Poor unfortunate soul.
That’s what I’d call anyone daring to attempt a live-action remake of the insanely beloved 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid. That film, widely credited for re-energizing a sagging Disney animation industry, made the animated musical a hot property and gave millions of children around the world their first modern day princess. And it wasn’t beloved by kids only. The extremely catchy score and father-daughter dynamic provided something for everyone all within a brutally economic running time of 89 minutes.
Now, after a series of multiple extremely profitable live-action remakes with varying quality, Disney and director Rob Marshall bring The Little Mermaid into the live-action world. In doing so, they starting something of a culture war by casting a Black actress as the traditionally white Ariel, the titular mermaid. Cynics will say the choice was made to justify the remake by going “woke.” Disney and Disney enthusiasts will say it appeals to younger Black audiences by giving them a heroine to whom they can relate. Maybe the answer is somewhere in between. Yet, one thing is very clear about their casting choice, Halle Bailey, our new Ariel, gives this film a wonderful sense of excitement and life, elevating nearly everything around her in a truly star-making performance.
The story of The Little Mermaid remains the same with a few tweaks here and there. Ariel is a teenage mermaid with wanderlust and an inescapable longing for exploration. Fascinated by the world above the ocean, she falls in love with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) but is forbidden to interact with the human world thanks to her father King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) fear and loathing. After making a deal with Ursula the sea witch (a fantastic Melissa McCarthy), a voiceless Ariel must kiss Prince Eric in three days or bad stuff will happen. You know the deal…
Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) knows how to stage musical numbers, and his vision for The Little Mermaid feels like the most complete Disney live-action remake to date. It’s a real film with stakes and beats and moments of real wonder. Granted, those moments are mostly pulled directly from the animated version, but in the context of this genre of Disney films, The Little Mermaid is by far the best yet. The human world moments are fantastically rendered, giving Bailey and Hauer-King real moments of tenderness and connection as they build their romantic connection. In particular, a journey through a local market gives the film a nice jolt of energy through visuals, color, dance, and sand, lots and lots of sand.
What perhaps doesn’t work as well (aside from the two unmemorable, one awful new songs) are the underwater CGI sequences. Everything dealing with actors feels slightly off. They move in odd ways likely meant to represent water movements but always appear off-putting. The actors also sometimes have that “I’m looking in the general direction of a CGI character but not directly at them” look that I particularly dislike. The best of these sequences nearly always involve Ursula, brilliantly rendered as McCarthy rolls around the screen with a villainous comic glee. And there is, of course, Bailey’s fantastic performance. She glows with an infectiously joyous inner light, conveying all of Ariel’s inner longings, hopes, frustrations, and teenage resentments in extremely accomplished ways. She is hands down the reason to see the film with her beautiful voice soaring in the classic Disney ballad “Part of Your World.”
Remaking The Little Mermaid was always going to be a dicey prospect, but Marshall and team wisely chose Bailey to help justify its existence. Purists will have issue with the imperfect film, no doubt. But there is something special about seeing younger audiences grow with a mermaid of their own, whether she looks like them or like someone they know. This version isn’t as perfect as the animated original, but it’s the best attempt yet at recapturing the original version’s sense of magic and wonder.