The Little Mermaid Review – Halle Bailey Shines in this Soggy Disney Remake

Disney live action remakes are curious beasts. They tend to fall into two categories – remakes of the beloved animations (such as Mulan, The Jungle Book, Dumbo and so on) or character spin-offs such as Malificent and Cruella. They range in quality to the quite good, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon to the almost unwatchable (citing Zemeckis’ Pinocchio here). What makes these works curious is that although they claim to be a stand-alone experience they will never escape comparisons to the original works. Disney would no doubt claim they are making the movies as a way for new audiences to engage with the classic tales, the more cynical would note that Disney is a massive corporation milking existing IP for all its worth. Both are true.

When the remake of 1989’s The Little Mermaid was announced and casting for Ariel was revealed to be Halle Bailey, internet discourse went off the rails. How dare Disney cast a Black actress as Ariel? Acting as if there is a defined skin colour for a mythological creature – people couldn’t help but be outraged that their Ariel wasn’t white, even citing Hans Christian Andersen’s original description of the mermaid. Those people clearly never read to the end of the fairy tale, if they had they’d know that it ends up with the little mermaid being rejected by the prince and ending up as sea foam – not to mention that every step she took on land was as painful as glass piercing her newly formed feet.

Halle Bailey is by far the best part of Rob Marshall’s 2023 live action movie. She is a luminous talent with an angelic voice. She is without a doubt Ariel with her wide-eyed wonder and teen rebellion. When she sings “Part of Your World” she sells the number and for a while the audience feels like they might have found a decent adaptation. As the film progresses we find that the most that can really be said for the movie is that it is adequate.

The story is much like the 1989 version with some small tweaks. Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King – bland as an unsalted cracker) is a forward-thinking young adventurer who wants to bring his island kingdom (which is situated somewhere either in the West Indies or the Caribbean) into the modern world. He has been given a mother in the film, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) who exists as the human counterpart to Javier Bardem’s King Triton in not trusting the sea, just as Triton doesn’t trust the surface dwellers who killed his wife. A few characters have become someone else (it’s not important) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) is now not a seagull, but a northern gannet and gender swapped. Art Malik’s Sir Grimsby is more than Eric’s butler, he’s a high-ranking official in the kingdom.

The differences aren’t significant enough to warrant great mention. What people will want to know is if there is anything new being bought to the table? Other than three new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken; Ariel’s “For the First Time” Eric’s “Wild Uncharted Waters” and “The Scuttlebutt” with Scuttle and Sebastian (Daveed Digs – the best of the voice cast) the answer is, well, no.

Melissa McCarthy’s sea witch Ursula is now Triton’s sister. McCarthy said she wanted to “channel her inner drag queen”, but instead goes for over the top camp. Naturally being McCarthy, she elicits a few chuckles here and there. The best comedic work goes to Daveed Digs as Sebastian, with Jacob Tremblay’s Flounder essentially being the version we know from the animation.

For a movie that audiences going into knowing it is going to be soaked in CGI, the effects works varies greatly in quality. Sometimes the film is so dark you can barely see, other times someone has turned up the contrast so high that it is headache inducing. The set piece for “Under the Sea” tries to retain the crazy Busby Berkeley dance number style of the animation but seems more often than not weird rather than impressive.

What truly hampers the film the most is a combination of pacing (it is too long at 135 minutes, with the 1989 film being a brisk 83 minutes, and that’s including credits) and the lack of chemistry between Ariel and Eric. They are supposed to be soul mates who will risk anything for each other but no matter how lovely Bailey is, Hauer-King is one of the most charmless Prince Charming’s to set foot in a live adaptation.

The final act is done so poorly that it seems some actors are actually aware of their projected embarrassment. Javier Bardem has proven he can do harmless family entertainment with Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile but seems to be struggling to bring Triton to life. With only a couple of actors filling their brief in the movie it’s difficult to immerse yourself in the mostly insipid underwater spectacle.

The Little Mermaid isn’t the worst live action adaptation, it sits somewhere in the mid-tier. The problem is that the high tier of the adaptation is actually based on a relatively low bar. With Dwayne Johnson announcing a live action version of Moana, Hercules, and Lilo & Stitch in development (and others, possibly The Aristocrats) the Disney mill doesn’t seem like it will stop churning out movies as long as there is a dollar value attached to nostalgia. Thankfully we still have the originals and even a soggy remake can’t erase them.

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy

Writer: David Magee (based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, and the 1989 adaptation by Ron Clements and John Musker)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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