‘The Little Mermaid’ review: Halle Bailey’s star-making performance saves the latest Disney live-action remake from floundering
In his 1836 fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen states that “mermaids do not have tears, and therefore, they suffer more.” Rob Marshall chooses to open the latest Disney live-action remake and his spin on the fairy tale and the 1989 animated classic with this line. Perhaps Marshall wanted to indicate that his new take on the story would be a bit darker, imbued with the suffering in the themes and plot points of the classic fairy tales that the subsequent Disney adaptations were reluctant to share with children. In a way, it subtly teases viewers that this new, lifelike version will be far different from the 1989 version that lit up viewers’ imaginations worldwide and saved Disney as a corporation. There may, in fact, be a reason to reimagine this story for a new audience. Unfortunately, the creative purpose of The Little Mermaid (2023) isn’t clear, as it lacks the bite of the fairy tale and the imaginative spirit of the animated classic.
That’s not to say The Little Mermaid isn’t without excitement. Nostalgic fans of the 1989 film will be excited to recognize dramatic beats, shot-for-shot comparisons (yes, Marshall includes Ariel’s hair flip), and most of their favorite catchy songs incorporated throughout the film. This live-action version of the tale is familiar: mermaid Ariel (a terrific Halle Bailey) lives under the sea with her five sisters and her father, King Triton (a lifeless Javier Bardem). With the company of her sea creature friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (Awkwafina), she explores the depths of the sea, venturing to forbidden areas and collecting trinkets that humans on land have lost to the sea. Ariel longs for something more than the doldrums of her underwater world. Her cartoonishly protective father has his reasons for not wanting her to venture to the surface, though. When Ariel was too young to remember, her mother lost her life at the hands of sailors who were on an expedition above.
The new film chooses to scratch the surface of the deep-seated generational conflicts between merpeople and humans. Merpeople believe that humans are dangerous and primed to kill them. In contrast, humans think that merpeople bewitch the seas on the night of the Coral Moon, causing death and destruction. This theme is mainly explored through a much more three-dimensional iteration of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Here, Marshall includes a backstory for Eric, an orphan who grew up in the castle after a storm killed Eric’s parents. Eric’s adoptive mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), is particularly superstitious and warns him to stay on land in their kingdom. Like Ariel, though, Eric has an adventurous spirit. We first meet him as he flings himself around the ship like Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie. Eric is more comfortable as a crew member aboard a ship and desperately desires to venture out to uncharted territory. It’s almost comical just how perfect this iteration of Prince Eric is–he runs through the flames to rescue his dog, collects antiques from his voyages, and is entirely altruistic in his desire to open up his kingdom to trade with other cultures.
While unintentional, it’s believable that Ariel would want to leave her world behind in favor of life on land, where the production design looks like a romance novel inspires it. Unfortunately, the depictions of underwater life belong in the uncanny valley of the ocean. It’s not the visual effects artists’ fault that James Cameron set an impossibly high standard with underwater visual effects with last year’s long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water. The inventive results were so stunning that viewers didn’t want to leave Pandora. The murky underwater effects in The Little Mermaid cannot measure up, creating a photorealistic world oscillating between hazy grays and bright unnatural neons that take a minute for viewers to adjust. The sea creatures are all rendered to be realistic, and the creativity of the first film, with its hundreds of bubbles and expressions from beloved favorites like Flounder and Sebastian, is mostly absent. There is a moment when Flounder is startled by his reflection in the mirror. Still, you only know he is surprised because of Tremblay’s voicework, not because of the blank CGI creations.
While the underwater environment leaves much to be desired, Halle Bailey’s rich performance makes the film worth watching; she was born to play Ariel. The reasoning for needing to venture to the surface isn’t clear like it is in the fairy tale, but Bailey makes Ariel’s sense of longing believable. Ariel is most alive when she’s swimming through the wreckage of ships at the bottom of the sea. Her rendition of “Part of Your World” is full of yearning, with a voice like a siren’s song, and it’s impossible not to get a bit misty-eyed when she puts her committed spin on the familiar classic. This version earns its place in the Disney musical canon. When she rescues Prince Eric from the shipwreck, her focus shifts. Her infatuation with Eric becomes so strong that she must find a way to get on land. While it’s understandable and sometimes comical that this is her motivation (as I said, this version of Prince Eric is perfect), it’s a bit frustrating that the themes of control, the connection between innocence and fearlessness, and losing one’s voice aren’t more potent in what should be a reimagination of the classic. After all, these themes, especially for young women, are incredibly relevant in 2023. Marshall left a lot of meat on the bone thematically that could’ve made the film much sharper and more modern, proving its timelessness.
The songs in the film are also crucial to its success, as fans of the classic film will be eager to hear some of their childhood favorites. There are some perplexing choices on the music front, though. Due to the visual effects and expressionless CGI sea animals, favorites like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” fall short of the original film. Daveed Diggs gives a committed, animated vocal performance in both songs. Yet, we don’t see any of that in Sebastian’s expressions or movements because he’s designed to be realistic and rigid. Likewise, “Under the Sea” is supposed to entice Ariel to want to stay underwater, yet had none of the magic of the animated film. This version sees her navigating multiple underwater environments that resemble Windows screensavers. Perhaps this is for sticklers, but the songwriters also cut “Les Poissons” and a crucial verse from “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” where Ursula talks about her body language. It felt oddly sanitized, especially since it was evident in Melissa McCarthy’s performance that she fully understood the iconic villain’s motivations while putting her own comedic spin on the role. Thanks to the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, there are also a handful of original songs in the film. In keeping with the development of Prince Eric as a character, the songwriters gave him a power ballad, “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which Hauer-King nails in a vocal performance that sounds remarkably like Bastille frontman Dan Smith. This song is admittedly closer to the style of the brilliant original songs from the 1989 version penned by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, but it doesn’t quite fit seamlessly into the original soundtrack. “For the First Time” also fits nicely to the soundtrack and is sung beautifully by Bailey. It’s pretty odd to give her a song she effectively imagines singing once she’s lost her voice. Still, when Ariel has a voice like Bailey, it’s ultimately better to add more opportunities for her vocals to shine. “The ScuttleButt,” a rap performed by Daveed Diggs and Awkafina, is a funny yet grating entry into the Disney songbook. My heart goes out to the parents who find their children requesting this one on repeat this summer. It’s a doozy.
Even though the film’s themes are explored in a surface-level way, a new, younger generation of moviegoers will absolutely enjoy this movie. Despite some pacing issues and a lengthy, unwarranted 135-minute runtime, it’s easy to get sucked into the fun of the film. As Ariel imagined, the film is much more exciting when we leave the CGI sea behind. Bailey’s performance on land is exuberant, recalling the classic animated Disney princesses while also putting her personal twist on the character. It’s still difficult not to be cynical about the flurry of Disney live-action remakes that feel like empty cash grabs capitalizing on millennial nostalgia. Now, a dominant and ubiquitous company, Disney doesn’t need to be saved like it so desperately did in 1989. So, why do moviegoers need this? Despite its flaws, The Little Mermaid made a tiny part of me feel six years old again. It’s exciting to imagine that Bailey could be the definitive version of Ariel for a new generation. Despite the film’s bevy of flaws, that’s reason enough to justify its existence.
Walt Disney will release The Little Mermaid only in theaters on May 26.
Photo by Giles Keyte/Walt Disney