The Little Mermaid is arguably one of my favorite Disney Princess animated films. Not only did it introduce a lifelong obsession with mermaids, but it was also the hook that pulled me into all things Disney. Going into the live action, there was some hesitance.
Disney’s live-action attempts have not been the greatest. In multiple repeat viewings of these newer attempts, the nostalgic over-excitement fades. Would this be the case with Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid? As Ariel, Halle Bailey shines brighter than the sun. She’ll silence the haters easily. But her talent can’t gloss over the issues present in this latest adaptation.
The live-action The Little Mermaid follows the same plot as the animated film. Ever curious and rebellious, Ariel (Halle Bailey) has a fascination with the world above water. She’d give anything to explore the surface up above. This feeling intensifies when she meets and rescues Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) after his ship is destroyed.
Big daddy King Triton (Javier Bardem) takes great issue with her fascination. After she continues to neglect her duties, he is led by Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) to her Grotto. This fuels his rage, and he destroys her collection of human artifacts. Left drowning in sadness, this moment proves advantageous for sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). Taking advantage of the young mermaid’s desperation, she presents an offer Ariel is unable to refuse.
This version of The Little Mermaid takes its time to expand the background of Prince Eric and his island kingdom. It reminds us lowkey why he’s the best Disney prince. Hoping to keep the kingdom from falling behind, he seeks to travel to different countries, exploring and learning what he can along the way. This is the connective tissue between Eric and this iteration of Ariel.
Ariel desires above anything else to explore uncharted territory. Sure, Eric is cute and provides further interest. But on land, you can see how director Rob Marshall, screenwriter David Magee, and Halle Bailey enhance Ariel’s natural curiosity. Humanity fascinates the young mermaid. Regardless of whether she ever met someone to love, the throughline for the character is clear here. Curiosity is her driving force.
As Ariel, Halle Bailey is perfection. Literally, I could not ask anything more from her performance. From her emotive vocals (which admittedly made me cry in the theater) to her acting, you can’t look away from her. This is the princess that inspired my generation who grew up with Disney’s Renaissance-era of animation, and Bailey’s Ariel will continue to inspire future generations.
We don’t see as much development underwater. I’d argue we get slightly more development into Ursula’s motivation in the Broadway musical than we do here in The Little Mermaid. That’s not to say Melissa McCarthy didn’t deliver. Her vocal interpretation of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” pays homage to Pat Carroll’s performance while still making it her own.
We also get smaller moments where we learn further why King Triton and his daughters despise humans. Their broken ships litter the ocean floor, destroying oceanic reefs in the process. Aside from that and the mention of Ariel’s mother, not much here has changed. Compared to what we learn above water, you can tell where the focus for development was story-wise.
What could have been left out were the new songs Lin-Manuel Miranda whipped up with composer Alan Menken. The new song for Eric, “Wild Uncharted Waters,” in execution feels rushed. There isn’t a moment that stands out. Hauer-King is a decent enough singer but, without any clear moments that punch out, it’s forgettable.
The same came be said for “The Scuttlebutt.” It likely will be a favorite among kids, but it again feels rushed. This feels more in Miranda’s wheelhouse but, much like “Wild Uncharted Waters” doesn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the soundtrack. Unfortunate since Daveed Diggs nails the rap at the end of “Scuttlebutt.”
People had concerns about the lighting in pre-released images and footage online prior to seeing The Little Mermaid. Lighting isn’t the big issue that people are expecting here. Mind you, we can’t expect them to nail the exact colors and lighting seen in animation. Animation provides wiggle room that live-action does not. With that said, the only time I’d argue lighting was janky would be in the final climatic battle.
What is noticeably questionable is the CGI when we get under the sea. Disney hasn’t quite learned its lesson when it comes to attempting to tackle animals, and The Little Mermaid shows that well. Part of that is the voice work is utilized to compensate for the lack of personality in the animal renders.
If you interact with animals a lot, you’ll know that each animal has a clearly distinct look and vibe. That’s lost here. Even someone like me, who is generally forgiving of such things, found myself missing the animated versions of the characters just for the personality that came through in their designs. I know others have complained about Flounder’s re-design, but Sebastian is easily the design that haunts my dreams.
Animating water and how things move underwater is tough. Heck, it took James Cameron over a decade to get the underwater VFX perfect for Avatar: The Way of Water. You can tell onscreen the training that went towards swimming and getting the motions right on camera. In some ways, it paid off to achieve that physicality. Other times, whether it’s through the movement of the tail in water or a character’s hair, to the eye, something was off.
Compared to previous live-action adaptations, especially upon further revisitation, The Little Mermaid is easily one of the better ones from Disney. There’s a heavy mixture of the familiar with the new. It feels fresh yet nostalgic.
Halle Bailey is a godsend as Ariel. With her magical voice, she carries so much emotional impact. With a strong cast to back her up, it’ll be no surprise to see an uptick of interest in mermaids from both kids and adults alike once the movie hits theaters. While it still has its issues, The Little Mermaid doesn’t sink. It still manages to swim straight into our hearts.
THE LITTLE MERMAID REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
The Walt Disney Studios‘ The Little Mermaid swims its way into theaters on May 26, 2023. The film is rated PG for action/peril and some scary images.