A teenage girl who wants nothing more than to explore a world she’s been curious about her whole life. A kingly father who is overprotective and forbids his daughter from fraternizing with those different from them. A witch who gives the girl an opportunity to live the life she’s always dreamt of…but at a cost. If you just started belting out songs from the 1989 animated film, The Little Mermaid, you know your Disney Renaissance films!
Now, it’s no surprise that several of Disney’s live action films over the last 15 years have been met with mixed criticism, often landing as more of a miss than a hit. Some films such as 2019’s The Lion King and 2022’s Pinocchio captured the essence of the original films visually. But they either failed to bring the same energy as the originals, to add depth and emotion to characters, or to indulge in creativity. Meanwhile, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2020’s Mulan shifted the original stories around so much and made several drastic changes to their characters to the point where, frankly, most people probably forgot these movies even existed.
With director Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid being the latest addition to Disney’s collection of live action remakes, the question remains: Does it manage to beat all the odds and rise above the long list of lackluster adaptations?
The answer: Yes. Yes, it does.
The film rips out the world in which the original animation takes place, transforming it in a near-realistic setting. And for once, it isn’t jarring, difficult to see, or even gray and boring. Instead, there is a visual emphasis on the ocean’s beauty alongside an appreciation of culture on land. After all, Ariel is a character of duality whose identity is tied to her mermaid life but is also longing for a life of adventure on land. And while we see the vivid and lively nature of life under the sea, there is also a depiction of misery and frustration through Ariel’s perspective which is contrasted by the wonder and amazement that is expressed through her time on land.
Much of the alternating tones in visuals is aided through Halle Bailey’s magical performance as Ariel. Her voice captures every ounce of emotion that Ariel carries with her, but as Ursula says, it’s also her body language that pulls through to highlight her curiosity and love of all things above sea, including Prince Eric. Bailey takes apart who Ariel is and puts her back together in a way that makes the audience go silent, especially as she reaches that high note in “Part of Your World.”
The only lackluster performance comes from Javier Bardem as King Triton as he just misses the mark as the strict, overbearing father with a massive temperament. Melissa McCarthy is both comedic, enticing, and menacing as Ursula, exceeding all the expectations I had for her. Jonah Hauer-King is pure perfection as Prince Eric and has a chemistry that matches Bailey’s energy. Rather than leaving Eric’s character as one that feeds into the idea of “love at first sight”, Hauer-King manages to give a genuine performance that makes his feelings for Ariel all the more convincing.
And it’s true that hyper realistic, CGI animals are difficult to animate with emotion. But when you have actors that can handle that part with just their voice, anything is possible. Daveed Diggs as Sebastian resulted in a surprising amount of laughter, Jacob Tremblay is as peppy and adorable as his animated counterpart, and Awkwafina is a solid choice for Scuttle that requires more context than many realize.
Creatively, The Little Mermaid adds on an extra 45 minutes of story from the original animation, and it works to its advantage. The added depth to the stories of both Ariel and Eric allow for the film to expand upon what the original film provided and enhance both characters. The newly added songs also work well in theme with the story and emotions shared between Ariel and Eric. While a unique flair or an added character trait can be detrimental for some films, that is certainly not the case with The Little Mermaid. Instead, they have added value to the film itself, something that hasn’t been done successfully since Disney’s Cinderella which was released eight years ago in 2015.
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” The Little Mermaid takes this quote from Hans Christian Andersen and runs with it. Ariel isn’t just some teenage mermaid who likes a boy. She has and always will be a girl filled with curiosity and the desire to learn about a culture so much unlike her own. It is with Halle Bailey’s enthusiasm that The Little Mermaid swims past naysayers, and brings to life one of the most beloved red-headed mermaids, conquering both sea and land.
The Little Mermaid receives 4.5 out of 5 Samosas.
The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.
Runtime: 2h 15m