Halle Bailey in "The Little Mermaid"
With each new live action remake from Disney comes a dose of apprehension. The studio’s track record of reimagining their vault of animated films runs the gamut from enjoyable (Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,”), to average (David Lowery’s “Peter Pan and Wendy”), to painfully empty (Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King”). Last year’s soulless offering of Robert Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio” may very well have been rock bottom. One can only go up from there, and the studio certainly does so with “The Little Mermaid,” a charming musical adaptation which soars comfortably in the top tier of Disney live action remakes. At the helm of theater and film director Rob Marshall, “The Little Mermaid” shimmers with splashes of romance and spirited energy throughout. Marshall’s vibrant theater background compliments the beloved story of Ariel, a young mermaid whose curiosity and drive for adventure opens up a world of possibilities. “The Little Mermaid” tells a familiar story in a familiar way, on a much more grandiose scale. At times, the film is visually distracting and narratively flat. But overall it resonates primarily through Halle Bailey, whose magnificent star-making performance holds the film together.
Those who have seen the 1989 animated version will pick up on the story’s main features — mermaid dreams, family expectations, trusty sea creature sidekicks, an evil sea witch, a lost voice, a dashing prince. Marshall’s adaptation of this underwater universe retains the magic of a classic story while finding an incredible star in Halle Bailey for a new generation. From the moment Bailey appears on screen and her voice is heard, she exudes Disney Princess. She exudes heroism, wonder, curiosity. She brings heart and soul to Ariel. From melody to facial expression, you could feel the character’s longing. Her determination to detach from the expectations of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, who oddly sleepwalks in the role), and become part of a new world are the driving forces of the film. It’s why the iconic song ‘Part of Your World’ resonates so deeply. The lyrics encompass the character’s spirit. Bailey’s rendition of the song is a show stopping musical experience that hits all the high notes.
Beyond a beautiful singing voice, Bailey also navigates the dramatic shifts of life above water when she and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) fall in love. The film expands on the animated version by spending more time with their on-land romance. The two characters bond out of a strong desire to gain independence from family pressures. Hauer-King’s passionate performance of ‘Wild Uncharted Waters,’ a new song penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a strong expression of character. Eric too leads with his heart and desires new adventures. The decision to include this song adds a layer to the romance, as it provides a behind-the-scenes of why Ariel feels attracted to him. Similarly, the inclusion of another new song, ‘For the First Time,’ gives Ariel an endearing ‘fish out of water’ moment where she discovers the world above the sea. Once lonely underwater, she’s now on the cusp of independence and the exploration of new experiences. Ariel and Eric’s spirited musical sequences show the strength of their romantic spark and what draws them to each other. The characters’ spark is complimented by winning chemistry between Bailey and Hauer-King. Bailey also conveys how Ariel maintains a meaningful connection with Eric without the use of her voice. As those familiar with the story will know, the loss of Ariel’s voice is a sacrifice made through a spell that turns her into a human.
When it comes to iconic Disney villains, one would be hard pressed not to mention the sea witch Ursula. In the animated version of “The Little Mermaid,” Ursula was voiced by the brilliant Pat Carroll and inspired by drag queen Divine. What made Ursula so entertaining was that in her eyes, she was the hero of her own story. She was euphoric in her own dark magical power, and Carroll gave the character a compelling theatricality by voice work alone. The animated Ursula was lively and terrifying in equal measure, which matched and flowed with Carroll’s vocal range. The 2023 live-action Ursula, played by Melissa McCarthy, pays homage to the icon who came before, sometimes to a fault. McCarthy has a lot of fun with the role. She infuses her own comedic charm, and utilizes her character’s hair and makeup as an extension of her performance. She also holds her own vocally during the classic ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ number. But she doesn’t embody the role beyond a surface level. The experience feels very much like one watching McCarthy in costume, as opposed to feeling immersed into a villainous character. By no means a bad performance, and it is no easy feat following the animated version. But given the similarities in approach, it does feel as though McCarthy does her best Carroll voice without bringing a more unique quality forward.
Of all the supporting performances in the film, Daveed Diggs stands out through his voice work as Sebastian the crab, who becomes Ariel’s primary protector and encouraging ally in place of King Triton. Sebastian is another role made iconic in the animated version, considering the late Samuel E. Wright’s entertaining performance as the lovable crustacean. But Diggs makes his own mark on the character and brings out excellent comedic timing. His line delivery elicits consistent laughs throughout. Plus, his singing voice tackles not one but two big musical numbers — ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Kiss the Girl.’ The only downside of such vibrant voice work is the hyper-realistic CGI, which doesn’t always flow with the actor’s energy. Sometimes the voice work overpowers the effects, and sometimes the CGI is a distraction. This is most noticeable with the character of Skuttle, played with super heightened enthusiasm by Awkwafina but lacking the visual energy to match.
Contrary to very premature online chatter that scenes are too dimly lit, there is a lot of vibrancy and color to be found throughout the film. However, there are a number of rough patches that stick out particularly during the ‘Under the Sea’ musical number, and in the dullish animation of characters like Skuttle and Flounder. While the film looks and feels grandiose, the inconsistent visual effects takes you out of the escapist experience at times. It’s a missed opportunity in really immersing into a colorful underwater universe, especially given the set pieces and unconventional direction Rob Marshall tends to go in. He brings strong theater energy to “The Little Mermaid.” There are some visually interesting choreographed sequences that unfortunately clash with distracting CGI.
What “The Little Mermaid” achieves that many live action Disney releases don't is the retelling of a familiar and beloved story without feeling aimless. The combination of Rob Marshall’s lively direction, a mix of old and new lyrics, and a brilliant performance by Halle Bailey help create an enjoyable experience. The story itself doesn’t change much from the animated version’s blueprint, which leads to some dullness in the narrative and pacing. But where the film lacks in that respect, it makes up for with the most significant element of them all: the casting of Ariel. Halle Bailey seamlessly bridges the worlds of enchanted fantasy and grounded reality. She is the little mermaid, and the film sings to her tune.
"The Little Mermaid" releases in theaters on May 26.