The Oscars Were Almost Perfect… Except for That Little Mermaid Moment

The 2023 Academy Awards succeeded fully at learning from the mistakes of the past. Jimmy Kimmel kept the tone generally light but respectful (with a few exceptions). No one did any cartwheels during the In Memoriam segment. And the winners were by and large given time and space to fully express their excitement and gratitude for their Oscars, after a very long awards cycle. (Everything Everywhere All at Once debuted at SXSW literally one year and one day ago. If anyone deserves a day off tomorrow, it’s the A24 publicity team.)

Yes, the show went long — something Kimmel prepared the viewer for from the beginning… while noting that it wasn’t his fault that everyone wanted all 23 awards announced during the live show. But what he didn’t prepare us for was the award for Most Shameless Promotion of an Upcoming Live-Action Adaptation of an Animated Film.

This is to say that when Melissa McCarthy and Halle Bailey took the stage during the awards, it initially made sense to see them paired up together: Airing on ABC means that the Oscars are Disney’s home turf, and so it’s natural for the studio to use the ceremony as an opportunity to name-drop its upcoming releases, via the introduction of the presenters.

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It’s also natural to see upcoming releases debut new promos during the ceremony’s ad breaks. For example, tonight also included the debut of a new trailer teasing the next season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, which put the spotlight on new cast member and three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep.

As befitting a big night in live entertainment, plenty of other ads for upcoming films and TV shows were shown over the course of the evening. However, that’s not what happened with The Little Mermaid. When McCarthy and Bailey were brought up to the stage, the natural assumption was that they were there to present one of the night’s awards. Instead, the sole purpose of their appearance on stage was to talk about The Little Mermaid for a few precious minutes of the show, before the debut of the trailer.

This wasn’t the only “Whaaaa?” of the night: Feeling equally random in the moment was Morgan Freeman and Margot Robbie teaming up to talk about Warner Bros. turning 100 this year, and the legacy of that fine studio (whilst also promoting upcoming Warner Bros. releases like the Robbie-starring Barbie). However, there was at least a touch of film history in that sequence, which is always appreciated during an evening spent in tribute to the art form.

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Meanwhile, let’s be clear about this. Casting judgment on a movie just off the trailer… is a very normal and human thing to do, but no matter where you land on the upcoming Little Mermaid, it’s safe to say that its odds of being a major part of Oscars future aren’t great. This is based on precedent: Going back to the early days of Disney bringing its animated classics into the live-action (or in the case of 2019’s The Lion King, “live-action”) realm, the films that have been Oscar-nominated were nominated solely in technical categories: Costume Design, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design.

The Little Mermaid could break into a new category in 2024, as legendary composer/Galavant executive producer Alan Menkin has written four original songs for the film. Yet it’s hardly set to be a contender on the level of, say, Oppenheimer or the new Scorsese, making the choice to bring this year’s Oscars to a grinding halt for the trailer’s debut feel wildly discordant with the focus and wit that the show had demonstrated up until that point.

Over the course of the night, there really wasn’t a lot of filler with which to take issue — some of the comedy bits worked better than others, and for the first (and likely last) time in human history, someone said out loud the words “Cocaine Bear, leave Malala alone!” Also, the night’s final reference to “The Slap” — Kimmel flipping the counter on an Oscars Without Incident sign to one — played really well.

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So perhaps it’s a bit unfair to highlight this one bit of crass commercialization in the middle of a reasonably solid three-and-a-half-hour celebration of films, one which ended in the year’s most original nominee taking home seven wins.

But while Kimmel can put the blame for the show’s length on critics of last year’s “bump the boring awards to the preshow” strategy all he wants, a tearful and triumphant acceptance speech for Best Live-Action Short is far more preferable to blunt force synergy in action. The producers appeared to pay attention to criticisms of last year, so here’s a note for the next: Whenever possible, save the commercials for the actual commercial breaks.

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