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Walt Disney Studios loves its remakes. Re-imaginings of classic animated films have become a major segment of Disney's box office, right up there with Marvel movies and Star Wars movies. This year alone, we've seen Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King, and two of those three have made a billion dollars at the box office. It's no wonder that Disney is already fast-tracking another Disney Renaissance animated film with The Little Mermaid. However, I think there is one potential issue with the Little Mermaid remake that nobody has quite considered. Two of the film’s characters, Sebastian and Flounder, could be problematic.
Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was a massive hit. The movie used CGI animation to create photo-realistic animals for the human character Mowgli to interact with. We saw bears, panthers, orangutans and snakes, and for the most part, they looked like the real thing except that they talked.
The Lion King took that to another level. This movie had no human characters whatever, and while the movie had some issues, pretty much everybody agreed that it was a visually stunning spectacle.
The thing is that all of these animals have something in common. They have faces that more or less approximate a human face. Most importantly, they have front-facing eyes. If you look at a classic Disney animated film, you'll see that the eyes are incredibly important. They are the things that we connect with that allow us to feel for the characters that we’re watching on screen.
In an animated Disney movies, animals get stylized so that even animals that don't have human-like faces end up with something fairly similar to that. When your main animal characters are bears or lions, you don't have to do a great deal to make humans empathize, but that's not going to be the case with The Little Mermaid.
Just what are Sebastian and Flounder going to look like as photo-realistic animated characters?
The two major animal characters in The Little Mermaid are a flounder and a crab. If we assume that the plan is for these characters to look like actual animals, then we're going to get something very different than what we're used to after watching The Lion King. Is Flounder going to look like an actual flounder because, to be honest, flounders are not a particularly attractive looking animal even among fish. The same goes for crabs; these animals don't have eyes or mouths that are anywhere close to something humans could relate to.
While The Lion King was widely praised, and rightly so, for its photo-realistic visuals because of how truly real those animals did appear, the movie also took some heat because those visuals were so realistic that the animals were largely unable to emote in any way. If anything, those problems are somewhat reduced by the fact that lions have faces that are constructed in a similar design to that of a human face. If a lack of emotional connection In The Lion King was a problem, it's going to be that much bigger of a problem when you are dealing with animals that look nothing like humans.
The alternative would be to make something that's a little more stylized, but at that point, we're dealing even less with a live-action remake. If Flounder and Sebastian don't look like their real-life counterparts, then the movie doesn't feel like it's real, which is the whole point of making these live-action remakes in the first place.
We have yet to see any significant sea creatures done in this photo-realistic style of The Jungle Book or The Lion King. Sea life just looks different than mammals or birds. If Scuttle is a character, he will probably be fine since Zazu worked out well enough in The Lion King. Flounder and Sebastian are something else.
Of course, that assumes that these characters even appear in the movie. An early rumor indicated that Jacob Trembly was in talks to voice Flounder for the live action Little Mermaid remake, but we haven't heard much about that since. And nothing has been said about a voice actor playing Sebastian. It's possible that Disney's way around this issue is to remove the characters from the film. Or alternatively, change them drastically. Iago was technically a character in the Aladdin remake, but he was a bit more bird and a bit less human than he was in the animated original.
Of course, removing them causes problems of its own. Sebastian is a major musical force in The Little Mermaid. He sings two of the movies biggest songs, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” The movie could probably get away with not having Flounder in it, but not having Sebastian seems essentially impossible. Every indication is that The Little Mermaid is going to be a full musical remake in the vein of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, and you simply can't do that without Sebastian.
And speaking of "Under the Sea," just how do you make this happen using CGI fish that look like actual fish?
Clearly if The Little Mermaid is in the casting stages, these questions have already been dealt with by Disney. It's either figured out a way for the story to work without these characters or figured out a way for these characters to work. It will probably be sometime before we hear anything about that, but rest assured, there are probably digital effects artists whose entire job is going to be figuring this out.
I for one am certainly very curious to see what the solution to this is. If somehow Disney can make these animals look like their real life counterparts and still make them feel like characters in a Disney movie, it's going to take that photo-realistic CGI of The Lion King to a whole new level. I'm sure in the end Disney will find some way that works well enough that those people looking forward to seeing the magic of The Little Mermaid in live-action won't be terribly disappointed.
Keep checking back with CinemaBlend for more updates about The Little Mermaid remake, including when it will be released in theaters.