Will The Little Mermaid be the most horrifying film since Cats?

<span>Photograph: Disney</span>
Photograph: Disney

Years and years of bitter experience has taught us not to expect too much from Disney’s live-action remakes of its old animated features. Since Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella limply beat us all around the head almost a decade ago, we’ve been treated to a litany of disappointing slop. Tim Burton’s Dumbo fused boneheaded storytelling with genuinely nightmarish character design. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King stripped all its characters of personality in favour of dreary photorealistic animation. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin was Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, for crying out loud.

Related: The Lion Sleeps Tonight: one song’s journey from 1930s South Africa to Disney money-spinner

In fact, the torrent of lukewarm, cynically commissioned remakes has been so endless that people have stopped noticing them altogether. Remember the live action Lady and the Tramp movie from four years ago? The Mulan that burped straight to streaming mid-pandemic? The Pinocchio movie that starred Tom Hanks and only came out eight months ago? No, of course you don’t.

However, you sense that Disney is just as aware of its diminishing returns as everyone else, which might explain why it is throwing everything at this month’s remake of The Little Mermaid. If Disney gets its way, this one is destined to be remembered forever. Lin-Manuel Miranda has written some new songs for it. Halle Bailey has already taken on and beaten a legion of obnoxious YouTube downvoters who were furious that she isn’t a white redhead like in the cartoon. If everything lands just right, The Little Mermaid might be able to revitalise the whole tired formula.

Not that it will land just right, of course, because as things stand, the only legacy that The Little Mermaid will leave is as the ugliest goddamned film of all time. We knew this might be the case, of course, after last month’s onslaught of character posters hinted at the atrocities to come. The film’s animals, the ones you remember from your childhood, all looked flat and lifeless. Not quite real, but also not exactly full of life. Flounder in particular looked like something a fishmonger would pump full of fibreglass and leave in the front window. But the characters played by people were just as eerie, not least Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula, who for the benefit of this adaptation has been transformed into what can only be described as the landlady of the world’s least desirable pub.

But MTV has released a clip of the movie and, well, seeing the characters in motion has only made it worse. It’s a clip of Kiss the Girl, a song from the original movie. In it, Bailey’s Ariel sits in a boat with Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric, and the pair of them share a moment of romantic tension. Now, Kiss the Girl was never the best part of The Little Mermaid, because it is at heart a song about a crab who is freakishly invested in the sight of a human getting off with a mermaid, and so represents perhaps the most niche type of pornography ever depicted in a Disney movie.

That said, you could give it a pass, because the crab was hand-animated and heavily anthropomorphised. As such, he was able to express a number of subtle human characteristics that just about kept the song friendly, as opposed to freakishly perverted. The remake, however, cannot achieve this, because it has leant on Favreau’s style of photorealism. So when a fish suddenly lurches out of the water to implore Eric to kiss Ariel, that’s exactly what you’re seeing. A fish. A talking fish, like the one that told Tony Soprano that Big Pussy was an informant in The Sopranos, but hornier.

Worse is to come, however. Because seconds later, a bird comes flying in out of nowhere. A giant realistic-looking gannet, all claws and beak, the sort of bird that could absolutely terrorise a human if it wanted to. However, the bird is here for one reason and one reason only, to goad a member of the royal family into having it away with a mermaid. It is terrifying, but nothing compared to Sebastian the crab. The main problem here is that Sebastian the crab looks very much like an actual crab. And I don’t know whether a real-life crab has ever come up to you and started aggressively urging you to kiss a mermaid, but it isn’t a pretty sight.

There are the claws, for starters, which Sebastian waves around like he’s about to attack. There is his tiny mouth, which makes things seem a lot more sinister than they should. And there are his cold, realistic, dead crab eyes. How unsettling those eyes are. How utterly devoid of life. There’s no charm here, no hint of motivation. No. This Sebastian just wants you to kiss a mermaid. Do it. Kiss the mermaid. You’ll kiss her if you know what’s good for you.

The one thing missing from this clip is Ursula. But that’s probably for the best, because she appeared in the trailer, and it turns out she is fully half-octopus, and frankly we all deserve to spend as much of our lives as possible avoiding that particular sight. It’s bad. It’s Cats-level bad.

So it looks like Disney will finally get its way. We are all going to remember The Little Mermaid after all. Unfortunately we are going to remember it primarily for being the last thing any of us see before we clawed our eyes out in horror.