After much anticipation and debate, Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid officially swims into theaters this week. The Rob Marshall-directed movie is the latest in a steadily growing line of live-action remakes put out by the Mouse House, and it’s safe to say it is one of the studio’s better offerings. In terms of faithfulness, The Little Mermaid is similar to the remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, in that the exact same story is told, albeit with some extra padding and a few new songs. Led by a pitch-perfect Halle Bailey, The Little Mermaid is bolstered by deeper characterization and a grand scope, even as it grapples with awkward visuals and a strangely shallow climax.


Ariel (Bailey), the youngest daughter of sea king Triton (Javier Bardem), is an odd sort of mermaid. Rather than be content with her underwater world, Ariel is fascinated by what lies above, spending her days collecting lost human artifacts and dreaming of visiting dry land someday. When a devastating storm causes yet another shipwreck, Ariel saves the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and only becomes more eager to see his world for herself. Enter the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who strikes a bargain with the princess: She can spend three days up on land as a human, but within that time, she must get true love’s kiss from Eric. If she fails, she will be Ursula’s pawn forever. And, of course, she must do this without her voice.

Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid
Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid

Anyone who has seen the original 1989 Little Mermaid will know exactly how this new film, penned by Dave Magee, plays out. Outside of a couple new songs, a longer sequence wherein Ariel explores the human world, and an added complication from Ursula, the Little Mermaid remake plays out in much the same way as the original, with some shots even being direct recreations of the animated movie (such as the much-discussed shot of Ariel’s hair flip as she emerges from the water). The added elements only make the overall story stronger, and the new songs, written by original composer and co-songwriter Alan Menken and Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, fit in well with the plot. The sweeping score, filled with Menken’s iconic melodies, elicits chills. Unfortunately, The Little Mermaid‘s faithfulness to the original film ends up making the climactic battle with Ursula weaker; it lacks urgency as it’s only carrying out necessary plot beats.

Before that, though, The Little Mermaid succeeds in deepening Ariel’s character and her connection with Eric. There has been much debate over the years regarding Ariel’s decision to “give her voice up for a man,” and the new film strives to side-step that by playing up her belief that the two worlds — underwater and land — can learn from and aid each other. When she actually becomes a human, more time is spent on her exploration of this new world, both through a song and an extended day of adventure with Eric. The Little Mermaid highlights the similarities between Eric and Ariel, which primarily comes through in their thirst for knowledge and adventure. As a result, their relationship is strengthened and becomes one to savor; Bailey and Hauer-King have a sweet chemistry.

Melissa McCarthy in The Little Mermaid
Melissa McCarthy in The Little Mermaid

From the moment she swims onscreen, Bailey becomes the perfect live-action Ariel. Brimming with an eagerness that will not be tamped down, Bailey captures the essence of the beloved princess, from her headstrong nature to her naïveté. If any doubt lingered, her showstopping vocals on “Part of Your World” would put them to rest entirely. Marshall has assembled an impressive cast for The Little Mermaid, though some are better served than others. Undoubtedly, the clear standout within the supporting cast is McCarthy as Ursula, almost instantly making a case for her to play more villain roles. McCarthy is clearly having a ball here, relishing in each line reading and arched eyebrow. Her “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is another excellent musical moment, though she is given frustratingly little to do. A scene between Ursula and Triton later in the film gives a glimpse of the missed potential with her role. The Little Mermaid‘s other MVP is Daveed Diggs, who voices harried crab Sebastian and earns plenty of laughs.

There has been plenty of online debate surrounding The Little Mermaid‘s visual effects and realistic character designs. Overall, things are not nearly as bad as some had feared, though the movie does ultimately run into issues that have consistently plagued Disney’s live-action remakes. Animal characters such as Sebastian, Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina) lack the expressiveness that can be achieved in animation, though the vocal performances make up for that (Awkwafina is a bit of an exception, purely because her Scuttle simply feels like Awkwafina herself). The merfolk’s underwater scenes lead to some murky visuals that take away from the realistic look Marshall strives for. However, when the camera and the characters are steady, this is mostly fine.

If Disney is going to continue reinventing their classics in live-action form, then audiences should hope future offerings are similar to The Little Mermaid. There was room to stray further away from the source material, and perhaps the movie would’ve been better served if it had. However, Marshall has captured enough of the magic from the original to entertain longtime fans. Bailey’s Ariel is one for the ages, and McCarthy is fantastic as Ursula. With these two ladies on board, The Little Mermaid is a genuine delight.

The Little Mermaid releases in theaters on Friday, May 26. It is 135 minutes long and rated PG for action/peril and some scary images.

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