My three-year-old’s poor, unfortunate soul.
On Saturday, the family Maglio — me, my wife, and our two daughters, aged three and six — reclined for the 2:45 P.M.. showing of “The Little Mermaid” at the Cinemark Hazlet 12 in Hazlet, New Jersey. Well, the 3-year-old didn’t move her chair; upright, it was already like a queen-sized bed to her. Plus, she ended up spending the vast majority of the movie on my wife’s lap. (More on that in a bit.)
For the 6-year-old, it was just her second time in a theater for a movie; her first experience was “Frozen II.” Then the pandemic hit, and her little sister rounded out the family. For the 3-year-old, Memorial Day Weekend 2023 marked her first time in an actual movie theater.
Our older princess is very much into Disney Princesses, so she has been looking forward to this for a while. The younger one is happy to tag along and pretends she loves what her big sister is into, though she’s more of a “Paw Patrol” girl at heart.
(A quick aside about that: As I told Paramount Pictures boss Chris Aronson at CinemaCon, the opening scene of the first “Paw Patrol” movie scares the little one so much she doesn’t want to see the sequel. If you don’t remember the scene, a trucker hauling maple syrup swerves to avoid a baby turtle and jackknifes his rig on the Adventure Bay bridge. The turtle was completely fine; as was the truck driver, voiced by Tyler Perry, thanks to Chase and the gang. It’s not really that scary a scene and it plays out the same way each time.)
As excited as my 6-year-old was to see “Ariel” (as she calls “The Little Mermaid”) her mom and my wife may have been more so — she turned six herself the month after the O.G. “Little Mermaid” release. The timing for these remakes are no coincidence.
“The Little Mermaid” (2023) benefits from the same good timing of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (2023). The original “Super Mario Bros.” Nintendo Entertainment System game came out in 1985; many of us who played the game in the mid-’80s, when it was a legitimate phenomenon, now have kids old enough to play the new games via the ongoing platformer and its many spinoffs (we’re up to eight “Mario Kart” games alone). And those kids are certainly old enough to watch the Chris Pratt-led animated movie, a true box-office blockbuster, rated PG. (And we were just old enough to realize we all hated the 1993 live-action “Super Mario Bros.” movie, also rated PG.)
What my kids are not old enough to watch at present is “The Kardashians.” Random, right? So was the promo for the Hulu series that ran ahead of “The Little Mermaid.” Seeing Kim and Khloe’s antics was confusing at best for the young children in the theater — and annoying to the groaning parents — but Disney gonna synergy, I suppose. My daughter liked them, probably because they look like Barbie dolls. Thanks, Disney.
But while that was the most egregiously out-of-place spot to play ahead of Cinderella’s Castle and the new Disney 100 branding, both promising the feature presentation had finally arrived, overall there were way too many ads and previews for the youngest kiddos there to see a PG matinee. (Of course, really, they were there at least half for the snacks. And you’d better pack heavy for “The Little Mermaid,” which has a too-long two-hour, 15-minute running time.)
For my kids, the confusion continued soon after “Mermaid” finally rolled. “This isn’t what happens,” my older one leaned over toward me, not exactly whispering over the movie’s opening scene. Kids, including not-mine, don’t quite grasp the whole the-theater-isn’t-your-living-room handshake agreement that comes with a ticket purchase — especially those who have lived half (or more) of their lives under COVID protocols.
That part isn’t necessarily a Disney problem, it’s a young child problem that Disney does continual battle with. You see, their little brains (the kids, not the Disney Imagineers) favor repetition and predictability over new ideas and creativity. That’s why you listen to the same songs over and over again and watch the same movies, TV episodes, and YouTube videos until you can recite them in your sleep. It’s also why remakes work on the little ones.
I, a 41-year-old man who never saw “The Little Mermaid” until maybe four years ago and has since seen it probably 20 times (and the straight-to-VHS sequels, prequels, and spinoffs now populating the Disney+ library), see no reason for a live-action version of “Lion King” or “The Little Mermaid” or “The Jungle Book,” etc. We have them already — and they work. The small ones crave the storyline and character familiarity (though I had to point out who Prince Eric was to my older daughter); it’s comforting. It’s like eating the same three foods over and over and over again, which they also do.
What was neither appreciated nor comforting to our 3-year-old was what the live-action version of the shark chasing Ariel and Flounder looked like. That’s the rub of live-action remakes: cartoons don’t really freak kids out, because their action is recognizably not real. (Minus one aforementioned baby turtle for our baby, I suppose, but CGI animation has more realism than hand-drawn.) Old-school Disney classics are what kids would draw if they could draw better than kids.
Ursula was another problem for her, and my older one did not love the shipwreck scene. I suspect the life-like danger might be exciting for a slightly older demo of kids; we’re not there yet. Fortunately, by the big storm, my 3-year-old was fast asleep, with the angry sea serving as her white noise.
The 3 o’clock nap is not really an indictment on the movie (though perhaps it is an indictment on the length of the previews), I think, it’s probably more about the busy morning we had. She’s also still napping at daycare, but not at home. You just never know what you’re going to get in the afternoons.
The 6-year-old settled in for the long haul. For “Under the Sea,” she was dancing in her seat. By “Kiss the Girl” (and for each subsequent song), she took her dancing to the aisle. I’m not sure if that’s allowed, but it was cute. She did not have much use for the new original songs — again, repetition wins.
Character-wise, the grownups all seemed to like Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy as Ariel and Ursula, respectively. I think the kids liked Bailey; or at least they certainly weren’t thrown at all by the online nonsense some adults seem unable to get past. Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) were standouts for all. IndieWire’s own Kate Erbland accurately described Flounder’s “newly flattened fish visage” as “truly terrifying” (though it’s probably not as creepy as the dead-eyed Flounder from ABC’s “The Little Mermaid Live!” in 2019.)
In her review, Erbland gave the new “Little Mermaid” a “C+,” which is probably in the ballpark of where our younger one would go if she understood letter grades. Our older one might filet Erbland for that grade; she immediately asked to watch it again the next day on Disney+. Honey, this isn’t 2021. Let Daddy teach you all about a concept we had when he was a kid: Theatrical windows.