In other words: even if the movie is bad, it has the best intentions. It’s on the right side of history. And isn’t that what matters?
In this framework, any objection to movies such as The Little Mermaid can be understood as conservatives having a meltdown over the mere inclusion of diverse characters on screen. Perhaps this is true in some cases. But I suspect that what people really object to is a Hollywood apparatus that does not seek to entertain an audience so much as hand-hold it to the morally correct conclusions.
When Ted Lasso — a show featuring a multiracial cast, strong female characters, and an uplifting message of sportsmanship, self-betterment, and general decency — became the subject of backlash during its recent third and final season, it wasn’t because people suddenly became incensed by its diversity. It was because it started featuring scenes that could have migrated out of one of those dramatised instructional videos they show during DEI compliance training: such as the locker room lecture about looking at nude photos that followed a massive celebrity leak. If people balk at this, perhaps it’s less because they disagree with the substance of the message, and more because they resent its intrusiveness — can’t a guy just enjoy a TV show without having lessons in moral betterment foisted upon him, Sesame Street-style, by a bunch of actors dressed up as footballers?
At the root of this is the notion that art is inherently political, and hence that every mainstream entertainment property must necessarily double as either a morality play, or a salvo in the ongoing culture wars. For those who subscribe to this framework, there is no opting out; if your film doesn’t announce its politics, a set of politics will be assigned to it by a critical apparatus that is increasingly incapable of understanding art in anything but crude identitarian terms. One of the more incisive reviews of The Little Mermaid, written by Wesley Morris of the New York Times, describes the film as “everything nobody should want in a movie: dutiful and defensive, yet desperate for approval”. He’s right. And yet, even as he notes that the film is something of a trainwreck — and even as he admits that obsessing over the political correctness of movies like this is “a misery” — he nevertheless insists that it, and the other Disney films like it, are “important, culturally reparative work”. And so he reinforces the idea that art described as “important” need not concern itself with being beautiful, or moving, or funny.
Critics and creators alike are increasingly caught in the trap of the “important” movie, which substitutes political pieties for a good story and markets itself on controversy instead of hype. Long before The Little Mermaid hit cinemas, progressives understood that they were basically obligated to support it for political reasons; even now, the narrative persists that anyone who dislikes the movie must be a racist troll (that is, unless they’re denouncing it for not being woke enough). And the “important” movie is many things: explicitly moral and painstakingly diverse. Checking its privilege. Centring marginalised voices. Sparking conversations and moving toward a more inclusive future. And yet it is invariably bad in every way — including the ways in which it attempts to do better.
Consider the original Little Mermaid, a story about a young woman who yearned for independence; who made a reckless, impulsive bargain in the hopes of pursuing the life she wanted; who learns that choices like this have a ripple effect well beyond the confines of one’s own life. Now consider the politically correct version of the same story, in which Ariel is conveniently saved, by amnesia, from knowing what she’s done — and hence deprived of any opportunity to own it, to reckon with it. The former story is about a girl who does things; the latter is about a girl to whom things happen. Which of these is supposed to be a vision of female empowerment, again?
This is perhaps the worst thing about Disney’s contemporary remakes: not that they are blatant cash grabs, but that they are infantilising. The original Little Mermaid placed infinitely more trust in its intended audience of children than the new version places in those same children, now that they’re grown up. And while it still includes that moment, at the end, in which Sebastian waxes wise about autonomy — “Children got to be free to lead their own lives” — it’s hard to fathom, after two hours and fifteen minutes of Ariel stumbling like a hapless sleepwalker through her own story, that anyone really believes it.