Opinion: Live-Action Remakes – Nostalgia Or Nous?

July 18, 2023




It is often remarked that there are not enough hours in the day to do all of the things that need doing. While that’s probably intended as a light-hearted bemoaning of busyness, this phrase has since become the grumbled mantra of doctors, mothers, and matric students alike. People often ask me how I find the time to pursue my hobbies. The truth is, I don’t. Unless I intentionally carve out a few hours to spend doing something that doesn’t have the end goal of increasing my overall productivity, it won’t happen. Trying to find time to relax in a busy schedule is like searching for a needle in a haystack full of angry weasels. And the haystack’s on fire.

Knowing this, I recently decided to face my worst fears and take a night off. I dragged my anxiety, kicking and screaming, to the door of the Cedar Square theatre where it sulked for two hours and fifteen minutes as my family and I watched the new live-action remake of the film that kickstarted the latest Disney Renaissance: The Little Mermaid.

My verdict: it was… surprisingly good?

Halle Berry and Jonah Hauer-King top a bill of extremely talented performers who give stellar renditions of both the show’s classic hits and its newer, original tunes, which blend quick-witted writing with soulful melodies. The sweeping shots of CGIed ocean vistas are breathtaking, and the even the much-maligned Flounder and Sebastian are nowhere near as deep into the uncanny valley as the dead-eyed CGI lions of The Lion King (2019) which are practically buried beneath it. Overall, the film manages to combine the magical appeal of the original with the fresh flare expected by modern audiences to create a largely enjoyable viewing experience. So why do I have such mixed feelings about it?

Anybody who has spoken to me for more than five minutes will know that I harbour a deep and unbridled contempt for soulless cash-grabs – ahem, sorry – live-action remakes. As a performer, I cringe when I hear the anthems of my childhood being butchered by stars chosen more for their crowd-drawing names than vocal chops. As an amateur media analyst, I am bothered by the replacement of beautiful animation and genuine, if clunky, charm with generic CGI and “hot takes” that are colder than day-old oatmeal. As a self-confessed liberal snowflake, I am annoyed when films level bad faith, inaccurate criticisms at their predecessors while failing to address the underlying narrative concerns, opting instead for obnoxious lampshading and  jokey self-awareness that verges on painful. (It’s technically not an official Disney remake but still, I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed-feminism-era Disney princess content).

This is not to say that I am against all remakes or the general concept of revamping an IP to make it accessible and enjoyable for a new generation. To date, I have listened to four-and-a-half different Sweeney Todd cast recordings, each from a different revival and each one utilising different musical and theatrical choices, and I have found different things to enjoy in each adaptation. The world of musical theatre is no stranger to the concept of revivals and neither is cinema. A good example of this is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which has had no less than 16 cinematic adaptations, each with a unique thematic centre, like a strange game of creative broken telephone. The point I’m trying to make is that I’m not some pearl-clutching media purist who views any and all changes to the original source material as heresy. In my opinion, the fluidity of stories is part of what makes them so important – the fact that they can be changed in order to best suit an audience while still maintaining the core tenets of what makes them work as narratives. I think that a story, when well-adapted, provides the best of all worlds: a beautiful skeleton upon which the necessary embellishments may be placed in order to create a structure that is at once familiar and distinctive.

The Disney live-action remakes are not this. When taken at their best, they are poor imitations of beloved classics that fail to meet the standards set by their predecessors. The lampshading and cheeky nods to more problematic elements will not be appreciated by child audiences who have not grown up with the original films, and adult Disney fans will be put off by the pulverisation of old favourites into bland, virtue-signalling messes. At their worst, however, these remakes are simply shameless attempts to capitalise off of nostalgia and the desire that parents have to share the films of their childhood with their own children. A lot of discussion has been had about the role of intention in media – what a piece of media means to say versus what it actually ends up saying – and while most Disney films are not exactly revolutionary in their messaging, at least they have something to say. More often than not, live-action remakes find themselves parroting the morals of their predecessors with less charm, skill, and overall likability, like the dinner party guest who repeats the same stale joke over and over again, each time getting louder and decidedly less amusing.

However, not even my cynicism could survive a trip under the sea. Especially not upon seeing the joy in my little sister’s eyes when Ariel first swam onto screen. Could the whole film have been a ploy to make money? Quite possibly, but I like to think that it wasn’t. For the first time since Hook’s release in 1991, a live-action remake seemed to preserve some of the heart of its animated counterpart – and despite what online critics with usernames like SJWDESTROYER may claim, Ariel’s race neither detracted from the film nor served as its core concern. The diversity within The Little Mermaid felt neither fake nor forced and was (thankfully) a far cry from some of Disney’s earlier, more problematic portrayals of people of colour including Dumbo’s Jim Crow character and literally everyone in Song of the South. Ironically enough, the racial diversity in The Little Mermaid is exactly the type that bigots have been claiming to accept – it is not made into ‘a thing’ and is never even mentioned by any characters in the universe. In my opinion, the backlash against the film using the excuses of ‘forced diversity’ and ‘scientific inaccuracy’ reveal more about the commentators’ own prejudices than they do about the film’s shortcomings. And as for scientific accuracy or the lack thereof? Go cry about it to the talking crab.

I am not saying that The Little Mermaid (2023) is a perfect film. I have seen many valid criticisms levelled against it and have some of my own. However I do believe that it is leagues (hehe) above its contemporaries simply because it does not detest itself. There is only so much cheeky joking, and self-awareness that can be spewed before it feels like a remake is mocking its own audience for daring to enjoy the original film. What makes The Little Mermaid work, at least in my opinion, is the fact that it is secure in its identity – respectful of its origins and yet unabashedly unique.