THE LITTLE MERMAID is directed by Rob Marshall. The film stars Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, and Melissa McCarthy. The film is a remake of the 1989 animated film of the same name, itself based on the classic tale from Hans Christian Andersen.
Young Ariel lives beneath the sea, yearning to visit and join the surface world of the humans, much to the dismay of her many sisters as well as her father, King Triton. A chance encounter that results in her saving the life of Prince Eric leads to further conflicts with her father that result in her running away and striking a deal with Ursula, a sea witch, which will give her legs but only a limited amount of time to win the prince’s heart. Will she succeed, or will she be cast into the ocean, away from her love, forever?
No one can deny the “classic” status of Disney’s 1989 adaptation of THE LITTLE MERMAID, which ushered in the Disney Renaissance, reviving the studio’s animated output and renewing its interest, leading to many more movies that have since become classics, even if the Disney take was noticeably more lighthearted and optimistic than Andersen’s original tale (no surprise there though). Lately, Disney has been on a kick remaking their animated classics as reimagined live-action adaptations. With live-action takes on fare like CINDERELLA, ALADDIN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE JUNGLE BOOK, and DUMBO, it seemed only a matter of time before we got to THE LITTLE MERMAID. These new takes on old favorites have been hit and miss, to say the least, but this Disney fan and critic will try anything once.
So… with those other (often questionable) adaptations over the past decade or so, how does the live-action take on THE LITTLE MERMAID stack up? With beautiful production design, fantastic music, great casting which includes a career-defining performance from Halle Bailey, and a solid supporting cast, this new version of THE LITTLE MERMAID easily stands among the best live-action Disney remakes, even if there are a few minor flaws that keep it from perfection.
There are not enough good things to be said about the performance from Halle Bailey in the title role. While this young lady certainly saw her share of (unjustified) backlash for taking on the role of Ariel, her siren song quicky shuts the naysayers up. This beautiful young lady has the mix of innocence, curiosity, and spunk a role like this requires. Given that this is a movie that requires the character to sing songs and then spend a good portion of the movie mute after that, it’s certainly a demanding role that won’t work if the wrong person is cast. Bailey is a sight to behold with a powerful singing voice for when the film requires it. I saw the film at a press-only screening, but I have no doubt that when theaters full of people young and old alike see the movie, there will be thunderous applause and cheers following each of her musical numbers.
This moviegoer is happy to report that the supporting cast fares just as well, including voiceover work from Daveed Digs for Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, and Awkwafina as Scuttle, reimagined as a female character for this take on the story. Some of the most powerful performances come from Javier Bardem as King Triton (is there anything this guy can’t play?) and Melissa McCarthy, who brings Ursula to life. All these characters get just the right amount of screen time, never overshadowing Halle Bailey’s lead role. While it would’ve been nice to get a little more in the way of character development, particularly with Ursula and Triton’s past, they do fantastic work with what they’re given.
Production values are no slouch either. It’s clear Disney threw every dollar they could into this production, and it looks absolutely stunning. Whether it’s the underwater kingdom of Atlantica, a shipwreck Ariel is exploring, or coastal towns inhabited by a royal family, THE LITTLE MERMAID is a triumph. It manages to find that happy medium between being too real and too cartoony, and every effort made by the production crew has paid off. The end results speak for themselves. It looks and sounds amazing.
There are only a few minor flaws that keep the movie from perfection. While the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda is always welcomed in Hollywood these days, the new pieces of music he composed for the movie stick out like sore thumbs and feel out of place; a rap-style song sung by Scuttle and Sebastian is particularly bad. The 135-minute running time is excessive for a film like this centered at family audiences; the original movie was barely over 80 minutes and still told a complete tale. The film also takes a different approach to Ariel’s sisters than the original movie did; as they’re all of different, diverse races in this adaptation. We can only assume they must be adopted/honorary daughters, or that King Triton was a womanizer at some point in his life. I’m all for diversity and representation in cinema (Halle Bailey is a revelation, as I’ve already stated several times in this review), but here it raises questions the film never bothers answering.
Despite a few minor flaws that keep it from perfection, THE LITTLE MERMAID easily ranks in the upper tier of these live action remakes of older animated Disney films. The lead performance from Halle Bailey is easily one of the best a film in recent memory. The supporting cast and music are great, and the production values are second to none. It’s a triumph in nearly every conceivable way, and audiences young and old alike will love what they see. Highly recommended!