‘The Little Mermaid’ is a Rousing, Charming, Vibrant and (Yes) Necessary Journey Under the Sea


The Disney live-action remakes have been hit and miss. For me, they more often miss because the are so obviously a very cynical corporate attempt to weaponize nostalgia for a maximum profit amount. The Disney live-action remakes have varied from a very pretty, but ultimately unnecessary companion piece to the original (Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast) to what you more often get, the very lifeless, hollow, emotionally nothing exoskeleton of the film audiences love so dearly (Jon Favreau’s The Lion King.) And also, these films aren’t really live action. Especially in the case of The Lion King, this is just a different kind of animation, one that is constantly being improved and will therefore not age very well. Craig Gillespie’s Cruella is an outlier here, because it’s doing something fresh and different, but it’s also not a remake of anything in particular.

It gives eight-year-old me great pleasure to say that Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is the best live action Disney remake so far. Partly because it expands on the original source material in compelling ways, but doesn’t condemn those who loved the original source material. It never minimizes the impact that film had on so many. Also because the new songs don’t suck, and they all add something to the proceedings. But mainly, this works because of the true star turn of one Halle Bailey.


Ariel (Bailey) is the mermaid princess of the seven seas, ruled by King Triton (Javier Bardem). Ariel is fascinated by the world of the humans above the ocean where she lives, despite never having access to it. She hoards objects fallen into the sea from shipwrecks, and sort of keeps them for anthropological research. Aside from her animal friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), a fish, Scuttle (Awkwafina), a bird that can somehow swim underwater (more on that later), and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), a crab who works for her father, Ariel feels very isolated and dreams of being where the people are.


One day, she witnesses a shipwreck where a man is drowning in the ocean. She saves his life, bringing him to shore, but then disappears, because the human world and the Merpeople are historically at odds and interactions between the two have started wars. The man she saves is Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who she is immediately smitten by. Ariel is approached by sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who makes a deal with her to transform her into a human for three days if she gives up her voice, allowing her to remain as a human permanently if she can receive “true love’s kiss”, with dire consequences if she does not.

Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid isn’t modernizing the story of the 1989 film in ways that feel trite or hacky, like so many Disney “re-imaginings” before it. Both worlds this film imagines, the world of this fictious Caribbean island and the world under the sea have so much more depth to them, in more ways than one. The disdain between the sea and human people feel inspired by the way modern politics work in this country, and this story’s inherent message about unity feels more timely than ever.


Halle Bailey is a movie star, full stop. Her singing voice is luminous and captivating, and I would argue the film doesn’t truly begin until she sings the iconic Part of Your World. But Bailey is more than just a beautiful voice – the amount of silent movie star acting she achieves when Ariel has given up her voice, simply blew me away. She’s got an extremely expressive face, a very powerful screen presence and she gives Ariel much more personality than she has ever had before, whether it be in the original 1989 film, or the not-great Broadway musical adaptation of this story.

The character of Ariel is definitely written more agency and more nuance, but it helps that Prince Eric is a fully fleshed out human being this time too. I’ve never thought of Prince Eric as very much more than the himbo dreamboat prince that is treated like a trophy to be won. However, it helps that he has his own I-Want song in this one, and it’s every bit as stirring and emotionally rousing as Part of Your World. Jonah Hauer-King is so good here, and the genuine, real love story between Ariel and Eric is the stuff of rom com gold.


I’m a huge Melissa McCarthy fan and yet I was worried about her in this. I heard her sing one time before and that was on Barbra Streisand’s album where she did duets with movie stars. They sang Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, and McCarthy seemed game and happy to be there, but she had some considerable trouble hitting those high notes. I don’t know what happened. Maybe McCarthy had some very intense singing lessons, because I didn’t notice any autotune, but she totally nails my favorite villain song, Poor Unfortunate Souls. She’s got a sly, slithering vocal style, she sounds kind of like the lady still giving her all at the karaoke bar even after half of the joint has left for the night. She’s sort of doing an imitation of the iconic Pat Carroll performance, but is also putting just enough of her own spin on it to make it undeniably McCarthy.


The visual style of the animals here is maybe a weak spot if there is one. Flounder is an actual fish breed this time, but he looks like he’s been put on weight loss medication and only sometimes has a face that registers emotion. Awkwafina’s Scuttle is pretty perfect though, she captures that kind of manic, slightly obnoxious energy of the Buddy Hackett performance, but makes the character unmistakably Awkwafina. Although it makes almost zero sense as to how Scuttle can exist underwater. Later research proved they modeled Scuttle after a certain kind of bird that can fly and swim, but the movie doesn’t stop to explain this to us, and it feels a bit weird in context.

Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, however, kind of holds this whole thing together. His comic timing as the put-upon crab is fantastic. He’s doing the over-the-top Caribbean accent that feels a bit campy and ridiculous, but it’s definitely an intentional choice. The accent really comes to life when Sebastian is given a song, and of course Diggs nails them. And the visual rendering of Sebastian is probably the most successful out of all three animals, which is good since we spend the most time with him.


A lot has been said about the visual effects in this film being a big problem. Some scenes underwater feel visually dark when they don’t need to, but then we’re treated to a bunch of fish and undersea creatures doing Busby Berkeley-type dance routines in the overwhelmingly vibrant Under the Sea sequence. For each thing that visually doesn’t work, I think there are five more things that do. There was nothing visually that took me out of the movie, which is more than I can say for the new The Lion King.

What worked for me over and over again is the additions made to the story, that really justify the almost full hour of new material. The way the Eric and Ariel love story is expanded is truly inspired and gives you a really compelling reason to care about this couple that is almost nothing in the original movie. They’re both royalty who feel confined by their parents’ expectations for them. Both want to explore the world and see the places they haven’t been able to, and bring unity and peace to both sides. And even where Ariel can’t say a word, the spark between them ignites big time, and it floods this story with emotion.


Rob Marshall has been Disney’s go-to guy for musicals as of late, having directed the (in my opinion) very well-done adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and the more recent and equally charming Mary Poppins Returns, which also received a kind of ridiculous online backlash for no reason. He’s done this kind of thing right enough times for me to totally trust his vision at this point. And the fact that he took The Little Mermaid, which is one of my favorite movies of my childhood, and managed to find new, compelling avenues into the story, is truly impressive. I walked into the new Little Mermaid hopeful, but skeptical, and left thinking I’ll watch it over and over again, just like I did with the original all those years ago.

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