The Little Mermaid review: Halle Bailey radiates charisma in Disney remake
This is one of the more faithful live-action adaptations – and thanks to some brilliant performances, one of the more successful.
The latest Disney animated classic to receive the Mouse House’s live-action makeover treatment, The Little Mermaid, is one of the more faithful adaptations – and one of the more successful, thanks mainly to some magical performances. But definitely not the new songs.
This version opens with a quote from Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale (“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”) which may have you wondering if the script is going to plunder more of the source material. But no.
This is very much a cover version in the way the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were, rather than going more off-piste like Mulan or The Jungle Book. In fact, great swathes of the dialogue are identical – all your favourite zingers are intact! It’s a quote-along as much as a sing-along.
So enjoy once again the story of the mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) who falls in love with a prince, Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and makes a pact with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human so she can win his heart. It’s a pact with a mess of strings attached, though. Ariel loses her voice as well as her tail, and if she and Eric don’t lock lips in true love within three days, then Ursula will claim Ariel’s soul.
It’s not, of course, a complete xerox, but the changes are mostly in minor tonal detail, for much of the film.
We’re told Ariel’s mother was killed by fishermen while Eric is now the adopted son of a human queen, having been a shipwreck survivor as a child, both of which unobtrusively highlight a subtext about racial tolerance which culminates in a genuinely sweet new closing scene. There’s a new catch in Ursula’s clauses to ramp up the jeopardy. There are new songs. The big action climax is significantly rejigged to make Ariel more proactive (hurrah!).
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But it’s surprising how many scenes are lifted pretty much wholesale from the animated film, which does run that danger of inviting comparisons. The Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl musical sequences truly benefit from their CGI-enhanced reimaginings and the confident, ebullient direction of Chicago and Into the Woods helmer Rob Marshall.
On the flipside, the classic poster visual of Ariel on a rock with the waves crashing over her from the 1989 movie is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it this time around, while the scenes of Ursula monologuing her plans have lost their unsettling, surreal edge. McCarthy gives a fine, gutsy performance but the visuals shy away from the original’s more nightmarish interpretation.
The performances in general, though, are what really shine in this remake. Halle Bailey radiates screen charisma as Ariel, especially charming and playful when she’s trying to voicelessly court Prince Eric. Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina provide comedy gold as the voices of crabby crustacean Sebastian and dimwitted gannet Scuttle respectively. Jonah Hauer-King does a creditable job of making Eric not wet.
Meanwhile, Art Malick plays a very different take on Eric’s butler Grimsby that proves the worth of hiring a solid, reliable character actor in a supporting role. Only Javier Bardem as Sea King seems to have missed the memo about having fun.
The main letdown with this remake, though, is the new songs. Despite lyrics by the celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Encanto) they’re mostly forgettable and rather boringly staged. Only an all-too-brief rap from Scuttle and Sebastian makes any impact, but Eric’s wimpy new ballad could easily be cut without anyone particularly caring.
As with all these Disney remakes, the main question is: is it as good as the original? This time, the answer is very nearly, so dive in an enjoy the swim.
The Little Mermaid will arrive in cinemas on Friday 26th May 2023. Check out the best movies on Disney Plus and best shows on Disney Plus, read more of our Film coverage, or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.
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