The Little Mermaid Review

The Little Mermaid
Mermaid Ariel (Bailey) is fascinated by the human world and the artefacts she finds on the sea floor. After seeing her first humans, she sells her voice to the sea witch Ursula (McCarthy) for legs so that she can spend time with the human Prince Eric (Hauer-King).

by Helen O'Hara |
Release Date:

26 May 2023

Original Title:

The Little Mermaid (2023)

Live-action remakes of animated classics are Disney’s favourite trick these days; it was only a matter of time until 1989’s The Little Mermaid got the treatment too. As with most of its counterparts, it’s longer than the original, and its colours less vibrant, and it doesn’t entirely justify its existence. But credit where it’s due: a solid cast and heroic VFX effort carry it along, and the new songs are pleasantly catchy.

Pop star Halle Bailey is our hero Ariel, the rebellious daughter of ocean ruler King Triton (Javier Bardem). She has always been fascinated by the world above the surface. But her interest becomes more pointed when she rescues Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the heir to a vaguely Caribbean island throne, from a shipwreck. To be with him Ariel strikes a bargain with her estranged aunt, the flamboyant sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), to exchange her voice for legs. Then it’s a race against time to secure true love’s kiss and make the change permanent.

Bailey is fantastic casting. She has ample pipes for the songs.

The basic plot is therefore faithful to the animated version, with a few vaguely feminist updates. Ariel’s sisters are transformed from giggling ninnies into rulers of the seven seas in their own right; Ariel throws herself into action and often seems to lead the way for the quieter, more contemplative Eric. But the real change is that it’s all a lot longer.

Many of these live-action remakes labour with extraneous detail. That’s most obvious visually, because reality (or photo-real VFX) doesn’t have the clean lines and expressive simplicity of classic Disney animation. But it’s also true plot-wise, with many new threads here alluding to details that don’t really go anywhere. Nowadays, it’s no longer enough for Ariel to lose her voice; she must give up her “siren song”, which may or may not have magical powers responsible for keeping Eric alive during his shipwreck. Such additions increase screentime without impact, and with a running time over two hours, it can occasionally feel flabbier than whale blubber.

Luckily, Bailey is fantastic casting. She has ample pipes for the songs, even resisting the pop-star tendency to sing ten notes where one would do. Director Rob Marshall and returning composer Alan Menken give her some voiceover songs to fill the scenes where Ariel is mute, but they’re more filler: Bailey communicates the same emotion in a glance. Still, the new songs aren’t bad, with Menken collaborating with superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda to add to, and occasionally tweak, Howard Ashman’s original lyrics. There’s just one Hamilton-ian flourish, a speed rap for Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian and Awkwafina’s Scuttle, both delightful.

It’s made with obvious love for the original, and with enormous efforts in VFX to bring the underwater scenes to life — not always seamlessly, but close. Bailey keeps it all together, but one can’t help feeling that that longer runtime has watered down the effect.

Another ‘live-action’ remake that’s darker and less compelling than the animated original, but it’s saved by Bailey’s charming performance, McCarthy’s sass and the story’s own eternal magic.
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