Disney’s live-action remakes of their beloved, animated classics have seemed like a shameless cash grab with uneven results. Rather than produce original content, the thinking appears to have been: “Here’s a thing people like already. Let’s just give it to them again in a slightly different form.” Some have been legitimately magical (David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella”), while others have been empty exercises in glossy, computer-generated imagery (“Dumbo,” last year’s atrocious “Pinocchio”).
“The Little Mermaid” is better than the vast majority of these movies, in that it stays true to the core of what people loved about the 1989 original while also expanding the story and characters in necessary ways. The literal fish-out-of-water tale of a mermaid who makes a Faustian bargain to explore the human world and pursue true love feels a little archaic in retrospect. Ariel is an inquisitive and rebellious teenager, but she basically goes from being a king’s daughter to being a prince’s wife. The classic Howard Ashman and Alan Menken tunes, which provide the heart and the backbone of the film, mostly remain intact here, including the insanely catchy, Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.” But in director Rob Marshall’s version, Ariel has greater depth and complexity, and the young woman chosen to play her more than rises to the challenge.
Halle Bailey is radiant in the title role: Expressive, energetic and infinitely likable, with a mixture of girlish sweetness and womanly spine. She finds refreshing new avenues into songs, story beats and even specific lines of dialogue that longtime fans have cherished from the original. And her rendition of “Part of Your World,” a tune we’ve all heard countless times, is unexpectedly stirring. Bailey is up for everything this role demands of her, both physically and emotionally, and she deserves to be a major star.
She benefits greatly from the fact that this “Little Mermaid” offers deeper character development for both Ariel and Prince Eric, which makes their relationship make actual sense beyond a quick, superficial attraction. (This expansion also results in a film that’s nearly an hour longer than the original, but it moves at a decent clip.) David Magee’s script provides parallels in how they’re both trying to break free of their protective parents’ expectations and assert their own identities and ambitions. As Eric, Jonah Hauer-King even gets his own “I Want” song, and there’s more to him than the typically blandly handsome Disney prince.
A quick recap in case it’s been a while: Ariel, the youngest of King Triton’s seven daughters, longs to visit the surface world and learn about the wonders of humanity. Her father forbids this, believing people to be violent predators. She dares to defy him with the help of her fish friend, Flounder, and ends up rescuing the daring adventurer Prince Eric from a storm. Smitten, she agrees to a deal with the sea witch Ursula to trade in her transcendent voice for a pair of legs and a trip to the human world. If she can’t secure true love’s kiss by sundown on the third day, she’ll be beholden to Ursula forever.
This version of the fairy tale elaborates on Ariel’s bravery and big-heartedness. It also allows her to spend more time with Eric – who thinks she’s a stunned shipwreck victim, and doesn’t realize she’s actually the one who saved him – and enjoy a more substantial connection with him. Having Ariel explain things about the ocean to the more experienced Eric, even wordlessly, is an inspired touch. So is the fact that she gets to exchange the uncomfortable, high-heeled boots she received at the castle for a pair of comfortable sandals. One of the cleverer touches allows Ariel to continue singing in her mind, so she’s not completely mute during her time in the surface world. And the way she gets Eric to figure out her name provides one of the movie’s many solid laughs.
The supporting players all step (or swim) into their parts in lively fashion. Daveed Diggs has great timing and delivery, as always, as the crab Sebastian, who’s on assignment from King Triton to keep an eye on his daughter. Javier Bardem provides gravitas and tenderness to the role of the king. Awkwafina had big shoes to fill in taking over the Buddy Hackett role of the wisecracking seagull Scuttle, and brings her signature smart-ass persona. Along those lines, Melissa McCarthy tears it up as Ursula, taking over for the legendary voice actress Pat Carroll and putting her own spiky spin on the role.
But the visual effects are the film’s main weakness. Marshall certainly knows his way around a splashy musical, if you’ll pardon the pun. He was nominated for an Academy Award for “Chicago,” after all. But the underwater motion often looks flat and artificial in a way that’s distancing. This is especially true in trying to create the sensation of the mermaids’ long, lustrous hair billowing around them. The “Under the Sea” production number is bursting with vibrant colors, and the sea creatures’ elaborate choreography is a delight. But it doesn’t truly capture the feeling of being under the sea. Flounder, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, makes an especially awkward fit within the live-action setting, especially above the water’s surface.
Once you’ve been to Pandora, you can never go anywhere else. But the fictional Caribbean island where “The Little Mermaid” takes place is certainly a pleasant escape.
The Little Mermaid (2023)
Halle Baileyas Ariel
Jonah Hauer-Kingas Prince Eric
Daveed Diggsas Sebastian (voice)
Awkwafinaas Scuttle (voice)
Jacob Tremblayas Flounder (voice)
Noma Dumezwenias Queen Selina
Javier Bardemas King Triton
Melissa McCarthyas Ursula
Art Malikas Sir Grimsby
Jessica Alexanderas Vanessa
Emily Coatesas Rosa
Lin-Manuel Mirandaas Chef Louis
- Rob Marshall
- David Magee
- Wyatt Smith