The Little Mermaid
It isn't always better down where it's wetter, but Disney's latest live-action remake gets all afloat with Halle Bailey's perfect lead casting and stunning vocals.
May 24, 2023
For anyone without a scaly tail, communing with the ocean can be a routine dip, a refreshing splash or a sail into choppy waters. In Disney's latest dance with merpeople and the humans that its main mythical sea creature yearns for (and desperately wants to learn more about), all three prove true. The next in the Mouse House's long line of live-action remakes — albeit with ample CGI helping to bring its sea-dwelling characters to life, but no hand-drawn animation — the new The Little Mermaid is often content to wade where its beloved 1989 predecessor went before. That's the Disney do-over standard. Sometimes, though, this new effort is its own delightful paddle; when 'Under the Sea' echoes against a literal sea of colour, movement, creatures and energy, it's a dazzling Golden Age Hollywood-esque spectacular. There's no escaping the movie's bloat when it's not merrily floating, however, due in no small part to inflating the storyline from the original's 83 minutes to a hefty 135 minutes.
This day at the cinematic beach — glowing highs and waterlogged lows included — keeps the same basic narrative that viewers loved 34 years ago, as loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's 19th-century fairy tale of the same name. A quote from that text opens the film as Alan Menken's revisited Oscar-winning score starts to swell, advising "but a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more". The curious and adventurous Princess Ariel (Halle Bailey, Grown-ish) cries through her siren's song instead, lamenting the strict no-humans rule enforced by her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile). And, in rebellious teen-style, she acts out by sneaking off to scour the ocean floor's shipwrecks with her fish best friend Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, Luca), even when Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs, Snowpiercer) is tracking her every move, and stashing trinkets from the world on land in a secret cave.
When it's underwater, The Little Mermaid isn't served well by arriving so soon after Avatar: The Way of Water and its stunning beneath-the-waves imagery, or releasing just as Prehistoric Planet 2 is streaming its dive into ancient waters. In director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) and cinematographer Dion Beebe's (Gemini Man) hands, plunging into the deep largely appears dark and murky. Indeed, if Bailey and Bardem's hair wasn't shimmering and flowing, it'd just look like a dimly lit set (mostly, it still does). The kaleidoscopic extravaganza that is 'Under the Sea' doesn't only stand out because that's precisely what its bright hues are doing, of course. It's a gloriously choreographed and performed piece amid a coral reef, set to Menken and late, great lyricist Howard Ashman's best (and also Oscar-winning) song, and it's an absolute showstopper. But, as made clear both before and after it drops its calypso-inspired beats, the number sets a standard that the film rarely cares to match elsewhere.
When it comes to concern, Ariel has plenty. Her cup runneth over about the boats cruising above, with their sailors shooting fire into the sky, dogs and just humans doing human things — such having feet. As the story still goes, her wistful watching is fortuitous for Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, The Flatshare). If the mermaid wasn't there to save him when he's knocked overboard, there'd be no romance. Cue a two-way obsession, plus tentacled sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, Nine Perfect Strangers) offering Ariel a bargain to follow her feelings and taste life out of water. She's given 72 hours in human form to experience true love's kiss, after which she'll be able to stay breathing air. If that went smoothly, and if Ariel's banished aunt wasn't cackling maniacally about taking over from her brother and stealing her niece's gifts, this wouldn't even be a 90-minute flick.
Like an unruly sea as a storm blows in, there's turbulence at the heart of The Little Mermaid. While it's easy to see why David McGee's (A Man Called Otto) screenplay has been padded out, it makes for an overextended voyage. Bailey is perfectly cast, and not only when Ariel is singing her heart out. Wanting to spend more time with her is as instinctive as kicking your feet in water. She's an enchanting, luminous, plucky and rousing heroine. She makes the need to know something more than just the pool she's born into feel achingly real. An added sequence where Ariel roams around Eric's library, spying his sea treasures — his equivalent of her own trove — is charming, gives both Bailey and Logan Lerman lookalike Hauer-King standout moments, and is the kind of new material that slips in easily. But the same can't be said for all the feature's new songs (this time with Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda penning lyrics) and even some of its closest recreations. Swooping somewhere new doesn't always pay off, and neither does treading water.
Adored in animated form, Sebastian, Flounder and seabird Scuttle (Awkwafina, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) couldn't demonstrate The Little Mermaid's crests and drops more heartily. Diggs' voice acting and singing is unsurprisingly scene-stealing, and Awkwafina is entertainingly lively — but their new tune 'The Scuttlebutt' is instantly forgettable (other than immediately being able to tell that Miranda wrote it). Photorealism doesn't suit their characters, either, bringing The Lion King's eerie uncanny animal valley to mind. That's especially the case for poor Flounder, whose name is more apt here than it's meant to be. Loving the talent but not the execution becomes a familiar sensation throughout this version of The Little Mermaid. So does remembering that Marshall wasn't just behind Chicago and Mary Poppins Returns, but also Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Into the Woods.
Back as the 80s came to a close, the first The Little Mermaid was a lifeboat, buoying Disney's animation studio when its fortunes were sinking. In its wash, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all followed, becoming House of Mouse classics. The new The Little Mermaid marks the last of that quartet to be remade — the tale as old as time, whole new world and circle of life otherwise reappearing in that order — and, towing the company line with these cartoon-to-flesh second efforts, it smacks of playing it safe. When Ariel's latest outing surrenders to the moment and the emotion, whether showing why it's better down where it's wetter with a joyous dash of vibrance, letting Bailey's divine voice convey a lifetime of longing to be part of a different world, or having its swooning lovers dance, discover and deepen their bond, it goes swimmingly. Often, though, it's just like Ursula: biding its time calculatingly and protractedly (that said, McCarthy is having a ball, more so than much of the movie).
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