“There are no cheap parlor tricks here!” growls Locke (Armando Gutierrez), the cloak-swirling, goatee-twitching villain of Blake Harris and Chris Bouchard’s “The Little Mermaid,” providing such an easy way in for the disgruntled reviewer (and few will be gruntled) that it almost feels like a trap. Creaky visual effects, slapdash plotting and a script drunk on cliché: There’s pretty much nothing but cheap parlor trickery here.
The biggest trick of all, of course, is that though it feels like it was designed to capitalize on the confusion, this is neither the forthcoming Lin-Manuel Miranda-assisted Disney remake, nor Universal’s similarly titled, status-unknown project that formerly had Sofia Coppola and Chloë Grace Moretz attached. Nor does it bear much resemblance to the 1989 animated musical, or to the Hans Christian Andersen story that purportedly inspired all of the above. Instead it belongs to the subgenre of “imagine insert-mythical-creature-here was real” movies, though this “Little Mermaid” is set in such an over-lit and airless 1930s America, all clattery typewriters, venetian blinds, and men wearing shirtsleeves and suspenders, that it might as well be a fairy tale transposed into another fairy tale. Aimed presumably at the least discerning of younger audiences, it makes “Splash” seem positively gritty by comparison.
Firstly, an animated sequence reacquaints us with the mermaid legend, minus the muteness which has been jettisoned in this take. This tale (or “tail” as the marketing will insist) is being discussed by two stage-school moppets and their glamorous granny, played by Shirley MacLaine — and if MacLaine’s scant minutes of screen time feel like a waste, just wait until you see what a raw deal poor Gina Gershon gets. Granny mysteriously claims to “remember” the story rather differently: Could it be that the subsequent extended flashback is really her reminiscing about her own childhood?
The sickly Elle (Loreto Peralta) has been living with her doting uncle Cam (William Moseley of “The Chronicles of Narnia”) since the death of her parents. She has an illness that no doctor can diagnose, but she’s sustained, Cam asserts, by her childish belief in mermaids and other fantasy creatures. Already the tone is leaden, despite the winsome stylings of Jeremy Rubelino’s syrupy score: We’re supposed to see Elle as a tragic little orphan beset by some semi-supernatural ailment, but really she’s just a kid with asthma who believes in fairies.
Cam is a reporter sent by his gruff, kindly editor (not a mythical creature, but damn close) to Mississippi, with Elle in tow, to investigate reports of a “miracle healing elixir” being peddled by shady circus-master Locke. This elixir, which local villagers (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Gershon) swear has cured everything from lameness to lovelessness, turns out to be the water in which Locke’s star attraction swims. Her name is Elizabeth, she’s played by Poppy Drayton (“Downton Abbey”), and she is a mermaid. A “real” one, insists Elle, to the affectionate exasperation of her rationalist uncle. Could it be that the comely Elizabeth will change his mind?
Drayton is the film’s sole bright spot. Though lumbered with platitudinous dialogue and a silly transformation sequence in which she manifests a fish-scale bikini top at the same time as a tail, she still manages to invest her little corner of this amateurish exercise with dulcet sincerity. But even Drayton cannot wholly rescue the film when tradition dictates that she’s the one who needs rescuing. This culminates in a remarkably uninvolving chase sequence, in which she’s aided by circus “freak” Ulysses (a heavily made-up Chris Yong styled to within one blue satin jacket’s-breadth of copyright infringement on Disney’s “Beast”) and fortune teller Thora (Shanna Collins). With Ulysses as the heavy and Thora revealing convenient powers like telekinesis, the ability to shoot energy beams from her eyes and, oh yeah, this little thing where she can stop time, one wonders why they waited so long — if one’s capacity for wonder had not been so wholly bludgeoned into submission by this point.
Often, the independent production pitching its stall in the shadow of a studio giant at least earns points for bravery. But such a choking air of cash-in cynicism hangs over this project that it’s hard to find much to cheer for. As a newly enlightened Cam finally types up his report for his paper, he worries about whether people will believe it. Sagacious housekeeper Lorene (Jo Marie Payton) reassures him sagaciously, “All that matters is that you do” — a moral that’s both utterly anodyne and entirely unfit to be the last word in “The Little Mermaid,” in which it doesn’t feel like anyone ever truly believed.