The animated musical that kickstarted the Disney Renaissance gets a new live-action treatment from director Rob Marshall.
Ever since Disney released Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, the live-action spins of their animated classics have fallen on two spectrums: those that put a fresh perspective on their source material (Pete’s Dragon, both Maleficent movies), and then there are the soulless cash grabs driven by nostalgia (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). The Little Mermaid is the most recent property they’ve brought from animation to live-action, and it rests firmly in the middle of the gamut because while it does possess a lot of the same issues that plagued their previous remakes, enough new elements are implemented into the timeless story to not only be fresh and engaging, but also exist on its own merits.
The plot of this rendition of The Little Mermaid is largely similar to that of the Disney Renaissance staple and the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale from which it came: Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a teenage mermaid living under the sea collecting all the various human trinkets she discovers in sunken ships and all over the ocean floor with her fish companion Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), while longing to experience the surface world and learn more about the way of life on land to the displeasure of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem), who enlists his crab advisor Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to keep her out of trouble when curiosity leads her astray from his sight and that of his other daughters.
Her fascination with a sailor boy and heir to the throne Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) turns to romantic infatuation when she rescues him from a fiery shipwreck, after which the prince is determined to find the mystery woman who saved his life. But when news of their encounter reaches Triton, the sea king is angered to such a degree that he ruptures his relationship with Ariel. In a moment of despair, the headstrong mermaid is drawn toward the sea goddess Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who manipulates her into accepting a deal to exchange her voice for the capacity to exist as a human. From there, Ariel is given three days to make Eric fall in love with her and vice versa, lest her soul remain in Ursula’s possession for eternity.
As aforementioned, the flaws apparent in other Disney live-action fare are on full display in this version of The Little Mermaid: everything under the sea looks garish from the hideous character designs straight out of the uncanny valley that strip the anthropomorphic sea creatures like Flounder and Sebastian of their personality to the drab color scheme; Ariel’s iconic red mane of hair may float with realistic physics underwater, but it lacks the vibrancy to help her character stand out among the muted and shoddy computer generated backdrops of a given scene.
In fact, even the experienced actors like Bardem appear lost as far as their motivations go within subaqueous scenes throughout the first act, and deliver lines with the bare minimum of emotion. Everyone on-screen is going through the motions in these scenes as if their direction was to regurgitate lines their characters said in the animated film, but the voice performances added make these mostly tolerable. Daveed Diggs does a solid Jamaican affect as Sebastian, and Awkwafina lends Scuttle her natural energy which makes the seagull’s stupidity amusing in some parts but cringeworthy in others, like when she tries to persuade Ariel and Eric into kissing by squawking a dated pop culture reference.
But the strongest cast members on the live-action side of The Little Mermaid are easily Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King. Bailey’s casting as Ariel has been the subject of ceaseless online discourse since its announcement, but once the film leaves the ocean, she delivers in all the areas one would hope she would in this particular role. She hits the high notes and holds them with incredible singing talent when she performs “Part of Your World”, and explores life on land with inviting facial nuances that communicate joyous wonder and curiosity over every discovery she makes on land, in addition to her crushing disappointment when she can’t tell Eric she’s the woman for whom he’s searching.
Hauer-King infuses Eric with a realistic personality as well through a compelling breakthrough performance of his own, aided by a script that gives him more character than just a stock Prince Charming character sheet. Like Ariel, he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and longs to learn more about the world around him, his case being the countries that surround his kingdom. But repeated instances of hurricanes and storms killing his country’s sailors make his adoptive royal parents hesitant to re-opening their port to travel and the exchange of goods.
Director Rob Marshall’s addition of geopolitical stakes like this makes the world of this adaptation of The Little Mermaid feel more lived-in and realistic, and he also deserves commendation for grounding every scene above water in a nautical period story that acknowledges the real-world struggles of living in a coastal city and the sea creatures’ places in Greek mythology. Triton and Ursula’s relationship as Poseidon’s children is addressed and even the land-based denizens perceive mermaids as fearsome sirens who lead sailors to death with song, adding a reasonable level of superstition these humans have with the ocean.
The substance added to this version of The Little Mermaid, as well as the astounding chemistry between Hauer-King and Bailey does give adults something real to engage with, but that’s after wading through an ugly, tedious slog of a first act that breezes through the story with little soul and exposes CGI’s limitations, particularly during the uninspired recreation of the otherwise upbeat “Under The Sea” tune. But audiences yearning to bask in the nostalgia of their youth, introduce their children to their favorite tale, or Disney die-hards in general will be surprised by Melissa McCarthy’s vocal ability in the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” number, appreciate nods to the original classic, and overall find this new take on The Little Mermaid an appealing watch.