The Little Mermaid dives into cinemas nationwide on Friday, 26th June.
1989’s The Little Mermaid is not only a great film, but it kickstarted the Disney Renaissance, arguably one of Disney’s greatest eras in terms of media output. It was only a matter of time before the film got the live-action remake treatment that has befallen other Disney Renaissance classics like Beauty and the Beast. The result is another mixed bag that may contain some rare pearls within its shell but can only dream of being part of its animated counterpart’s world.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the mermaid daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem). She’s fascinated with the world above the ocean, despite her father preventing her from going to the surface. After saving the life of a human prince, Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), and falling in love with him, Ariel longs to experience the human world. This brings her into conflict with her father and then into the clutches of the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who can give Ariel what she desires at the cost of her voice, a choice that puts both Ariel’s ambitions and her father’s kingdom in jeopardy.
Before it has even hit cinemas, this new Little Mermaid has already stirred a backlash. Much of this has been based around the racist screeching of pathetic man-babies throwing tantrums over a person of colour being cast as Ariel, despite Ariel being a mermaid. However, those badmouthing the film for being the latest in Disney’s trend of live-action remakes do have a point. This filmmaking strategy has been commercially successful, but the process is creatively hollow as it gives needless coats of paint to numerous animated films that arguably have more value than a vast chunk of all the live-action movies ever made. It capitalises almost solely on nostalgia to fuel its emotional engagement. 2023’s The Little Mermaid has some noteworthy elements that deserve praise, but it is sadly guilty of this too.
(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.
Halle Bailey is a revelation in this picture. Ariel is a tenaciously independent spirit whose inquisitive nature is infectiously aspirational. Bailey captures that spirit in spades, imbuing the role with her magnetic charisma. Much like Jodi Benson’s before her, her singing voice is immaculate. Her rendition of the legendary Part of Your World and vocal accompaniment to Under the Sea are enough to generate chills. With the romanticised wonder and strength of convictions nailed down, Bailey is easily the film’s strongest component. Other admirable performances include Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Melissa McCarthy, who chews the scenery with wicked fervour as Ursula.
There is also some intriguing consideration of subtext within the film’s narrative, particularly regarding parent-child relations. Predictably it follows the original’s story very closely. If anything, it overloads it, running at two hours and fifteen minutes when the original barely scraped eighty minutes once you cut the credits. One new addition is Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), Prince Eric’s mother, who keeps as tight a leash on her son’s movements as King Triton does with Ariel. The ways in which Ariel and Eric repel the isolationist protective measures of their parents in favour of curiosity not only add some interesting thematic dimensions to the story but it provides a mutual characteristic that, while arguably not necessary, still provides fertile ground for the pair’s love.
(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.
However, the film carries a feeling of being on autopilot that it never truly shakes off. That may not seem surprising as it is a remake, but the strictness with which it follows the original’s path limits its creative routes. This expands to the visuals and song sequences. While the visuals are generally more colourful than the marketing made it out to be, the photorealistic CGI for the animals creates a feeling of disconnect. Like 2019’s atrocious reimagining of The Lion King, the added realism achieves the opposite effect, weakening the immersion and emotional attachment. Sebastian the Crab suffers here as, despite Daveed Diggs’ committed performance, the vacant, non-expressive face undermines his most emotional scenes. The singing and dancing feels like it’s going through the motions rather than a declaration of passion, save for Bailey’s incredible voice.
Rob Marshall, director of Chicago and Mary Poppins Returns, is in the director’s chair, and he does bring some flair in certain scenes, namely in the Under the Sea sequence. But without the exaggeration or over-stylisation that animation allows, even a man of his talents can only do so much. The best live-action Disney remakes, such as 2015’s Cinderella, have felt like their own interpretations rather than a direct translation. In contrast, this film’s design has a feeling of mandatoriness. It recreates iconic imagery like Ariel and the waves because it feels it has to, not because it wants to reexamine or rework it into anything new. That there are elements of reinterpretation here and there, such as Ariel and Eric’s relationship, makes this doubly frustrating. Even the most dazzling spectacle is undercut when it feels restrained by precedent.
This new Little Mermaid has its moments, but it’s ultimately uninspiring. Like most films in the Disney live-action trend, its appeal comes primarily from the memories of the superior animated version it invokes, as opposed to any unique merits of its own. Halle Bailey has a fantastic career ahead of her, and even a review as indifferent to the movie as this one can’t help but wish her all the best. But if this is what the surface world of cinema looks like, then this critic is content with staying under the sea.
The Little Mermaid | United States | 2hr 15min | 2023
Halle Bailey has a fantastic career ahead of her, and even a review as indifferent to the movie as this one can’t help but wish her all the best. But if this is what the surface world of cinema looks like, then this critic is content with staying under the sea.