The Little Mermaid is an aspirational live-action tale for girls and boys alike

Ditch the cynicism and accept the fantasy.

The Little Mermaid

3.5 stars of 5

PG. Directed by Blake Harris.

Starring Shirley MacLaine, William Moseley, Poppy Drayton, Loreto Peralta and Armando Gutierrez.

Opens wide at AMC on August 17.

click to enlarge Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid - Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale whose appeal has lasted for generations. Ever since 1837 when Hans Christian Anderson of Denmark wrote down his story filled with Victorian piety — a nameless mermaid who must marry a human prince to gain an immortal soul — this story of mermaids and their plight, or mermaids and their pluck, has captured our imagination.

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of these underwater creatures — so fluid, so lithe, so graceful and supple — and wondered what it would be like to be part of their watery world? There's a reason Weeki Wachee has a waiting list of applicants for their mermaid roles.

The original story has been adapted to Japanese anime, Disney animation and a Broadway musical. Disney is already in post-production on a live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, just as they did for Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book and the recently released Christopher Robin. And there’s another Little Mermaid film in the splashway, a troubled Universal version that once promised Sofia Coppola as director, but with several setbacks, it may never be made.

Right here, right now is this most recent incarnation of The Little Mermaid, produced by Tampa’s Steinbrenner family and recently revealed at its world premiere at the Tampa Theatre. This loose indie adaptation, produced by Rob Molloy and written/directed by Blake Harris, thrills us again with the familiar tale of a mermaid in search of her destiny, but with a number of unexpected twists and turns that have nothing to do with either the original Danish or the animated Disney.

Freed from those earlier iterations and updated to Mississippi in the 1930s, the film opens with Shirley MacLaine as a grandmother reading the tale to her precocious granddaughters. As she turns the pages, the screen becomes an animated storybook version of the mermaid's tale, a clever acknowledgement of the power of animation to tell a story and set the stage for the live-action updates to follow. It’s evident that the grandmother, a mysterious woman in her own right, seems to know a lot more about the background of the story than she’s revealing right now.

Of course, her connection to the little mermaid is not fully evident until the very end of the film, with all the appropriate oohs and aahs at that revelation. Throughout the film, in all its committed and fervent earnestness, we are asked to ditch our usual cynicism and accept the fantasy world of mermaids. The premiere audience at Tampa Theatre seemed fully vested in belief. At a Q&A afterwards, one petite girl, stars in her eyes and a quiver in her voice, said she loved the movie, especially the underwater part, then asked the panel that if a sequel were planned, could she be cast as mermaid as she’s a good swimmer.

click to enlarge William Moseley and Loreta Peralta in The Little Mermaid - Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
William Moseley and Loreta Peralta in The Little Mermaid

This frame of a storybook being read to children, with that story coming to life before our eyes, establishes the ongoing, unfolding action that introduces an uncle Cam Harrison (William Moseley) who is both a doctor and an investigative reporter as he searches for a cure for his 10-year-old niece Elle (Loreto Peralta) with respiratory problems. That involves their taking the train to Mississippi to locate a traveling circus with a ringmaster-magician (Armando Gutierrez) who advertises a magic potion. They meet various circus performers, particularly the mermaid Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton) billed as the “Little Mermaid of the Mississippi," all of whom are controlled by the manipulating ringmaster. 

click to enlarge The Little Mermaid - Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
The Little Mermaid

As the plot thickens with lots of talk about low-tide and high-tide and the mermaid's stolen soul-in-a-box — unnecessarily convoluted and repetitive at times, difficult enough for adults to follow along, much less children — the investigative reporter uncovers the ringmaster’s dastardly deeds, both the charlatan’s elixir and the cruel control of the mermaid’s fate. Of course, the uncle-doctor-reporter (clever conflation of three roles into one) is protective of his niece, who is convinced the mermaid is real, yet he remains skeptical and disbelieving about the whole circus setup. Mystery adds to mystery until the final showdown between the ringmaster who reveals his true evil nature — but not so threatening as to challenge the PG rating — and the mermaid who must glide between liquid and land. It’s a satisfying, child-pleasing resolution. 

click to enlarge Armando Gutierrez, Loreta Peralta, and Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid - Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Armando Gutierrez, Loreta Peralta, and Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid

Both Will Moseley and Poppy Drayton handle their roles with aplomb, each believable as they navigate their increasing attraction to one another. Cam's skeptical nature dissolves as he sees his niece restored to good health via her own relationship to the mermaid. Elizabeth conveys the inherent mystery of being both aquatic and human. Armando Guiterriez is appropriately villainous as the ringmaster. Shirley MacLaine is warm with twinkly grandmotherly eyes, but also with a feminist eye toward her granddaughters' independence.

There are no special effects beyond occasional green-screening and eye-blazing, eye-smoking stares of light, and a couple of eye-popping sequences as the mermaid’s legs revert to fishy scales. Cinematography by Neil Osman is especially notable in the moody, ethereal sequences involving the mermaid in her watery element, all filmed on location at Weeki Wachee.

One of the producers commented in the post-screening Q&A that he enjoys watching films with his young daughter and wanted to be part of a project that would ensure a blend of adventure and fantasy with a focus on love and family. The Little Mermaid is an aspirational story for girls and boys alike, a first-time indie feature as sleek and thrilling as a mermaid’s tail.

click to enlarge Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid - Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Conglomerate Media/Kingsway Productions
Poppy Drayton in The Little Mermaid

Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, theater, books, and kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him here.

About The Author

Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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