‘The Little Mermaid’ (2023) and ‘Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid’ (1948)


It’s basically impossible to ignore what Hollywood is doing. Even if you decide to boycott the movie theater, cut the cable, and unsubscribe from streaming services, the film industry will find a way to infiltrate your awareness. Whether through YouTube ads, social media posts, billboards, or word of mouth, you doubtless end up hearing about some of the latest releases.

Even if you know that Hollywood is up to no good, you can feel left out when you don’t watch the newest film in theaters. That doesn’t mean you can’t find exciting new entertainment, however. During the Golden Era of Hollywood (1934-1954), Hollywood produced thousands of movies which were not only entertaining and artistic but clean and family friendly, because they followed the guidelines for decent content set forth in the Motion Picture Production Code. Thanks to Warner Archive, Turner Classic Movies, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and many other online resources, these films are now easily accessible on DVD or for streaming. They offer countless wholesome alternatives to the latest films.

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Rob Marshall attends the World Premiere of Disney’s live-action feature “The Little Mermaid” at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on May 8, 2023. (Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

The Latest

One of this summer’s most anticipated movies was the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which came out on May 26, 2023. It’s taken Disney years to bring this new take on the 1989 animated classic to the screen. This film’s performance has been very predictable, receiving mixed reviews but raking in substantial profits at the box office because of the studio’s magical spell over audiences.

This movie stars Halle Bailey as Ariel, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Javier Bardem as King Triton, Daveed Diggs as the voice of Sebastian, and Awkwafina as the voice of Scuttle. It’s still a musical, featuring most of the cartoon’s songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman as well as three new songs with music by Menken and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Since the story was told in basically the same way as the cartoon, a lot of special effects were needed. With all the CGI used to create the underwater world of Atlantica and bring Ariel’s talking animal friends to life, this movie can hardly be called live action.

All the talk about the new “Little Mermaid” may have given you a yen for nautical viewing. Since the first showing of this movie in Los Angeles on May 8, the internet has swarmed with comparisons of the computer-generated, elongated new film to its 2D-animated original. However, there is an older mermaid movie which is a better alternative: “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” from 1948.

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Weeki Wachee mermaids perform “The Little Mermaid” at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida on Aug. 6, 2019. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The Greatest

There was a mermaid craze in 1948, because of the opening of Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida, a popular tourist attraction which featured underwater shows of trained swimmers in mermaid tails. “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” capitalized on the siren fever by filming extensive underwater sequences at the springs, using some of its performers. The aquatic gimmick wasn’t the only draw this film had to offer, however. It featured Academy Award-nominee William Powell as the leading man, Irene Hervey as his wife, and 19-year-old Ann Blyth as the mermaid. This Universal picture was directed by Irving Pichel and written and produced by Nunnally Johnson of “Grapes of Wrath” fame.

“Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” is the story of a Boston couple who spend a very unusual vacation on a Caribbean island. The husband, Arthur Peabody (Powell), struggles with a midlife crisis when his wife, Polly (Hervey), reminds him that he is about to turn fifty. One morning, he hears a magical voice and determines to find the singer. His inquiries lead him to Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), an obnoxious Broadway star and swimming fanatic who sets her sights on him. When Arthur is out fishing the next day, he accidentally discovers the true source of the magical music, a beautiful young mermaid. After snagging her tail on his pole by accident, he brings her back to their huge fishpond and names her Lenore. Keeping her presence secret, however, proves difficult. Although Peabody knows the situation is ridiculous, he finds himself growing increasingly attached to the lovely creature, and she to him.

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Promotional photograph of actor Ann Blyth in 1952. (Public Domain)

Besides the fact that both movies have “mermaid” in their titles, “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” bears many similarities to “The Little Mermaid.” Both stories are about a man who finds a young mermaid girl. She is unable to speak, but he hears her singing a haunting, wordless melody before they meet. He keeps her on his property and clothes her. She falls desperately in love with him. There is another female, somewhat aquatic in nature, who is trying to ensnare the man (Cathy in one case, Ursula disguised as Vanessa in the other). A further similarity in the 2023 “Little Mermaid” which wasn’t in the 1989 version is that the film takes place on a Caribbean Island, as opposed to the original’s European setting. “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” is even a musical, to a degree, since Cathy sings an original Robert Emmett Dolan and Johnny Mercer tune called “The Caribees.”

A Substitute with Substance

When I first saw the trailer for “The Little Mermaid” of 2023, I noticed how phony it looked. There are some live-action actors, but they scarcely look like real people when wearing CGI tails, swimming around a virtual underwater landscape, and interacting with characters which were added post-production. Add the unnecessarily extended runtime, the clumsy story additions, and the painfully stinted acting at times, and you have a film which is floating on its laurels.

“Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” is the complete opposite. It’s forty-five minutes shorter, but it has twice as much story. The characters are developed, nuanced, and very real as brought to life by talented actors. The story is fun and magical enough to captivate children while including moral messages of substance. You won’t find any implausibly diverse mermaids, gender-ambiguous seagulls, or drag queen-inspired villains in this film.

If you want to see a live action film about a mermaid, featuring hard-working human beings who have trained themselves to swim underwater in a tail, watch “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” instead!

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