Synopsis: A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
Stars: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem
Director: Rob Marshall
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Of all the live-action remakes the Walt Disney Studios had announced, I was most apprehensive about The Little Mermaid. It’s not so much that I had been holding the library of Disney animated classics close enough to my heart that I couldn’t see the vision of transforming them for a new generation; it’s that I didn’t want a new audience to be robbed of the magic I felt when I saw the original in 1989. It was Thanksgiving, and my mom had taken a few friends and me to the Southtown, formerly one of the few Cinerama houses in MN before it was twinned. I’ll never forget being in that audience and seeing Disney’s take on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale for the first time.
Of course, the rest was history. Going on to become a multi-Oscar-winning lifesaving hit for Disney and ushering in a second golden era for the studio, there wouldn’t (couldn’t) have been a Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin without the blockbuster red carpet The Little Mermaid laid out. The film would get poor-quality direct-to-video sequels, a truncated theme park show at what was then MGM Studios in Orlando, and a full-scale ride/attraction in the Disney theme parks. A Broadway musical was well-intentioned, but with mermaids floating around on Heelys and the dimensions not quite right, it felt like a more expensively priced version of the show you could have seen as part of your day at the park.
A partially live-action version was presented on television in 2019, with filmed portions interspersed with the animated film. In that eye-rolling endeavor, Queen Latifah played Ursula, ’90s musician Shaggy was Sebastian, and Moana breakout Auli’i Cravalho was Ariel. Yet in the multitude of Disney big screen adaptations, there was a noticeable gap The Little Mermaid had yet to fill. In truth, any success has been spotty, with 2015’s Cinderella the high point and 2022’s straight to Disney+ Pinocchio the absolute dregs. Landing somewhere in between, you have Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, Dumbo, Mulan, Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King, and The Jungle Book.
Could it be that The Little Mermaid was waiting this long to surface because it was going to, like its cartoon inspiration, signal a turning of the tides for the simple remakes that have come before it? Or maybe Disney Studios has taken enough queues from what didn’t work in their previous attempts and vowed not to make the same mistakes again. Either way, The Little Mermaid emerges as the studios most assured and shimmering live-action revision to date, one that takes the original off the shelf, lightly dusts it off, and puts a shine on it for the viewer of today without forgetting about the audience that made it a classic to begin with.
Crashing waves and a ship unwilling to yield to a thundering sea determined to swallow it whole are the first images we see in director Rob Marshall’s (Into the Woods) interpretation. Here, Prince Eric (dreamy Jonah Hauer-King, who often looks strikingly like his animated inspiration) is the adopted son of a country dependent on its export business and grieving the loss of its King. It’s now time for Eric to return home and get serious about the responsibilities bestowed on him by his Queen (Noma Dumezweni, Mary Poppins Returns). Yet, he longs to explore other territories of the ocean not mapped out, wild undiscovered waters they only sing about in sailor songs (and one he power ballads about in a new tune).
Gliding just below the water’s surface is a young mermaid, Ariel (Halle Bailey), who is also struggling with living up to the expectations of life in royal service. As one of the daughters of the seven seas, her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem, The Good Boss), demands that she participate in the duties assigned to her at birth. Her curiosity couldn’t be contained in any number of oceans, though, and she can’t help but wonder about the world above the water, hiding away any object that falls into the sea in her secret cave of treasures. Accompanied by sidekick Flounder (Jacob Tremblay, Doctor Sleep) and the King’s servant Sebastian (Daveed Diggs, DC League of Super-Pets), she occasionally gets (wrong) advice from dotty bird Scuttle (Awkwafina, Renfield) about the items she happens upon.
Watching Ariel from afar, and clocking her desires for something more than what she has, is Triton’s sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, Spy). A tentacled sea witch with a fishbone to pick with her brother that banished her years before, she’s found a vulnerable spot in his impenetrable armor in the form of his youngest daughter. When Ariel saves Eric from drowning and quickly falls in love with him, dreaming of a life out of the sea, Ursula exploits Ariel’s plans for her gain. She entices her to strike a deadly bargain, bringing about a tidal wave of danger for all swept up in the churn.
Purists will find that not much has changed between the 1989 movie and the 2023 adaptation from David Magee (The School for Good and Evil). The story is essentially the same, with a few tweaks here and there to remove dated references and smooth out passages that even the most ardent viewers would admit were growing a bit stale. It hasn’t been woke-ified but has made it even more of Ariel’s story of reclaiming her voice in a literal and figurative manner during the film’s highly stylized final act. Whereas the finale of the new Pinocchio found the filmmakers committing the grave mistake of making a change they thought the audience wanted, here the studio has trusted that the original story has stood the test of time and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
I’m not going to comment on the nasty debate that has gone on over the casting of Ariel because none of those people had seen the film yet. I have seen Bailey’s performance as Ariel and can attest that it gives the Disney princess a beautiful new face and, if possible, an even more gorgeous voice. Unlike the original, it takes a while to get to Ariel’s first song, ‘Part of Your World’, but it’s a build-up worth waiting for. Time freezes for a bit the higher Bailey gets up in her dynamic range, creating a goosebumpy ride for a song we’ve heard hundreds of times before but never sung so stirringly. There’s more lovely singing as the film goes on, but this initial intro sets the bar high for everything that follows.
Another surprise I wasn’t prepared for was how good McCarthy is as Ursula. When I first heard of her casting, I felt it was…oh…too expected? Couldn’t Marshall/Disney dig a bit deeper into their creative wells and find a name that would be more exciting? As it happens, McCarthy is a spitfire as the villain, largely eschewing her usual schtick and instead tipping her tentacle to Pat Carroll’s original take on the role. McCarthy can add some of her own shade to the part with her skilled line readings, and her singing is solid, but the overall mood of the interpretation works like a charm.
Marshall fills the rest of the cast with solid actors and good singers. Diggs is a scream as Sebastian, as is Awkwafina, who takes a usually annoying role and makes it memorably funny. Diggs and Awkwafina are saddled with the wackiest of several new songs (written/contributed by Lin Manuel Miranda…still desperate to EGOT by hook or crook) but make it singular because of their delivery.
More than anything, this new version of The Little Mermaid retains the spirit and soul that has kept the original playing on repeat in homes for the last three decades. It’s swoon-worthy romantic when it is called upon to do so and a five-hanky weepie when the time comes to shed a tear. I should also say that the scary moments back in 1989 (i.e., the shark and the Big Ursula finale) are extra scary here – this leans heavily into a strong PG at times. See it on the most giant screen possible to catch the expressive creatures brought to colorful life by the Disney effects team and hear those earworm Alan Menken tunes at the maximum volume possible.