When it comes to creating original songs that are catchy and downright unforgettable, Disney’s track record is unparalleled. But I don’t need to tell you that. You likely grew up with these songs. Either that, or you learned to love them when Disney Channel stars like Ashley Tisdale did ear-splitting pop-rock covers of them in the early 2000s, wearing the worst outfit you’ve ever seen, for some compilation CD collecting dust in your parents’ basement.
However you first came to hear them, Disney has the hits. It’s impossible to deny—even for those like myself, who have mostly scrubbed their childhood affinity for the House of Mouse. I do, however, fall prey to the tunes from The Little Mermaid, because, before I am human, I am gay. In my humble, queer opinion, The Little Mermaid has Disney’s best collection of original songs, which perfectly stroll along the intersection between magical and theatrical.
Naturally, I was anticipating hearing these old favorites with new arrangements in the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. After all, the film stars the uber-talented Halle Bailey as Ariel; the only way Disney could make Ariel’s songs better would be to put one-half of the women behind “Ungodly Hour” behind the mic. It turns out, I was correct: All of the original songs in the live-action Little Mermaid are either equally as good or better than the versions on the 1989 soundtrack.
But I am only referring to those original songs.
Broadway’s biggest offender, Lin-Manuel Miranda, penned three entirely new selections for the remake, which range from “just alright” to “sonic waterboarding.” The worst of them all is “The Scuttlebutt,” a Hamilton-style sing-rap led by Awkwafina, who voices Scuttle the seagull, a character who didn’t sing in the original movie. And for good reason, it seems! “The Scuttlebutt” is a tune so terrible, it almost snares the movie’s overall quality in its talons.
If you’ve seen the original Little Mermaid, you know that the suspense really ramps up in its last 20 minutes. That final act is introduced when Scuttle flies in through the window of Ariel’s room in Prince Eric’s palace, to tell the mermaid-turned-human that her paramour has decided to propose. This leads to Ariel finding out that the sea witch, Ursula, has turned herself human to put a love spell on Eric and stop Ariel from receiving her true love’s kiss, which would keep the mermaid a human forever, foiling Ursula’s bigger plans.
Scuttle’s entire announcement takes all of 20 seconds in the animated film. It’s an effective transition because the viewer’s hopes for Ariel are quickly heightened, before being dashed just as rapidly when we find out that Eric isn’t proposing to our protagonist. In the live-action remake—which is already way too distended at a whopping 135 minutes—this scene is padded to seemingly endless bloat, its efficacy dashed away by Awkwafina’s voice spitting Miranda’s irritating lyrics.
The song begins unassumingly pleasant, with a sort of Animal Crossing-esque lilting beat. That is, before Awkwafina comes crashing into the track (as Scuttle does in the movie), her raspy voice commanding us, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” I’ve already got enough problems getting out of bed in the morning, I don’t need my brain to conjure Awkwafina’s gravelly demands the second my alarm goes off, which it has been for the last week since I first screened the movie. She then proceeds to ask us if we’ve heard the scuttlebutt.
“Scuttlebutt” is an old-timey word for gossip, rumors, and chitchat. It’s what Scuttle, the character, is named for, considering that he’s the bird who flies all over the island observing its inhabitants. Scuttle’s a great character for simple comic relief, because as much as he loves gossip, he can never remember the integral details, much less keep his train of thought on its proverbial track. That oafish quality is charming in both the animated film and its remake—when Scuttle is talking.
There’s a reason this seagull doesn’t sing, and it’s because his jumbled bird brain doesn’t neatly transcribe itself to lyrical music. Why Miranda decided to give this flying piece of poultry a rap is entirely outside the realm of logical human comprehension. Granted, Awkwafina got her start doing comedy raps, but the Nicki Minaj-meets-Twista style bars of Scuttle’s rap fly so rapidly that it shakes the audience out of the story entirely.
Awkwafina delivers obtuse lyrics that are intended to mirror Scuttle’s garbled memory, like when Scuttle tries to describe marriage, but can’t remember the word for it. “You know when humans dress all nice, like they’re penguins, throw rice for the pigeons?” Scuttle rap-asks. “They’re trying to blow up the pigeons, but those are just urban legends, I know a lot of really fat pigeons.”
What? Pardon me, run that back. Now play it, again, a second time. Did Scuttle accidentally get into a bottle of prescription-strength cough medicine? As an experiment, I tried to discern these lyrics by just listening to the song a few times, over and over, but all I got out of it was a pounding headache and a mood swing that ruined my afternoon. The song is barely two minutes long, but it’s filled with Scuttle’s lyrical tangents to the point of sheer madness.
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Watching it in the theater is no better. A CGI bird flocking about, trying to explain to Ariel and Sebastian the crab what’s going down. I feel sorry for poor Bailey, who was surely a trooper on set for how many times she probably had to listen to this song. I would’ve begged on my knees for a Disney-sponsored lobotomy, courtesy of King Triton’s scepter, after the fifth take.
By its end, “The Scuttlebutt” devolves into auditory cottage cheese, with lyrical delivery so dense you can barely make out one word. This scene, which is meant to introduce the movie’s nail-biting finale, almost thwarts all of the good faith that this mostly sturdy remake warrants in the first two-thirds of its runtime. It’s irrefutable proof that Miranda’s distinct brand of musical terrorism has officially gone too far. God help us all, he’s gotten to the children! Only extra strength Tylenol will be able to save the world’s parents now.
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