Disney’s new live-action take on The Little Mermaid goes along swimmingly in its sweet romance, but it doesn’t diverge enough from its animated roots to truly make a splash.
First things first: The charming Halle Bailey (Grown-ish) gets Ariel endearingly right, from her innocent optimism to unquenchable curiosity. Part of the singing duo Chloe X Halle, Bailey also has a gorgeous voice, nailing perhaps the best “I Want” song in the Disney catalogue, “Part of Your World,” among other numbers.
Unfairly targeted with racist vitriol after the initial trailers, Bailey is a likable lead, and it’s easy to imagine young mermaid fans loving her and her sisters, who also are women of different races. Protectors of the seven seas, the mermaids have varying patterns of scales, possibly meant to reflect these diverse waters.
It’s a nice inclusive touch, as is the Caribbean flair in Prince Eric’s kingdom, which seemed rather nondescript in animated form. Yet while director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) and screenwriter David Magee (A Man Called Otto) add some other updates, The Little Mermaid also introduces some intriguing plot threads that it never pursues.
For starters, merfolk have apparently been at war with humans for ages. Sailors speak of mermaids’ “siren song” that lures them to death and try to spear a dolphin they mistake for a mermaid, blaming the sea king for the area’s many shipwrecks.
A human killed Ariel’s mother—plenty of reason for the protective King Triton (Javier Bardem, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile) to forbid Ariel from going to the surface. But the film doesn’t do more with this conflict beyond a few lines of dialogue, such as when Ariel’s sisters carp about the damage the shipwrecks inflict on their habitat. Instead, the film picks up Ariel’s unexplained fascination with humans from the animated film and her firm belief that beings who make such wonderful thingamabobs can’t be all that bad.
The underwater kingdom also appears pretty sparse as far as other inhabitants, compared to the thriving city over which Namor presides in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (When Triton wonders if Ariel has a crush on a lucky merman, I wondered where these guys were.)
Disney’s live-action remakes walk an odd tightrope, wanting to incorporate everything audiences like about the animated versions and changing enough to modernize certain elements or add plot and character depth. Two of my favorites are 2016’s The Jungle Book, which gives Mowgli more agency, and 2015’s Cinderella, which enhances the romance by having the prince meet Ella before the ball.
This Little Mermaid gets off on the right foot by better developing the character of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, The Flatshare). A shipwrecked orphan adopted by the island’s queen (Noma Dumezweni, The Watcher), Eric has a wanderlust similar to Ariel. He also believes that staying open to the world’s wonders is the only way his island can grow—a sentiment the eavesdropping Ariel likes immediately. When she sees he’s compassionate, too, she can’t help but rescue him once his ship catches fire and he’s tossed into the sea.
Like the animated film, Ariel again visits the sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, Nine Perfect Strangers)—here, a disgraced aunt—and gives up her voice to become human for a few days to see Eric again. However, the film frames this around not just infatuation but a desire to live her own life. Triton, in his abalone armor, clamps down on his youngest daughter awfully hard.
In addition to incorporating several songs from the original, The Little Mermaid adds a few new numbers by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (Encanto). The best of these is “For the First Time,” which voices Ariel’s impressions of life on land, as well as her misgivings. “Realize the price that you paid with your voice,” she muses. “Sacrifice … with a choice you can’t undo.”
The worst is “The Scuttlebutt,” a rap between the raspy Scuttle (Awkwafina, Renfield) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs, Snowpiercer), the crab that speaks patois—which gets at the larger problem.
I hesitate to criticize the effects team overall, which renders Ariel’s reef in gorgeous iridescent pinks, reds, and blues. They also make the mermaids swim convincingly, with Ariel’s tailfins unfolding like gossamer butterfly wings. But viewers’ tolerance for the CGI talking animals will vary.
Scuttle, Sebastian, Flounder (Jacob Tremblay, My Father’s Dragon), and Ursula’s electric eels are the only anthropomorphic ones in the film, which makes them stand out even more than some of their uncanny-valley attributes. (Even the original film’s standout “Under the Sea” number goes quasi-realistic, with Ariel bouncing on turtles and jellyfish but no fishy orchestra or a fluke who’s the duke of soul.) Physically, Scuttle looks the best, with tousled head feathers and bright blue eyes. Sebastian has a real crab’s body but tall yellow eyestalks that reminded me of Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants, and I found Flounder’s moving mouth disturbing.
So is the live-action character design of Ursula. That’s no slight to McCarthy, who plays her as amusingly campy and vampy (and thankfully ditches telling Ariel to rely on hip-swaying body language). But segueing from McCarthy’s face and her sweetheart neckline to flowing tentacles is a leap that my brain had a hard time making, and the third act’s developments almost derailed the whole film for me. Let’s just say that bigger isn’t always better.
At least Bailey and Hauer-King have a sweet chemistry, because if the romance didn’t work, none of this would. The two believably bond in scenes where he shows her all the gadgets and gizmos he’s collected, as well as how he navigates by the constellations. She reveals her name by stopping him at Aries with a finger to his lips, and he parses out the rest.
“That’s a beautiful name, written in the stars,” he says.
The Little Mermaid is adorable enough in parts, but its story largely stays on the surface. Like Ariel in “Part of Your World,” I wanted more.