“The Little Mermaid” is swimming against a massive cinematic tide. This live-action romance/drama is a sweet film about love and lore that would have done a lot better in the fall or spring when the box office battles aren’t so brutal. Arguments can be made for alternative summer movie options, but in this case the lack of a major star in either of the main starring roles and a production design only a notch or two above a college stage production aren’t big enough lures.
The movie also has to battle a tidal wave of nostalgia for those who fell in love with the animated Ariel in the wildly popular 1989 Disney feature “The Little Mermaid.” The latest version of a half-fish out of water owes its inspiration more to the original 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than the cartoon version. But, more people are aware of the Disney film than the original written version, so that’s no big selling point.
The adaptation starts with a grandmother – played through a cameo role by Shirley MacLaine – telling her two granddaughters the actual story of a young mermaid. Her version starts years ago when a young reporter (William Moseley) and his younger sister (Loreto Peralta) end up at a circus, where they meet Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton), a beautiful mermaid trapped in a glass tank. The pair soon discover this isn’t a sideshow trick.
The best thing “The Little Mermaid” has going for it is Drayton. Drayton gives the character so much life that any moments of jeopardy come across as magnified.
This is not only a performance that shows great emotional depth, but also a commitment to harsh physicality of a role. The rest of the actors don’t come close to her work.
Moseley is likable but comes across with so much blandness, he never takes the character from supporting player to leading man. That’s a major blunder in a romance. The lack of energy sends ripples through the film that collide with the waves of other weak performances from Peralta and Gina Gershon. Armando Gutierrez, as the boss of the traveling show, mugs his way through every scene taking his work from poor to bad to an insult to melodrama.
Director Blake Harris shows an equal amount of apathy in both his script and construction of the movie. He not only does a sloppy job setting up the characters, he fails to find the kind of connection between his stars to make audience worry about their futures. Setting the movie in the South was another mistake, as it took too much explanation of how an ocean creature could be comfortable in fresh water. Any attempts at Southern charm go down the drain.
The lack of story leaves too much time to notice the painfully plain nature of the art direction. The sparse sets look like they were dressed with yard sale items. And except for the computer work to show the transformation of legs into a mermaid tale, the visual effects are weak.
Without Drayton, “The Little Mermaid” would flounder completely. At least she brings enough energy, life and charm to the role that the grade for this movie sounds like a trip on the ocean. It’s somewhere in the high Cs.
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