The Little Mermaid

Disney has an annoying habit of remaking their classic animated films in live-action and/or CGI. It is impossible to improve upon the originals, as Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, and The Lion King have proven. Yes, several of them have been box office hits, but it’s safe to say none will have the enduring appeal of their inspirations. They often feel like cynical enterprises and cash grabs. The Little Mermaid bucks the trend a little bit. Director Rob Marshall and his team clearly had a vision for this remake, which renders it more fun than any of its cinematic siblings.

The story is familiar. Mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) dreams of being part of the human world. Her stern father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), refuses to allow it, keeping her contained in the sea. She disobeys him, peeking her head up in time to see Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) navigating a shipwreck. Ariel wants to be with him, so the wicked sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) tricks her, stealing her voice and saying it can only be returned if she kisses Eric within three days. Several pals attempt to help Ariel – fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and northern gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina).

Changing Scuttle’s species is one of the alterations made in The Little Mermaid. There are also a few lyrical changes, as well as three new songs, the most interesting of which is a Hamilton-esque rap penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Awkwafina to perform. Beyond that, the primary creative inspiration here is using CGI technology to make the undersea kingdom come to life in a vivid new way. The movie does a convincing job of making it seem like the characters actually are swimming around underwater. That benefits a musical number like “Under the Sea” where aquatic creatures of all types join Ariel in the song and dance. 3D enhances these sequences significantly, as it does during the moments set inside Ursula’s lair.

Stunning visuals are a part of the appeal. The best part of the film, however, is the cast. Halle Bailey is outstanding as Ariel. Her voice is angelic, leading to goosebumps when she belts out “Part of Your World.” In non-singing scenes, she projects sweetness mixed with the necessary defiance the character needs. Bailey nails it across the board. Same goes for Melissa McCarthy, who knows just the right notes to hit as a Disney villain, yet never chews the scenery to the point where Ursula becomes a joke rather than a credible villain. As Sebastian, Daveed Diggs avoids the soulless voice work that helped mar The Lion King. He genuinely plays the crab here, and he does so with great humor.

Pitfalls of these live-action/CGI remakes are still present to a degree. At 135 minutes, this version is nearly an hour longer than the 1989 original, meaning the pace intermittently drags slightly. Human characters like Eric are bland in comparison to the mermaids and sea creatures because there’s no animation to heighten their emotions. Similarly, Flounder and Scuttle look too realistic, losing the emotions they could show previously.

In the end, the positive qualities outweigh the negatives this time. Appealing visuals and excellent performances keep The Little Mermaid entertaining, even if the original is still vastly superior. And Halle Bailey? That young woman is a superstar.

out of four

The Little Mermaid is rated PG for action/peril and some scary images. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.