"The Little Mermaid" stars Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Javier Bardem, and Melissa McCarthy. Released on May 26, 2023, the film is about a mermaid who falls in love with a prince from the surface world.
The film is directed by Rob Marshall, who also directed films such as "Chicago", "Nine", "Into the Woods", and "Mary Poppins Returns". It is the live-action adaptation of the 1989 animated film of the same name, which is loosely based on the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. It was only a month ago when Disney released a live-action remake of "Peter Pan" to our living room televisions, and now we have another one swimming its way to the big screen this weekend. Disney really wants to bombard us with nostalgia this year and make more money doing it. That's what happens when you don't see "Strange World" in the theater, and you said you wanted more original stuff from Disney. This weekend sees the studio reintroducing another one of its animated treasures to a new generation of kids. This time, it's an undersea tale of a mermaid who gave up her voice and tail to be with a guy she just met, way before recent films like "Enchanted" and "Frozen" changed that rule.
"The Little Mermaid" was one of the crucial moments in Disney's history and one of its best films in the animation department. It not only reinvigorated the studio following its series of commercial failures in the 1980s but also marked the beginning of the era known as the "Disney Renaissance" that shaped us 90s kids. Regarding its gorgeous animation, lovable characters, and memorable songs, "The Little Mermaid" is a colorful, fun, and family-friendly animated classic that introduced us to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, which was much darker than the version involving plenty of talking and singing fish. Because of how popular it is, it's unsurprising that Disney wanted to capitalize on its continuous success with a live-action/CGI remake from movie musical expert Rob Marshall. Regardless of its series of dumb controversies, does the remake offer enough seaworthy moments to justify its existence, or is it another poor unfortunate soul showing that Disney should give this trend a break? For the haters, it's obviously the latter, but let's find out anyway.
The story centers on Ariel (Bailey), a young mermaid princess living in the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. She's constantly fascinated with the human world above the sea and has been collecting its "unique" treasures. But, of course, the human world is forbidden for mermaids to explore, thanks to King Triton (Bardem), the ruler of Atlantica and Ariel's overprotective father with a grudge against humans. While examining the realm above water, Ariel encounters and later saves Eric (Hauer-King), a human prince, from drowning, resulting in her falling in love with him. Following her confrontation with her father, Ariel's determination to explore the surface leads her to make a deal with a conniving sea witch named Ursula (McCarthy). Ariel trades her voice for human legs so she can explore the human world. But, of course, she also has to kiss Eric in a short amount of time before the spell's broken. With the help of her fish friend Flounder (Tremblay), a dimwitted northern gannet named Scuttle (Awkwafina), and loyal crab Sebastian (Diggs), Ariel must make her dream come true while also attempting to bring peace between land and sea.
Undoubtedly, I love "The Little Mermaid" because of the abovementioned elements. It offers the usual vibrancy and charm that Disney is known for. More importantly, it has a princess who does more than sit around looking pretty, a trend that continued for the other Disney princesses after Ariel. So I was curious and cautious to see how the remake fares compared to the original, with the former being me seeing the classic story in live-action. However, as far as Disney live-action remakes go, they usually struggle to recapture the magic of their animated counterparts despite their technical achievements and entertainment values. Of course, this is mainly because of their "bleak" environments, their push for representation, and other modern changes that triggered a lot of snowflakes. Even though I enjoyed some of them, I've gradually grown to admit that they're far from superior upgrades to the original classics.
This brings us to the "Little Mermaid" remake, which plays out like any other Disney live-action remakes in previous years. The main reason, and it's something we already know, is that it rehashes its animated counterpart's story beat-by-beat with real-life actors and CGI creatures. Additionally, it incorporates many modern changes to the plot and characters to extend its runtime by almost an hour. It's a highly noticeable trend that's either helped or plagued the other Disney remakes depending on one's expectations. If you don't mind the remake retelling the animated version, then there's plenty to enjoy in "The Little Mermaid" regarding its nostalgia and sense of wonder. However, if you're still not a fan of how Disney "butchers" their animated gems, "The Little Mermaid" may not be able to convince you to be a part of its world. But that doesn't mean it should be thrown into the sea like garbage.
Regarding the story, "The Little Mermaid" is unsurprisingly the animated version, but an hour longer, with a Caribbean flavor added to the mix. Like most of Disney's live-action remakes, the film's narrative can come off as derivative and even far less impactful than the 1989 cartoon. This usually happens when it attempts to recapture most of the original's animated sequences in live-action, mainly in its third act. However, David Magee's screenplay offers plenty of changes and a sense of modernity to distinguish this iteration from the animated version's "outdated" elements. One significant change to the story is Ariel herself. Ariel's still the curious and charismatic mermaid we fell in love with years ago. But instead of making her only interested in a man, it made Ariel only focus on exploring the human world and wanting her voice to be heard. Of course, for the latter, all she has to do is give up her voice to a sea witch. The same can be said for Eric, who's also fleshed out as an orphan raised in royalty who dreams of exploring the unknown and helping his people. With these two characters having much in common, it makes their connection feel more authentic instead of being like, "Oh, you're hot. Let's make love underneath the pale moonlight while listening to a dying seagull sing."
The basis of the cartoon's story remains intact in the live-action remake, but it also blends well with its Caribbean vibe and modern themes to make it more than just a lazy rehash. Most of these elements may not work as well as others, including Eric's vaguely explained origin and its familiar story beats. Luckily, the film overshadowed these flaws with its own charm and wonder that made the animated version a classic. Part of the charm is through Rob Marshall's direction. Marshall is no stranger to providing liveliness and imagination into his movie musicals, including "Mary Poppins Returns", whether it's for a drama scene or a musical sequence. Fortunately, his direction in "The Little Mermaid" is no exception. While far from award-worthy, Marshall injects life into its seaworthy excursion that maintains its animated counterpart's fun and vibrancy.
Speaking of vibrancy, the film's visual effects are something that many people are concerned about regarding its marketing. People were initially worried about the film being another dark and bleak reimagining of its bright and vibrant counterpart based on the early trailers we saw. While that may be the case in some areas that are understandably empty, the movie also retains the colorful environments from the animated version. The visuals worked well regarding its bright, blue-ish underwater sequences and the creature designs, especially Ursula. Unfortunately, some of its CGI effects don't quite match what "Avatar: The Way of Water" accomplished, mainly the characters' hair looking shoddy during specific moments. Other than that, the CGI was more tolerable than distracting, even though some could've looked much better.
Another reason for the film's entertaining charm is the cast. The actors involved were tasked to retain their characters' likability from the animated version while impressing the original cast from its counterpart. Given how memorable the original cast was in bringing their unforgettable characters to life, it can be a tough battle for this generation of actors to endure. Fortunately, some of them managed to pull through with their engaging performances. The main highlight is undoubtedly Halle Bailey as Ariel. After shining in the music business with her sister Chloe and starring in "Grown-ish", Halle Bailey is making her voice heard on the big screen, and boy, did she make her voice heard. Her performance as Ariel was irresistibly endearing, adorable, and occasionally empowering, similar to how Jodi Benson manifests Ariel in the animated version. Not only that, but her singing was absolutely amazing. It's no wonder why they picked Bailey to play her. Her talent is just as big as the ocean, and I'm pretty excited to see her again in the upcoming "The Color Purple" adaptation. Another highlight is Melissa McCarthy as the devious Ursula. It was odd that McCarthy was chosen to fill the villain's tentacles from the late Pat Carroll. But she managed to prove otherwise with a delightful performance that came close to matching Carroll's signature vocal pattern for the classic Disney villain.
The supporting cast was also suitable in their roles, including Jonah Hauer-King, who performed well as Eric. Jacob Tremblay and Daveed Diggs were decent as Flounder and Sebastian, respectively, even though the latter's accent sounded hokey sometimes. As for Awkwafina as Scuttle, she got a few chuckles from me, but I can understand that she can be a bit annoying at times, even though it's literally the entire point of the character. However, the only performance I wasn't impressed with was Javier Bardem as King Triton. Bardem was fine in the role, but I was used to how the character is portrayed in the animated version. He's an overprotective yet internally caring father with a grudge against humans and a booming commanding tone that makes others tremble with fear, including Sebastian. Triton in the remake has the overprotective father merits, but his rage and booming tone are disappointedly subdued to the point where he looks more bored than short-tempered. Again, Bardem was an acceptable fit to play the undersea king, but the direction for this character was tame, another thorn that's causing issues with Disney's live-action remake trend.
As mentioned earlier, the music is one of the vital elements that made "The Little Mermaid" an animated treasure. From "Part of Your World" to "Poor Unfortunate Soul", these songs miraculously reflected the characters' personalities and provided infectious earworms for kids and adults to sing repeatedly. Fortunately, the songs from the animated version (except "Les Poissons") are present in the 2023 iteration, along with a few new ones, including "Wild Uncharted Waters", "For the First Time", and "The Scuttlebutt", which I'll explain more on later. The original songs are still a joy to listen to, even when sung by different actors, with my favorites being Bailey's take on "Part of Your World" and Daveed Diggs's "Under the Sea". The latter marks a solid example of the film's colorful visuals, charismatic spirit, and decent choreography. However, there's one song that doesn't work as much as the others, and it's "The Scuttlebutt" sung by Awkwafina and Diggs. It's one of those silly songs that'll likely make little kids laugh but annoy plenty of adults, mainly from Awkwafina's rapping. It's also off-putting, considering the tone of the other songs. It's not awful, but it's also unnecessary.
Overall, "The Little Mermaid" is a seaworthy upgrade to the 1989 animated classic that offers a delightful combination of nostalgia and modernity to make it a part of our world. Sure, it's another live-action remake that's occasionally bland compared to the original. However, regarding its execution, it's also a tolerable and suitably vibrant take on the iconic fairy tale that'll swim its way into the hearts of the current generation. The cast was endearing, the musical sequences and charm were nicely handled by Rob Marshall, the visual effects were decent, and the modern changes effectively enhanced its familiar plot. Of course, it's not going to change many people's perspectives on Disney's cash-grabbing trend, but it's a joyful trip back under the sea regardless.