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Review: The Little Mermaid

May 22, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid is credited with kicking off the studio’s fabled Renaissance period, paving the way for a number of animated classics released throughout the 1990s.

This makes it an obvious choice for a live action remake in the current IP-driven climate, considering that the studio has already given us “updated” versions of other Disney Renaissance hits like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.

Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns), The Little Mermaid is similar to these other remakes in that it basically follows the same beats as its animated predecessor, while being much longer and adding some mostly needless tweaks and updates to it.

The result is a film that coasts by on enough nostalgia for the original that it will work for some, and it is enjoyable to watch in places, but I mostly found it overlong and uneven. In short, The Little Mermaid is not the worst of Disney’s live action remakes (last year’s direct-to-streaming live action Pinocchio was a more soulless affair), but the animated film still reigns supreme.

Halle Bailey takes over the role of Ariel, the mermaid who longs for the human world above the water, and her performance is one of the best things about the movie. She captures the essence of Ariel, whose obsession with humans puts her at odds with her father King Triton (Javier Bardem), who doesn’t approve of her longing to be on land. As the story goes, Ariel becomes even more enchanted by the surface world when she meets Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), and she is given the chance to go there by Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a sea witch who gives her legs in exchange for her voice, a bargain that will only last three days unless she can get true love’s kiss.

The few changes that screenwriter David Magee makes to the story are meant to give it a more modern sensibility, but are hit and miss in this regard (for example, Ursula now gives Ariel amnesia as part of the curse, which ironically actually takes away more of her agency). The underwater visual effects are also somewhat spotty, with an overly fake look to them at times (the film also suffers in this regard from the unfortunate timing of being released in the wake of the visually stunning Avatar: The Way of Water).

The more photorealistic renderings of Ariel’s animal sidekicks – young fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), ditzy seabird Scuttle (Awkwafina), and worrisome crab Sebastian (an energetic Daveed Diggs) – are also less expressive and less appealing than their traditionally animated counterparts. This is an issue that has plagued the other remakes as well, with what worked in animation not always translating as well to a live action world.

The film also feels somewhat long at 135 minutes, when the original told virtually the same story in a tight 83 minutes. This does allow for more scenes showing the relationship between Ariel and Prince Eric developing, but a lot of this added run time feels like padding. This includes three new songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda that are not only needless but also aren’t good (with the worst offender being a cringe-inducing rap number by Awkwafina’s Scuttle named, what else, “The Scuttlebutt”).

There is some satisfaction to be had in hearing the iconic Alan Menken and Howard Ashman songs like “Part of That World” be belted out by Bailey’s Ariel, and Marshall’s staging of “Under the Sea” allows for a colourful Busby Berkley-inspired musical number with fish. But this has less to do with the live action execution, and more to do with the songs themselves already being such classics (which makes the few minor lyrical changes feel pointless).

Bailey does make the role of Ariel her own, and she can really sing. McCarthy also makes a convincing Ursula, drawing upon similar drag influences as the original version to deliver a campy villainess (she eats up the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” number, sans the disappointing omission of her line about “body language”). But The Little Mermaid still feels a bit like watching a cover band perform some of your favourite songs. It’s a film that hits enough satisfying notes to keep us fairly entertained, but also feels somewhat needless when a better version of this movie already exists.

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

The Little Mermaid opens exclusively in theatres on May 26th.

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