The Little Mermaid is another lackluster Disney re-tread

Halle Bailey shines like a dinglehopper amid an otherwise dull approach.
The Little Mermaid

(L-R): Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a weird paradox that while Disney has managed to gobble up every studio that surrounds them, their releases since have mostly focused on the studio’s own past rather than forging ahead into new territory. In their tenth stab at recapturing old magic, the Mouse House has given 1989’s The Little Mermaid the live-action treatment. The result is the best of their lackluster remakes so far, but that’s a low bar to cross. Make no mistake. It’s still messy and mediocre.

You probably already know what we’re getting into plot-wise. Rambunctious, curious mermaid teenager Ariel (Halle Bailey) is fascinated by the surface world. Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids anyone to venture there, but she knows there’s more to the world than the ocean floor. Aiding her fascination are pals Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), a clown fish, and Scuttle (Awkwafina), a gannet who claims to understand human life and artifacts. Triton’s majordomo, Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), is there to ensure she doesn’t act on her curiosities. Of course, after Ariel saves the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, she’s immediately smitten. She makes a deal with the evil Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to exchange her voice for human legs, etc., etc.

The Little Mermaid

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Much like the live-action efforts before it, The Little Mermaid is little more than a nostalgia trip with a shiny new coat of paint on top. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen almost all there is on offer here. Truthfully, there isn’t an overwhelmingly good reason to recommend the movie to either the uninitiated or ardent fans, apart from possibly the boundary-breaking casting of Black actress and singer Halle Bailey as Ariel. Apart from that, the results are uninspired.

Pedestrian and flat aren’t typically words to describe the work of director Rob Marshall, who was behind the award-winning Chicago and well-received Mary Poppins Returns. Those movies succeeded thanks to the pizzazz and creativity that he brought to each show-stopping number. Those elements are absent in the new Little Mermaid. The three new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are staged better than the classic songs but are melodically all over the place and feel at odds with the rest of the story.

One thing that is readily apparent, however, is Bailey’s undeniable skill in a star-making role. Early on in Part of Your World,” she belts out lyrics with emotion that no one else in the movie matches. Even after Ariel loses her voice, Bailey plays the doe-eyed waif with the elegance of a silent film starlet.

Bailey’s talent is even more striking when compared to her typically solid co-stars. McCarthy gets the worst of it, looking pitch-perfect in her part but invoking a vocal tic that sounds like she’s constantly about to regurgitate plankton. Bardem just looks like he’s counting the hours until he can shed his massive wig. Flounder’s “realistic” upgrade is the stuff of nightmares, but he at least fares better than Ursula’s final form in the climax. Even shrouded in patented Disney blockbuster muddy darkness, it will likely live alongside The Mummy Returns’ Scorpion King as one of cinema’s greatest computer-generated atrocities.

The Little Mermaid

(L-R): Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo by Giles Keyte. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One thing The Little Mermaid manages to do well is give the romance between Ariel and Eric room to breathe. Whereas most other Disney films have two people silently staring at each other to convey love, writer David Magee offers compelling reasons that these two should be together. It’s as simple as changing “I like her fiery spirit” to “I like her fiery and courageous spirit because it matches who I am inside, too.” That may not seem earth-shattering, but it’s just genuine enough to make a difference. 

Given Disney’s less-than-stellar track record in the remake realm, The Little Mermaid always faced an uphill battle. It’s an even more frustrating failure than others, however, because there’s still a lot of good buried underneath everything that doesn’t work. The studio that built itself on innovation feels increasingly scared to do so with its more notable titles. Bailey’s performance sails high above everything around her, so at least there’s one thing to worth salvaging from this shipwreck.

Categories: Movies