The Little Mermaid (2023) review

Director: Rob Marshall
Cast : Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik
Genre: Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 135 min
Opens : 25 May
Rating : PG

The Disney Renaissance was a key moment in the company’s history. After almost two decades of being lost in the wilderness, Walt Disney Studios was once again the cultural and financial force it had been in its heyday. The Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and it was only a matter of time before the company would return to fathoms below with a live-action remake.

The mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. Ariel has a fascination with the surface world and human civilisation, but is forbidden from going to the surface, in part because her mother was killed by humans. Ariel rescues a human prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, falling for him. Eric becomes preoccupied with finding the woman who saved his life, recalling only her voice. Ariel makes a deal with her exiled aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who transforms Ariel into a human in exchange for her voice. Ariel and Eric must share true love’s kiss before the sunset on the third day if she wants to remain a human. Triton’s major-domo Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) the crab and Ariel’s friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) the tropical fish and Scuttle (Awkwafina) the gannet must help her complete her objective, but Ursula has her own plans in place.

The movie tries to capture what audiences loved about the 1989 film and sometimes, it succeeds. The compelling story about a young person’s pursuit of their own identity and the unforgettable songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are still here (sans “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons”), even if the movie is destined to be an echo of the animated film. Director Rob Marshall employs elaborate visual effects work and location shooting on Sardinia, Italy to give the movie a sweeping sense of scale, and cinematographer Dion Beebe lends some scenes a painterly feel. There are some fun design flourishes, including the choice to set Ursula’s lair within the skeleton of a Mosasaurus. The screenplay by David Magee mostly hews close to the story beats of the animated film, but crucially, Eric’s character is fleshed out. His adoptive mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) is a new character, and the film succeeds in giving Eric much more of a personality and draws parallels between his dreams for his future and Ariel’s, adding a bit more dimension to the romance.

Unfortunately, the movie has the same problems as most of Disney’s live-action remakes. In my review of Beauty and the Beast (2017), I described it as a movie looking down at the floor, trying to hit its marks, and this is often true of The Little Mermaid as well. The live-action remakes, especially of beloved animated films, have the Catch-22 of retaining enough of what audiences loved about the originals while also changing enough such that it doesn’t just feel like the animated movie again. They are made primarily to capitalise on nostalgia, and whatever creativity and craftsmanship is present in these films exists within those bounds. The Little Mermaid often struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of the 1989 films, which is especially evident in visual effects-heavy sequences like “Under the Sea”, in which it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re just watching a lot of CGI, even if it is often very well-realised CGI. Then there’s the matter of how jarring a photorealistic Flounder and Sebastian look, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me after a while, and I think they work better in motion than in stills.

Halle Bailey’s casting was met with a lot of controversy. I understand the desire for an actor in a live-action remake to physically resemble the animated version as far as possible (after all, some of the other actors in this movie seem cast on that basis), but honestly, if my suspension of disbelief accommodates the existence of mermaids, then it accommodates an Ariel who looks like Halle Bailey too. Bailey is primarily a singer and seems to have been cast mostly for her voice, which is incredible. Her rendition of “Part of Your World,” a truly iconic song that is difficult to do justice to, is one of the film’s best moments. She puts in a valiant effort and is often genuinely endearing, but sometimes, her inexperience at screen acting shows through, especially when she’s in visual effects-heavy scenes and is acting off nothing.

As mentioned above, Eric benefits the most from the remake. Jonah Hauer-King is a charming and heroic presence, with dimples matching that of his animated counterpart. The movie gives him a song entitled “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which is a musical theatre ballad through and through. A moment during that song deliberately recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, to make Eric more of a Byronic hero.

Melissa McCarthy has proven herself as a fantastic physical comedian and a magnetic screen presence given the right material. Alas, her performance here feels very bland. There isn’t much of a take on her version of Ursula, in which she tries very hard to match the iconic animated iteration without really bringing anything to the table. McCarthy also feels overpowered by the CGI tentacles, such that Ursula often comes off as more of a special effect than a performance, which is a shame given how fantastic a villain the character is. Nevertheless, Her singing on “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is excellent.  

Javier Bardem lends great dignity and gravitas to the role of Triton, and might be the film’s secret weapon. Bardem’s Triton feels powerful, but we also understand why he is so overprotective of Ariel.

Daveed Diggs sounds like he’s having a good deal of fun as Sebastian, but again, there’s the challenge of living up to Samuel E. Wright’s performance, especially because so many of us have heard that version of “Under the Sea” countless times. Jacob Tremblay’s endearing vocal performance doesn’t match the hyper-realistic tropical fish that Flounder has become. Many audiences might find Awkwafina’s turn as Scuttle inspiring, but I think her casting is especially inspired. Awkwafina and Diggs get to rap in a new song called “The Scuttlebutt”, which is pure Lin-Manuel Miranda (Miranda wrote the lyrics for the new songs in this film, and is such a Little Mermaid fan that he named his son Sebastian).

Summary: The Little Mermaid has its moments – star Halle Bailey is an inexperienced actor but an incredible singer, and there’s more backstory and personality for Jonah Hauer-King’s Eric – but it suffers from the issues that have plagued many live-action remakes of Disney animated films. Despite its occasional grandeur and sweep, the movie struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of its 1989 forebear. Still, the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is undeniably compelling, and it’s a good story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong


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