The most useless question in all of film criticism is “Why does Disney keep doing these live-action remakes”? The answer has been transparent from the very beginning, and I don’t even need to say it. They have for the most part been a mixed bag in terms of quality. For me, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, and Aladdin are highlights. For someone else it might be Cinderella. For absolutely nobody it’s Pinocchio. Your mileage on these films likely depends on how close to the heart you keep the original. That will certainly be the case with The Little Mermaid, a new and mostly faithful, but needlessly longer take on arguably the most beloved Disney animated film ever.
To be fair, remaking The Little Mermaid poses a greater challenge than Disney’s previous efforts. The original is more than just another classic; it is a cultural touchstone to millions with some of the most iconic music and characters ever to grace the screen. It’s story, while undeniably powerful and romantic, carries with it antiquated notions of true love and female agency, so it needs a contemporary overhaul. While Disney doesn’t actually change much in the latter regard, bold choices were at least made in the diversity of casting, led by pop star Halle Bailey as Ariel.
Bailey brings heart, youthful exuberance, and a powerful voice to the role of Ariel, a mermaid whose one desire is to be part of the human world. Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) is not a fan of his daughter’s obsession with the world of man, and forbids her from interacting with humans in any way. However, when Ariel intervenes to save the courageous Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) after a shipwreck, she is more determined than ever. This is where the evil sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) comes in, luring the girl in with a deadly spell that allows Ariel to walk among men, but at the cost of her precious voice. If Ariel can’t find a way to make Eric fall in love with her in three days, she will lose her freedom once and for all.
You know the story, and once again Disney has entrusted director Rob Marshall (of Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns fame) and screenwriter David Magee to bring it to life, sticking to the comforting tale we all know and love. There are a few welcome updates to give it a more modern feel; Triton’s undersea kingdom, as well as the Caribbean-flavored kingdom above, are considerably more colorful with people of every ethnicity swimming or dancing to the music. Most importantly, Ariel and Eric are given a reason to fall in love. They both share a desire to be more than what their family expects of them. They yearn for something more out there in the high seas. So when we see them finally falling in love, it feels genuinely earned and not just the dictates of a fairy tale.
It’s a good thing that Halle Bailey was there to shoulder the emotional weight of this storybook courtship. She’s truly a force of nature, whose rendition of “Part of Your World” is tremendous and heartfelt, grabbing you by the chest. It’s unfortunate that Hauer-King comes across so bland, even if Eric is better written here than in the original movie. I get why Disney does this; they cast dull actors who won’t distract from the headliner, which is always the female lead. But it makes for unintentionally awkward moments when Eric breaks into the lamest song of them all and it feels like a reason to take a bathroom break.
Along with “Part of Your World”, the songs manage to capture the magical feeling while bringing added depth of emotion. “Kiss the Girl”, I would argue, is even better this time. Performed by Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Scuttle (Awkwafina), and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), it feels like it’s coming from friends who not only want to save Ariel from Ursula’s curse, but for the girl to be truly happy. As a fan of vilainous numbers, I got a kick of Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, with McCarthy proving she’s got the pipes to go big and bold. Along with Bailey, it’s McCarthy who is another showstopper, clearly having the time of her life as the devilish sea witch.
The brand new songs fit right in, with one major exception that you’ll recognize immediately. “Scuttlebutt”, a hip-hop track from Lin-Manuel Miranda that has all of the Hamilton rhythm you know and love from him, is sure to be controversial. It’s a very fun song, especially with Awkwafina and Diggs tag-teaming the lyrics like old school pros, but it does feel a little out of place and could be a distraction to traditionalists.
Like all Disney remakes, more musical numbers and time spent showing off the screen saver-like underwater realm mean The Little Mermaid is quite a bit longer than its predecessor. For what it’s worth the visual effects are solid until the big finale, which features murky CGI that makes one character look a giant ball of Play-Doh. Ariel’s friends Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle looked kinda weird in production photos, especially their very-human mouths, but when put to action they actually make a lot of sense. You won’t even notice.
So does The Little Mermaid make a case for its own existence? Halle Bailey is a star, and young girls, particularly those of color, will fall in love with her as Ariel. That is reason enough for this remake to set itself apart. No reimagining will ever mean as much to us as the version we watched as children. There’s too much nostalgia all tied into what makes them special to us. But The Little Mermaid has a magical spell to weave, and it will surely be the favorite version of many out there who will cherish it as part of their world.
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters on May 26th.