Continuing the spotty track record of Disney live-action remakes, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the animated classic, largely responsible for ushering in the Disney Renaissance, continuing with the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, is another shiny, expensive retelling lacking soul. While still not the sheer trainwreck along the lines of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King or Robert Zemeckis’ direct-to-streaming Pinocchio, Marshall’s remake, nearly an hour longer than the 1989 film, is another safe, inoffensive modern update destined to remain in the shadow of its original counterpart.
Halle Bailey is Ariel, whose role as the titular Mermaid is arguably the sole creative decision to warrant the film’s existence in the first place. Bailey, most known as one half of the music duo Chloe x Halle, with her sister, Chloe Bailey, utterly shines in her breakthrough debut. Gifted with an ethereal presence and a face the camera can’t help but love, Bailey’s turn as Ariel is the kind of star-making performance that makes one of these recent remakes have some actual reason for existing. Her rendition of “Part of Your World” is goosebump-inducing, and serves as the film’s best sequence, largely in part to Marshall allowing Bailey to own the camera, and keeping all other vfx distractions to a minimum. This Ariel is given far more agency and vulnerability, thanks to Bailey’s emotionally live-in performance, but retains the hopeful, wondrous attitude of Jodi Benson’s original voice work. Given the strength of Bailey’s screen power, it’s a disappointment the rest of the film fails to rise to her level. This is nearly verbatim what you remember from the 1989 animated film, but with added songs, a padded length and largely a dark, murky underwater aesthetic that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Lacking director Rob Marshall’s reliable flair and knack for staging, the sections of the film set underwater are a chore to look at. Coming off of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water and even James Wan’s Aquaman, we know contemporary films set primarily underwater don’t have to look so drab, but despite colorful visual effects, the entire aquatic aesthetic is a big head-scratcher. The film does, indeed, have its share of large practical sets, which are always welcoming, in a Disney remake, no less. However, despite brighter-looking characters, the heavy CGI makes the environments feel artificial, whereas the original animated film felt grand. The visual effects are overused, but are still top notch. For as questionable and faulty as the creature designs are, they are photorealistic with Sebastian, in particular, looking nearly practical. It’s the same problem with The Lion King; having natural-looking animals may give you realism, but that also means you have major side characters that do not visibly emote.
Marshall lacks any true ingenuity when it comes to restaging classic musical numbers. “Part of Your World” works so well because it’s Bailey’s moment to own the screen, relying solely on her to make it work. “Kiss the Girl” is properly introduced, with Daveed Diggs’ voice work as Sebastian being of notable inspiration, but Marshall fails to use the live-action format to make any memorable creative choice. The same goes for “Under the Sea”, which may have some nice choreography, but is far less visually exciting or distinctive enough to make you forget the original. It makes one wonder what Sofia Coppola could have done with this.
Melissa McCarthy delivers a take on Ursula that’s exactly what you would expect, but not without its charm. Marshall makes some strong uses of McCarthy’s impeccable comedic timing, but her performance, like the film, lives in the shadow of the original take, voiced by the late, Pat Carroll. The classic villain, whose look was heavily influenced by legendary Drag actor and LGBTQ pioneer Divine, will certainly be menacing to a new generation of young filmgoers, but when casting McCarthy in such an iconic role, the lack of creative liberty taken is yet another head-scratcher. Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, given a beefier role compared to the original, may be a strong vocalist, but is largely a stiff, bland screen partner. Javier Bardem as King Triton appears bored and lost most of the time, having to act opposite CG characters for a majority of his screentime.
Contrary to what the moronic Twitter Blue Checkmark crowd might say, the animated film’s more dated aspects are seamlessly updated. The romance between Ariel and Eric has more of a purpose behind it, with screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland) giving more motivation for the characters besides just finding the other character attractive. There are some new songs added, courtesy of returning composer Alan Menken, with new lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The new songs are mostly filler, used as padded character exposition. Bailey makes the best of her added solo number “For the First Time”, but none of the new tracks will likely replace the older ones in terms of replayability. There is one rap between Awkwafina’s Scuttle and Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian that is perhaps the worst thing Miranda has ever written. Here’s hoping this doesn’t become a Jack Black “Peaches” level hit.
While harmless and colorful enough to serve as a star-making pedestal for Halle Bailey, The Little Mermaid is largely another middling, creatively lacking Disney live-action remake. More questionable visual choices and a lack of heart renders Rob Marshall’s film as yet another unnecessary product instead of building upon its more inspired aspects.