The Little Mermaid Review: A Riveting Live-Action Tale That Improves On The Original

I have a confession to make. I'm not a big fan of Disney's 1989 adaptation of "The Little Mermaid." There are aspects of it I do enjoy (specifically the soundtrack, scored by Alan Menken with songs by Menken and Howard Ashman), but the story surrounding Ariel and Prince Eric's romance hasn't aged well. At all.

So much so, in fact, that when my toddler asks to watch "the merfmaid" (Ariel's Undersea Adventure attraction at Disney California Adventure introduced her to the Disney version of the tale), I turn on the direct-to-video prequel released in 2008: "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning." Does the movie hold a flame to the first film? It does not. But even though the mom dies in "Ariel's Beginning" (it's still Disney, after all), it doesn't send the message to my daughter that girls should sacrifice parts of themselves to be with someone, much less someone you just met, where the only connection you share is that you both think the other is attractive.

It's been 34 years since the Mouse House's first foray into adapting Hans Christen Anderson's tragic tale into kid-friendly fare, and "The Little Mermaid" is the latest Disney classic to get a live-action retelling. I've been skeptical of the whole live-action remake movement — projects primarily inspired to make a lot of money by hewing to stories that have already been done. There can be, however, an artistic benefit to these remakes. When done well, they can capture the beloved parts of the originals while also addressing their failings, giving a new generation of children better messages to learn and characters who better reflect and represent the world we live in.

"The Little Mermaid" is a live-action remake done well. The casting (with one notable exception) is phenomenal, led by Halle Bailey's breathtaking performance as Ariel; the original songs are portrayed in vivid displays that will make children's eyes sparkle; and the story has been adjusted to correct the first film's less-than-modern relationships.

A school of talent

The act of playing such a well-known character as Ariel is no easy feat, but Halle Bailey beautifully captures the mermaid's curiosity, earnestness, and desire to explore beyond the confines of her home. She is Ariel before she even sings a word, and when she finally does sing "Part of Your World," there's no question that Bailey is royalty in her own right and on her way to becoming a major star.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is also stellar. Melissa McCarthy takes on her role as the evil sea witch Ursula with wicked glee, and Ariel's three compatriots — the fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), the crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and the seabird Scuttle (Awkafina) — provide heart and an undertow of comedic relief that a movie like this requires. And while there has been some snickering about Flounder and Sebastian looking disturbingly realistic, the initial shock of seeing an anatomically correct crustacean speak with a Caribbean accent fades quickly once you get caught up in the story. Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is also more than a mere himbo in the remake; the live-action version gives the prince some needed character development — he has wants and desires beyond trying to find the mysterious girl who saved him from drowning — and he even gets his own schmaltzy ballad to vocalize his angst. 

But then there's King Triton (Javier Bardem). As in the 1989 movie, the merman remains a distant dad in this version, but Bardem comes across as wooden rather than stoic, and the long flowing grey beard he sports doesn't make up for it. King Triton acts like he's stoned half the time rather than merely aloof, and the scenes between them and Ariel are more stilted than emotional, and are the weakest moments of the film. 

Creating under the sea

"The Little Mermaid" also dazzles us with vivid underwater sequences full of realistic-looking fish, sea turtles, manta rays, and other sea creatures. Everything is multi-colored and bright, the world is lively, and the mermaids are equally so. When we first dive down early on in the film, the movie reminds us living under the ocean is full of wonder, and we revisit this wonder throughout the film, especially in the rendition of "Under the Sea." 

Ursula's lair also delivers on being a spookily stark contrast to Ariel's undersea world, as it should. And while some of the released images suggested that some scenes might be too gosh-darned dark (a common problem these days), everything looked right to my eyes when watching on the big screen. My only critique of the depiction of the mermaid world, in fact, is that while we welcomingly see mer-people of every race, we see no mermaids or mermen in larger bodies, something that was disheartening given the creative team clearly want to create a mer-world that is inclusive.

As for the land-lubber scenes, the island kingdom could have been an afterthought in a film centered around a mermaid, but there was no skimping here. Everything from the village market Ariel and Eric visit to the castle with its tiled walls and airy hallways made you feel like you were in some place tropical.

Old songs and new

Disney's "The Little Mermaid" wouldn't be Disney's "The Little Mermaid," however, without the songs. As previously mentioned, the original songs found in the live-action version are fantastic — several in the audience, including me, applauded after both "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea"— and there's no doubt those renditions will be in regular rotation in millions of households in the years to come.

The movie also contains some new songs, with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with varying success. One song that Ariel "sings" when she first makes it to land sans voice, is a fun addition, while others — such as Eric's ballad and a rap between Scuttle and Sebastian — don't fare as well (though hearing Diggs, who also starred in Miranda's first Broadway run of "Hamilton," rap as a crab has its perks).

Overall, however, 2023's "The Little Mermaid" is well worth the watch. I've no doubt that it will become an indelible part of many a young person's childhood, and I can't wait to watch it with my daughter.

/Film score: 7.5 out of 10