This live-action reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is devoid of social or political undercurrents and untethered from recognizable reality — precisely the kind of fantasy film that should appease moviegoers critical of how the Marvel universe or the Star Wars series get too close to reality.
Co-directors Blake Harris and Chris Bouchard set the bulk of the story in what looks like the 1930s, but without any mention of the Great Depression (or any financial hardship). The effect is like strolling through a lovely display of early twentieth century Americana, admiring the streamlined beauty of mass-produced objects that mimicked the handiwork of artisans, all while encountering a cast of bubbly historical park re-enactors.
Harris’s script goes for the family film sweet spot, blending a chaste romance and plucky ailing child with exploited outsiders fighting villainy (here, a cruel ringmaster, not systemic oppression). It even borrows the framing device of The Princess Bride: An effusive Shirley MacLaine regales her bored granddaughters with the "real" mermaid tale. (Poppy Drayton plays the magical creature as equally earthy and ethereal.) There are also malicious circus performers, an intrepid newspaperman who gets involved in the story, and a Mississippi delta community without any racial segregation or prejudice.
With stilted sincerity, The Little Mermaid offers an idealized image of good Americans, who cannot abide oppression or tyranny. (William Moseley’s earnest reporter is British, but that’s okay: He's the right kind of immigrant, well-educated and well-heeled.) Unlike faith-based films, there is no greater power in Harris’s worldview. Magic is merely an individual trait: a vulnerability to be fortified by strength of character.