By now, the reviews for these live-action Disney remakes somewhat write themselves. The Little Mermaid falls into a similar situation found in the mediocre at best Beauty and the Beast as well as the surprisingly strong Cinderella. All of these films stretch out the runtime well past the 80-ish minute originals, adding backstories, songs, or other elements that show just how efficient storytelling is in animated features. The level of success generally depends on everything in spite of the direction daring to set things off course with uneven pacing and odd visual choices to make up for the lack of limitless options afforded by animation. Fortunately, The Little Mermaid is ultimately able to find what’s needed to succeed thanks to the strength of its performers and enough visual energy to stand up stronger than some of the other recent attempts.
The story remains the same. Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, a mermaid princess and the youngest daughter of King Triton (a seemingly bored Javier Bardem), who is fascinated by the human world. Despite her father’s wishes that Ariel stays under the sea, her curiosity brings her to the surface, where she eventually finds herself saving Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning during a storm. Instantly falling in love with him, Ariel makes a deal with the nefarious sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), to trade her voice for human legs so she can exist on land and attempt to be with Eric. Of course, it’s not all that simple for Ariel to be part of that world.
Naturally, it’s finding performers that can literally hit the right note and embrace what’s needed to make their efforts feel like a proper representation of these classic Disney characters. That’s a part of this film’s success, as Bailey brings the qualities needed for Ariel. Already a strong female character in the realm of Disney princesses, this Ariel stands out again by being curious, headstrong, and an independent thinker. Fortunately, that also means there’s not much additional work needed to refine the character even further to ensure those personality traits fit the times. Through all this, Bailey plays it well when speaking her mind, and for the large portion of the film that requires her to act as a mute.
Expectedly having fun is McCarthy, who gets to go all in as a purple-hued sorceress with octopus tentacles and white hair that always stands tall. Not settling for easy jokes fitting of her usual style of comedy or dialing down the deliciously evil nature of Pat Carroll’s take on the character, even while pushed to straight-up speak exposition to the audience, this is a worthwhile creation that manages to accomplish what one hopes from these live-action re-dos – show off what this format can provide.
Less successful is Bardem, who was seemingly instructed to play up his being despondent and having reservations about the human world, minus some much-needed goofiness. Perhaps Bardem used it all up in Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. On the other hand, Hauer-King is putting a lot of effort into making Eric seem more interesting than he actually is, which is appreciated. Also not hurting are the efforts of Noma Dumezweni as Queen Selina and Art Malik as Eric’s loyal butler, Sir Grimsby.
However, I’m unsure what to say when it comes to the voices. On paper, Daveed Diggs as Sebastian makes sense. It helps that the crab isn’t made to look photo-real and actually has animated reactions. His jokes are whatever, but it’s fine. His purpose is clear. Flounder is a real mixed bag, though. Jacob Tremblay does what he can to imbue this little tropical fish with life. However, it’s still weird to see the hybrid attempt of making a real fish that is partially animated. And then Awkwafina comes in as Scuttle, and the mileage will vary, especially when she gets her rap single, courtesy of new lyrics by co-producer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Director Rob Marshall was handed the task of making this film. While I didn’t mind his Mary Poppins Returns, I have very few good things to say about his other films that followed Chicago. So, there’s already a point in his favor, as he’s now directed two films featuring mermaids, and The Little Mermaid is far better than his attempt to bring back Capt. Jack Sparrow with the dreaded Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. With that said, if Disney keeps wanting to hand mountains of money over to the production of these redundant remakes, at least this one looks decent and can generate the energy needed in specific moments.
It was depressing to see live-action renditions of “Be My Guest” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” lack any spark that makes those musical numbers come alive. By comparison, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” do much better justice, even if the semi-realistic visual display of sea life in this film means we can’t see the bass play the brass, or the carp play the harp. Really, even if the new songs, much like the other remakes, lack that extra something that will make them last, the new takes on the original songs are never an issue. They still play great and do what’s needed to reflect the emotion that should be coming out of those moments.
Shot by Dion Beebe and featuring tons of special effects, coming after Avatar: The Way of Water re-wrote the book on how to deliver incredible underwater spectacle; it’s a good thing The Little Mermaid can get away with just enough in the visuals department. It’s pretty colorful when it wants to be, even while stretching itself to show off other mermaids and more at times. However, it hits the audience with a sense of scale that feels rewarding for those excited to see how this remake tackles the underwater world and the land above. Given the limits Disney has been seeing by rushing their Marvel films as of late (with some exceptions), the push to give this film proper attention does feel notable.
Alas, it would still be nice to see these films not have to work so hard against their issues. Why does a remake of The Little Mermaid need to be 135 minutes? Being such a slavish devotion to the original yet showing signs of other ambitions make for a curious combination that awkwardly fits together. As a result, these films continue to feel like the ultimate exercise in ensuring that there’s no real reason to revisit it again and again when a much more efficient and elaborate version already exists, sans the problems that come with these later attempts. Yes, some of these reimagined flicks color outside the lines. Still, it’s hard not to be cynical about the entries that specifically choose to adhere so closely to the original.
With all of that in mind, The Little Mermaid more or less works. It’s well-acted, and the songs that have already proven great remain as such. I wish there were more chances taken to mix things up (outside of the obvious amount of diversity spread across the cast), but this is where we are with these live-action versions. Fortunately, no expense was spared, as it looks good enough to impress at its best and not seem laughable at its worst. Whether or not this film will have much staying power, it’s doing what it can to be true to the original vision while only mildly getting in the way of itself. That’s enough to keep this film from being a poor, unfortunate new version of one of Disney’s biggest hits.