Probably the most anticipated live-action remake that Disney has done, the long-awaited The Little Mermaid has finally swum to shore. The real question is whether it has dived to the depths of the original animated classic or floundered on the beach. The answer is that it is more the former than the latter, but as with most of these “reimaginings,” they still pale in comparison to the originals.
The plot follows the 1989 film almost beat for beat with some new scenes added in (Prince Eric has more to do, including his own yearning ballad, “Wild Uncharted Waters”) while others were taken out, like the Sebastian vs. Chef Louis sequence, “Les Poissons.” Aside from that, Ariel (Bailey) is still the curious teen wandering the waters with her best friend, Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and getting into all sorts of trouble. Her disapproving father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forces crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to watch over her, but she still manages to save Prince Eric from a shipwreck, immediately obsess over him, and sells her soul to the evil sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), so she can walk on land and find him.
Like the Aladdin remake, supporting characters get a bit more to do. Prince Eric has a tragic backstory of being in a shipwreck at an early age and raised by the King and Queen who found him. When he’s in yet another shipwreck, his overprotective mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), insists on keeping him close while he longs to explore the world and make his own decisions.
McCarthy’s Ursula also has a richer history, now being the sister of King Triton, and having been pushed aside as the owner of the magical trident. This gives her a bit more drive to want to punish the King and take revenge for her current isolation.
That said, there are no true surprises here. While moments have changed and lyrics have been altered to embrace modern sensibilities, this is yet another live-action adaptation that audiences will sit and nod at, knowing full well what’s coming and curiously watching to see how Disney pulls it off. But does it do enough to make fans pick this version over the animated? I’m not sure. There’s a bit of rewatch value to it as it has some fun sequences and can be gorgeous to watch. The shipwreck is oddly beautiful, and the scenes on land have a grand scope that fills the big screen in ways that insist audiences see it at the theater.
So why see Disney’s latest redo?
Well, first and foremost, the best thing about The Little Mermaid is its star, Halle Bailey. Not only does she pristinely belt the tunes (including a new number, “For the First Time”), but she has a relatable curiosity and innocence that immediately draws us into her story. When she rises to the crescendo in the iconic ballad “Part of Your World,” a desperate longing in her face and voice breaks your heart – something an animated character can’t do. (And I’m finding more and more that I prefer her version to the original.)
Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric is also quite good, adding more gravitas to the character and making us care about the two lovebirds getting together. McCarthy is clearly having a blast as Ursula, and she does a good job of making it her own without pulling the character into “McCarthy territory” – if that makes sense. A notable standout is Jessica Alexander (” A Banquet”) as Vanessa, the dark-haired beauty that is actually Ursula in disguise. Despite not being on screen that much, her turn as the sea witch in human form is devilishly fun and a bit humorous.
The least effective of the cast is Bardem as King Triton. He feels out of place and often doesn’t even seem like he’s actually in the movie. There’s a disconnect to his performance that makes it fall flat. And in the end, as he watches his daughter go off with her new husband while floating chest up in the water, you almost want to giggle.
As for the music, the familiar tunes are mostly good, with the added orchestration making them richer. “Under the Sea” loses a bit of steam because with the fish looking, well, like real fish, you can’t really have them playing instruments as they did in the original animated film. So aside from it being colorful and fun, it still pales in comparison. “Kiss the Girl” has a nice magic, and the lyric changes don’t distract at all.
The new songs by Alan Menken and Lin-Manual Miranda (standing in for the late Howard Ashman) don’t fare that well. Prince Eric’s ballad “Uncharted Waters” is the best, but even that lacks the rising thrill it should have. Ariel’s “For the First Time,” which she only sings on screen for a few moments (the rest of the time, it plays over a montage), is forgettable, despite offering a glimpse into her taking the human world in for the first time. “The Scuttlebutt,” rapped by Awkwafina as seagull Scuttle, is a distracting anachronistic mess that has some clever lyrics, but it is just Miranda doing his “Hamilton”/” In the Heights” thing that does not work here. This is what the word “cringe” is for.
As for the animal characters, yes, Disney could have made them look a little less realistic so they’d have a bit more personality. (I mean, this movie is about fantasy characters, so having them not look photorealistic would have been fine.) While it’s not as off-putting as you’d expect, it still could have been handled in a bubblier way.
Underwater sequences are both fascinating (how do make it seem like these actors are actually swimming around as they do?) and fake. Sometimes the human actors still look disembodied from the scene, especially Triton’s mermaid daughters. But other sequences like “Under the Sea” work well and are more colorful than the trailers suggest.
All in all, Disney’s latest reworking of their already perfect classic doesn’t mark it as the best of the bunch (Cinderella still wins), but it has its charms and makes a star out of Bailey. Was it ultimately necessary? Yes and no. The original is still going to be the go-to for many. And that has been the case with all of these live-action productions. But with its diverse casting, this gives young girls everywhere a chance to see themselves as the hero of a fantastical story about independence and strength. And that makes this new Little Mermaid worth celebrating.