As someone who has been possibly too obsessed with mermaids ever since I was a child, using The Little Mermaid (2018 film) as my prime example of a bad movie makes me so sad. I had high hopes for this movie, and when I recently watched it I couldn’t help but dissect where I think they went wrong. It’s what led me to decide to write this particular blog. I’m going to start by giving you a quick example of how a great movie follows the structural path K.M. Wieland talks more in depth about utilizing in Structuring Your Novel Workbook: Hands-On Held for Building Strong and Successful Stories. Then, I’m going to go into a detailed explanation of things to look out for when writing a book or film that leave a sour taste in readers’ and viewers’ mouths.
First, let me start by saying I’m purely criticizing the writing/production of this movie. The actors (Poppy Drayton and William Moseley) did a great job. It was the lack of key plot points throughout the film, and moments that were undersold that made the movie as a whole feel entirely too anti-climatic. After going over the poor plot structure, I’ll then go into poor character utilization/development.
When structuring a story plot, a good base to use is always:
- Hook (introduces conflict) (1-5%)
- First Half of First Act (5-25%)
- First Plot Point (key point) (25%)
- Second Half of First Act (25%-50%)
- Half-Point (shifts plot in some way) (50%)
- Second Act (50-75%)
- Third-Plot Point (creates higher stakes for climax) (75%)
- Third Act (75-90%)
- Climax (biggest obstacle faced) (90-98%)
- Resolution (99-100%)
A good example of a movie that follows this structure is Gladiator.
- Maximus is offered a reward by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and he says he wants to go home.
- He’s then asked by the dying Emperor to take control of Rome and give it back to the people, in spite of his son Commodus.
- Maximus, after learning that Commodus killed his father, vows to stop him and carry out Marcus Aurelius’s last wish.
- Maximus escapes execution only to be captured and sold to Proximo, who makes him a powerful gladiator.
- Maximus fully commits to his goal and burns all bridges by arriving in Rome and revealing his true identity to Commodus. This marks him as a hero to the Roman people.
- Maximus refuses to help the leader of the Senate as Commodus plots to destroy both of them.
- Maximus officially gives everything up and highers the stakes by escaping from Proximo.
- He leads his former troops against Commodus.
- Maximus faces his biggest obstacle that determines the fate of the film and has final battle with Commodus in the arena.
- Maximus is united with his family in death, and his body is carried away in honor by the new leaders of the Roman republic.
It’s these key moments that make both books and films into great stories. Likely it’s what you see in trailers because they’re the points filled with the most action. Not only did the plot didn’t follow this path, but the path it did take when it did have key points, it was the under-selling and lack of action within them that made the movie feel like it didn’t give enough to hold onto. I’m going to break The Little Mermaid (2018 film) into these 10 steps and dissect what the film did wrong. Pay attention to how the movie either skips a step or under-delivers, and the consequences.
- Starting with a cartoon animation to describe the history leading up to the film’s start isn’t a bad idea in itself. So why didn’t it work here? It was too long. I was already on my phone bored within the first few minutes of the phone because they took too much time talking about characters I ultimately wouldn’t care about – other than the Elizabeth, the name of this version’s Little Mermaid, but her story is so well known they didn’t need to waste so much time re-introducing it.The story then officially begins with an old grandmother telling her two granddaughters the story of the The Little Mermaid. I’ve seen this narration style done well in feel-good movies such as The Princess Bride and The Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m not sure if it’s that those movies utilized it as a comedic tool to keep the sometimes scary or dramatic plot appropriate for kids, but they did it right. It flowed with the movies and was a nice addition. In this one, it served no purpose. The only ‘reveal’ of any kind relevant to the plot was that the grandmother was actually the niece of Elizabeth’s love interest, Elle, and that she was a mermaid too. While this is a fun fact to know, I think it would’ve been smarter to have revealed that at the end of the movie in a specific scene, but I’ll get to that later. Basically, this introduction scene doesn’t lead up to the conflict any more than the too-long cartoon already did, so it feels wasted.
- Elle is introduced as having poor health. Cam, Elizabeth’s love interest, and Elle then leave so that he can pursue the story of the ‘Dr. Locke’s mermaid cure-all healing water’ for his publisher. This introduces the possibility that he is going on the off chance that it’s real and he can help his niece. This would be the ‘going off to Hogwarts’ moment for Harry Potter, except it’s not nearly as impacting. Why? I’ve only seen Cam and Elle for one scene at this point, so I don’t feel connected to them. Then, once they’re journey begins, Cam begins by meeting the patients that have claimed to be saved from their ailments but clearly aren’t. This point in itself isn’t bad, but only not as impacting as it could have been thanks to the lack of earlier set up.
- Cam and Elle then visit the circus. Aside from the brief interaction with the fortune teller (that I’ll go more into when talking about the characters later), this delivery was also well done. The key realization that a mermaid is real hits the characters, despite Cam’s skepticism. It’s immediately revealed that she also has legs and that something greater is going on. There’s an introduction of several characters with high potential. Unforunately, the characters are under-delivered later, but within the scene it was mostly pivotal for the first-plot point.
- Cam and Elle run into Elizabeth in the woods. This is when the fact that Elle might possibly have the heart of a mermaid is introduced. While this fact in itself is really cool, it was used poorly throughout the film. The fortune teller again warns Cam against being around Elle when she finds him sneaking around the circus. It’s then that he sees where Locke keeps Elizabeth’s soul. There’s also then a large boat scene that helps build our relationship with the characters.
- It’s when Cam and Elizabeth jump off into the ocean that the plot dramatically shifts. After sharing some chemistry-filled moments, Cam finally learns that Locke, the villain, has her soul. And Cam wants to help her get it back. Notice how I’m just now mentioning the villain’s name? While I understand, in some plots there’s an edge given by not revealing the villain too soon, that’s not what this is. That’s that we haven’t had a clear ‘this is what the heroes doing to save the day’ moment until now. Here I’m going to mention something else: there’s never a distinct moment where Cam starts to believe she’s actually a mermaid. He was still skeptical when she explained how she had legs from low tide back when they met up in the woods. He needed to have put it together when he saw Elizabeth’s soul being held by the villain, but there was never a look of “holy shit, this is real”. Now, he’s seeing her as a mermaid, and he’s just talking to her like he always accepted it.
- The third plot point starts when Cam gets home and realizes Elle has been kidnapped. Cam finds her and after little challenge, rescues her. At this point, we know that Locke wants her because she has a mermaid heart and that’s special. We know that somehow he’s been using Elizabeth’s heart for power up to this point and that’s why he’s been keeping her. When Elizabeth is in her cell, though, Locke tells her that after he has Elle, he’ll never need her again. But, why? If mermaid hearts make you stronger, wouldn’t having two theoretically still be stronger than having one? What is so special about having a human with a mermaid heart? None of that is every explained. We know it’s important, but not really much past that, which ends up making us confused again.
- The climax begins as they get Elizabeth’s soul and save her mid-show thanks to the fortune teller stopping time. Cam, Elle, the fortune teller, and the wolf-man begin their quest to get Elizabeth to the ocean before Locke gets to them. I need to comment on both her and the wolf-man. In this climax they’re revealed to be super strong. The wolf-man beats his longtime tormentor and the fortune teller is revealed to be a powerful witch that was hoping to learn from Locke. She even stands toe-to-toe to Locke to help hold him off. But I knew literally nothing about them until this point. Sure, I saw the wolf-man was treated poorly briefly and that the fortune teller cared about Elizabeth, but that was it. So why are they in the arguably most important scene as major characters? It left such a disconnect. I’m not saying to take them out of the climax – they were strong additions. There should’ve just been more introduction in earlier scenes. The action of this climax (although with an obviously low budget for special effects) was rather good. Each character had their moment, and I would’ve appreciated it more had there been earlier bonding moments. Elizabeth makes it to the water, and Elle, who had been having a cough attack and couldn’t breathe from her health problem, is healed when Elizabeth takes her underwater. This is the point that I think Elle should’ve been revealed as a mermaid. It would’ve added more impact to the final climax moment than lousily revealing it through the ‘narrator’ portion of the movie with Elle as the grandmother. Cam also just kisses Elizabeth, and then supposedly never sees her again. That feels like a very anti-climatic end to an anti-climatic romantic subplot.
- The plot is instead resolved with the grandmother coughing. Now revealed as Elle, she’s seen swimming as a mermaid with Elizabeth. Again, while a time lapse could work as a resolution if done well, this felt like an ‘oh cool’ moment rather than a satisfying ending.