By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Disney’s recent attempts at live-action remakes of animated classics have yielded mixed results. While the likes of The Jungle Book and Aladdin retold the famous stories with shimmering spectacle, and Cruella and Christopher Robin offered decidedly unique takes on the source material, other remakes like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Lady and the Tramp have felt hollow and uninspired. Ultimately, the core predicament faced by these Disney live-action remakes is simple to explain, yet seemingly impossibly difficult to capture: there is a timeless heart and magic of the original animated films that proves so emotionally effective and resonates strongly with people across the lifespan. This heart and magic has been difficult to capture in live-action remakes, to say the least, but Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid gets closer than ever to replicating this elusive Disney charm.
The Little Mermaid is the live-action remake of the 1989 Disney animated classic, which itself was loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Taking over from writer/director team John Musker and Ron Clements is director Rob Marshall, who previously helmed Mary Poppins Returns, Into the Woods, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for Disney. With a screenplay from David Magee (Finding Neverland, Mary Poppins Returns), The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a mermaid princess who longs to explore the surface world after encountering a charming prince.
The new Little Mermaid succeeds most resoundingly in its replication of the original film’s heart and magic. Director Marshall does not take any drastic steps to reshape the story or its tone, instead sticking closely to the atmosphere and characters that worked so well in animation. There isn’t an attempt to make the story darker or more mature, nor do the filmmakers adjust narrative elements to make the story more grounded. In turn, watching The Little Mermaid necessitates a beautiful suspension of reality – one in which attempts to reason implausibilities or illogical plot elements and character motivations should be abandoned in favor of a non-judgmental appreciation of the innocence, whimsy, and magic on display.
Much of this magic comes from star Halle Bailey, who commands the screen as Ariel. Initial, and completely ridiculous, controversy about the casting of an African-American actress playing Ariel unfortunately muddied the announcement of Bailey taking on this role in 2019, but, thankfully, the young singer-songwriter and actress managed such negativity with incredible grace, something that she brings to her performance in the film. The Little Mermaid is a glowing depiction of Bailey’s potential as a movie-star. She is immensely likable and evokes the fascination and curiosity of Jodi Benson’s portrayal of the character in animation, while bringing a unique charm and vulnerability to the character.
Unfortunately, the casting of other major roles in the film do not work quite as well. Javier Bardem is unintentionally comical as King Triton, Ariel’s overprotective father who holds deep resentment toward humans. Bardem’s performance falls in an uncomfortable place somewhere between unnecessarily menacing and painfully hilarious and, ultimately, feels miscast. Similarly, Melissa McCarthy delivers a disappointing and ludicrously over-the-top performance as Ursula, the evil sea witch who tricks Ariel into making a deal to become human. McCarthy’s performance is not scary and intimidating enough to make for a compelling villain as the actress spends the vast majority of her scenes alone and speaking to herself ominously.
Opposite Bailey as Prince Eric is Jonah Hauer-King, who previously had roles in The Last Photograph and A Dog’s Way Home. Although, in isolation, Hauer-King is serviceable as the prince who falls in love with Ariel, the actor lacks chemistry with Bailey, which makes for an awkward and less than compelling romance.
Controversy surrounded the designs of Sebastian and Scuttle, which proves to be unfounded as the quirky creatures are some of the highlights of the film. Daveed Diggs is engaging and witty as Sebastian the crab, while Awkwafina delivers some great one-liners as the diving bird Scuttle.
Although the film captures that unmistakable Disney heart and magic, the visual effects that bring the underwater landscapes and character to life are inconsistent. At times, Atlantica is depicted as a sprawling, beautiful location, but too often the cinematography is darker and moody, making the visuals inconsistent with the film’s tone. The visual effects used to bring massive musical numbers to life are, for the most part, impressive, although there are plenty of spotty images of creatures unusually moving or character designs that just don’t look right.
Alan Menken, who worked on the original animated film’s soundtrack, returns to compose the score and write new songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which are another highlight of the film. The new pieces are extremely effective, while recreations of original songs elicit some wonderful nostalgia.
In addition to new songs, Marshall adds several new characters and plot points to The Little Mermaid. These decisions do not make a sizable impact on the film, but do emphasize its tendency to overstay its welcome. At 2 hours and 15 minutes (a full 52 minutes longer than the 1989 animated film), this remake is far too long and would have greatly benefitted from a smoother first act and streamlined approach.
The Little Mermaid captures the magic and heart of the animated original, making it one of the best Disney live-action remakes. Halle Bailey is phenomenal as Ariel and brings incredible grace and warmth to her multifaceted performance. Inconsistent visuals, in addition to questionable casting choices for supporting roles, means The Little Mermaid doesn’t fully come together. Nonetheless, this one is worth a trip under the sea for.