‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: One of Disney’s Best Live-Action Reimaginings

It's too long, and none of the new songs work. But Halle Bailey retains everything that was originally captivating about Ariel, and this new, more diverse 'Little Mermaid' offers much to fans old and young.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Giles Keyte/Disney

If you grew up in the 1980s, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ The Little Mermaid represented a pinnacle in filmmaking. Ariel and her underwater pals heralded a promising new era for the Disney animation—and for animated storytelling in general. Not only was the vibrant world of the film engaging, with an undeniable protagonist, but its music and lyrics, courtesy of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, instantly became classic. Ariel herself was revolutionary, hinting at things to come for women onscreen. For many, the film has become sacred ground. And you do not tread heavily on sacred ground. 

THE LITTLE MERMAID ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy
Running time: 135 mins.

Walt Disney Studios has been systematically remarking these animated classics for nearly a decade, beginning with Kenneth Branagh’s syrupy but kind-hearted take on Cinderella. It was only a matter of time before the studio took on The Little Mermaid, despite its seemingly impossible watery depths, and there has been a lot of speculation about how it will play onscreen (although much of that speculation has been misdirected at lead actress Halle Bailey). The moment of truth has arrived for the live-action reimagining of the beloved 1989 version. 

Directed by Rob Marshall from a screenplay by David Magee, The Little Mermaid adheres to its source material in important ways. Some of the iconic animated shots are painstakingly recreated, as are a few of the beloved songs. Ariel herself, played charmingly by Bailey, sounds and feels essentially like the same character she’s always been. Bailey captures the rebellious mermaid’s spirit and emotion perfectly as she gives the song vocals a subtle new flair. Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina bring recognizable voices to Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle (in this film, Scuttle is a diving bird rather than a seagull) while making them their own. Prince Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, retains the dashing good looks of his animated counterpart. Ultimately, there are many elements and moments fans of the original film will know and appreciate. 

But, of course, this wouldn’t be a reimagining unless the filmmakers swam into uncharted waters. Some of the changes, like the addition of Prince Eric’s mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), work. Others, like all of the new songs, do not. The film clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes, which is 30 minutes too long for a family film. There’s a throwaway solo for Prince Eric (this is a great time for a bathroom break, parents), who apparently wants to sail the high seas, and at one point Scuttle actually raps. All respect to Awkwafina and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the new tunes, but Scuttle’s rap is one of the most cringe-worthy moments onscreen so far this year. 

Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel ‘The Little Mermaid.’ DISNEY

Other changes are less obtrusive. There’s a newfound diversity to the film, which is generally a good thing, even if it sometimes feels forced. Ariel and her sisters represent the seven seas, which explains why they come from difficult cultural backgrounds and look nothing like their father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). Eric’s kingdom is now placed somewhere in the Caribbean, which adds a vibrancy to the human world that mirrors what’s happening below the surface. After Ariel becomes human, trading her voice to the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), she and Eric set off to explore his island, a tropical paradise of market stalls and impromptu dancing. Eric is more full-imagined, with a collection of objects that puts Ariel’s to shame, but Ariel’s desire to become human was never really about chasing a guy. She had that cave of stuff long before she ever laid eyes on Eric and he was simply a way to channel a long-held dream. 

Jonah Hauer-King (l) as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid.’ DISNEY

There are a lot of good reasons to remake a film. Money is probably the primary motivation here, but the filmmakers do genuinely seem interested in expanding representation onscreen. It matters that young people will be able to see themselves in Ariel. The appeal of fantasy storytelling is that it can be anything. Fantasy isn’t bound by the rules of our society—or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Bailey retains everything that was originally captivating about Ariel: her wide-eyed curiosity, her desire for something more, her swirling red hair. While not all of the film’s CGI works (McCarthy’s campy performance outshines the sometimes awkward appearance of Ursula), Bailey is a believable, aspirational mermaid. Thousands of girls will mimic her in swimming pools around the world this summer. 

The Little Mermaid, despite a few misfires, is one of Disney’s best live-action reimaginings to date. It far outshines the remakes of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, two other Disney animated films from the same era. It has enough nostalgia for the older crowd, but it’s also magical enough for a younger generation, who will see this as the definitive version of the story. Being part of Ariel’s world is fun, satisfying and generally delightful. Just cover your ears when Scuttle starts to rap.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.



‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: One of Disney’s Best Live-Action Reimaginings