“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. The lack of a major star in either of the main 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 the wildly popular 1989 animated Disney feature. 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 that’s no big selling point in the shadow of the Disney film.
The adaptation starts with a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine in a cameo role) telling her two granddaughters the story of a young mermaid. Her version starts years ago, when a young reporter (William Moseley) and his younger sister (Loreto Peralta) meet Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton), a beautiful mermaid trapped in a glass tank at a circus. The pair soon discover this isn’t a sideshow trick.
Drayton is the best thing “The Little Mermaid” has going for it. She gives the character so much life that moments of jeopardy come across as magnified. Her performance shows not only great emotional depth, but also a commitment to an extremely physical role. The rest of the actors don’t come close to her work.
Moseley is likable but so bland he never takes the character from supporting player to leading man, a major blunder in a romance. Peralta and Gina Gershon turn in weak performances, and Armando Gutierrez, as the boss of the traveling show, mugs his way through.
Director Blake Harris shows an equal amount of apathy in both his script and construction of the movie. He does a sloppy job setting up the characters and fails to find the kind of connection between his stars that would make the audience worry about their futures.
The lack of story leaves plenty of time to notice the painfully plain nature of the art direction. The sparse sets look like they were dressed with yard sale items. 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.
‘The Little Mermaid’
Rated PG for action sequences.