Film Review: Lorca, Cthulhu, Cosmic Horror… “The Little Mermaid”

By Michael Marano

The dehumanization in The Little Mermaid is not just a matter of the absence of craft; at heart, this is a cynical investment that can’t transcend its craven essence.

Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid.

Ariel, our plucky, eponymous protagonist of Disney’s live-action remake of its animated 1989 classic The Little Mermaid, is infatuated with the people of the Surface World because of what she can see of their artifacts: the treasures that fall into the deep after sea battles and shipwrecks. How can people capable of such craftsmanship be evil? she asks, challenging the assertion of her father, King Triton, that all who live on land are wicked.

So… the presence of human craftsmanship, according to Ariel, is evidence of benevolence. Ok … so what’s the absence of human craftsmanship evidence of?

In the case of this film, the same Cosmic Horror that drove Lovecraft’s protagonists stark, raving mad. Bear with me on this.

The Little Mermaid, a film in which the idea of craftsmanship is central, has CGI-heavy scenes set underwater that smack of such technical perfection that, by the laws of mathematics and theories of color and balance, they should be considered sublimely beautiful. But, because these moments under the sea are so technically and mathematically perfect, they’re devoid of any semblance of craftsmanship. The designs are amazingly precise, their digital faultlessness unnerving. But craft? No. The underwater sequences lack what Lorca called duende, the technical imperfections that reveal the profoundly human spirit that animates genuine art. Lorca wrote duende is “not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive.”

The lack of imperfections in the underwater CGI sequences of The Little Mermaid — exact to the last micro-pixel — means that they are devoid of duende. These scenes are signs of the AI-driven popular effusions to come — they are inhuman to the point of being terrifying.

In short, the fish are too damn real.

In his novella “The White People,” Arthur Machen, a British horror writer who was a huge influence on America’s H.P. Lovecraft, argued that, if you ever really encountered the things you take for granted in fairy tales, your sanity would be shredded:

What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

This destruction of what’s perceived to be natural order leads, in Lovecraft’s vision of Cosmic Horror, to the destruction of the human mind. Look closely at the cute cartoon fishies that swim through the original Little Mermaid.  The viewer is not threatened by the destruction of the natural order through the intermediacy of craftsmanship — animators created flaws that are beautiful because they reflect human imperfections.

So Flounder, Ariel’s little fishy pal, speaking with a child’s voice, is adorable as a cartoon. But Flounder, Ariel’s little fishy pal speaking with a child’s voice in the form of a perfectly executed photorealistic CGI rendering, is a schizophrenic slap. Just as it would be if your cat or dog disputed with you in human accents.

Scuttle, Ariel’s sea bird pal, is a fun goofball when drawn by human hands. When the fowl looks exactly like a bird in a David Attenborough documentary? Human song should never, ever, ever come from an inflexible beak (especially when Scuttle’s eyes are so damned “birdy,” utterly bereft of intelligence capable of forming speech). And evil critters? Flotsam and Jetsam, the moray eel enforcers of the film’s antagonist, Ursula the Sea Witch? Realistic, sentient fish brimming with malignancy are the stuff of nightmares. The only character who supplies any charm is Sebastian the Crab, who’s allowed to be cartoonish and imperfect. My guess is that the lords of Disney figured that a talking crab that truly looks like a crab would have children who see the film pissing themselves with night terrors.

Even the new rendition of “Under the Sea,” the show-stopping number from the original, created here in collaboration with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company, is profoundly inhuman. It is too perfect: the friggin’ computers have sucked the humanity from the dancers’ movements. Compare that to the sequences made by Uncle Walt in collaboration with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for Fantasia, in which human movement was reinterpreted by human artistry. CGI perfection deflects the human gaze, resists human engagment. This fantasy world is hermetically sealed, the audience’s interaction with the proceedings renders us passive. And that’s exactly why Muppet Yoda, which requires audiences to actively invest belief, still kicks ass but CGI Yoda sucks ass. The “style that’s truly alive” through duende isn’t just animated by the artist; it’s partly brought to life by the audience, who are allowed to participate through the artist’s imperfections.

Astonishingly, when the film shifts to the Surface World, it becomes convincingly magical and engaging. There are reassuring imperfections and rough edges. There’s brilliant set design, lovely props and costumes, all made through human craft.

Yet for all the uncanny terror of The Little Mermaid, including a climax in which Ursula turns into a Lovecraftain kaiju who would credibly challenge Cthulhu, the movie just… is. Its dehumanization is not just a matter of the absence of craft; at heart, this is a cynical investment that can’t transcend being a craven cash grab. To be fair, it doesn’t feel like a 2-hour-and-15-minute movie. Halle Bailey, who plays Ariel, has an angel’s voice. Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric is a bit of a dud, but it’s a dud role. Melissa McCarthy does what she can as Ursula, a role a good deal of which is just her talking to herself about her evil plans.

Of course, the film is going to make an ungodly amount of money, despite its flatness and lack of duende. On the bright side, this success will infuriate the racists who flipped out that Ariel is played by an African American actress. It should make for fun times this Thanksgiving in a polarized America: the kids will insist on playing The Little Mermaid on repeat while their bigot uncles smolder ‘neath their red MAGA caps, or better yet, their DeSantis 2024 caps.

Novelist, editor, critic and writing coach Michael Marano still loves the fact that the original Ursula, an iconic Disney character, was based on Divine. And no proto-fascists back in 1989 gave a shit about drag imagery in a Disney flick, to say nothing of the Timon’s drag hula dance in The Lion King

1 Comment

  1. Allen Michie on May 22, 2023 at 8:37 pm

    >>The “style that’s truly alive” through duende isn’t just animated by the artist; it’s partly brought to life by the audience, who are allowed to participate through the artist’s imperfections.<<

    Exactly–well put.

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