‘The Little Mermaid’ REVIEW: A Fin-tastic Start to the Summer Blockbuster Season
Disney is making waves with the newest entry into their live-action catalogue, ‘The Little Mermaid’. The 1989 adaptation of ‘The Little Mermaid’ is widely regarded as one of Disney’s best animated features, the film that ushered in the Disney Renaissance, and has an active and passionate fan following as big as the seven seas. It made perfect sense to be the next film receiving the live-action treatment (unlike some other recently announced films).
As a child of the ‘90s, I grew up with ‘The Little Mermaid’ on VHS but was never as obsessed with it as some of my generation are. So, when the film was announced seven years ago, I went about business as usual, not knowing the utter chaos that would ensue on social media over every detail of this film.
Throughout my time at The DisInsider, I’ve noticed we get asked about ‘The Little Mermaid’ more than anything else. Parks news, new animated films, everything else takes a backseat to Ariel. So now comes the billion-dollar question: Is ‘The Little Mermaid’ actually good, or did Disney take yet another childhood classic and turn it into something so bad it almost taints the original. Without further ado, I’m pleased to say that not only is ‘The Little Mermaid’ a fin-tastic film, but also the pinnacle of the live-action remakes, and may be the rare live-action adaptation that is better than its animated counterpart.
It’s hard to picture the perfect person who can fit the fins and take over for Jodi Benson, but I can happily say that, even though it’s cliche, Halle Bailey IS Ariel. Bailey brings the same joy and exuberance to the role that Benson did, but with a new warmth and depth that truly makes you feel what it’s like to be 16 again and longing to make your own mark on the world, whatever that may be. Vocal-wise, she’s the perfect successor to Benson; at times, they sound exactly alike. Her rendition of “Part of Your World” has a quiet power to it and reminded me just how beautiful films can be when studios cast for who is right for the role, not looking for big names or wanting to fit a type-cast.
Melissa McCarthy is devilishly wonderful as Ursula. She balances paying homage to Pat Carroll and making this role uniquely hers perfectly. When she’s on the screen, it feels like she already controls the ocean. I only wish there was more of her in the film; she’s a commanding presence when we get her, but in the back half of the story, she’s barely featured.
‘The Little Mermaid’ is undoubtedly Bailey’s film, but Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is my personal favorite character from this adaptation. This film turns Eric from a generic Disney love interest a la Snow White’s Prince into a fully realized young adult who wants more from life than what is expected of him. Hauer-King’s performance is heartfelt and emotional, pulling audiences in with not just the baby blue of his eyes, but the soul you can feel from them. Eric is given his own “I Want” song that’s traditionally given to the main protagonist of Disney films, a surprising addition that proves this is as much Eric’s story and journey of self-discovery as it is Ariel’s.
Whereas most of the cast shines, Javier Bardem’s King Triton falls flat. His almost stoic portrayal of the character is a stark contrast to the passions of the rest of the film. When the king of the seven seas rages, it should be a force so powerful it can be felt throughout the entirety of the ocean, but during the destruction of Ariel’s hideout, I felt nothing at all. Bardem and Bailey developed a close relationship during filming, however, you wouldn’t know it from their performance together.
For those concerned that ‘The Little Mermaid’ would be as dark as the ocean’s depth, fear not. This film is an explosion of color from start to finish.
Rather than on an indiscriminate piece of land, this adaptation ingeniously places the above-water kingdom in the Caribbean. The vibrancy of island life shines through the entirety of Ariel’s time on land, and successfully creates a world that would entice Ariel to leave behind all she’s known. All the new songs for this remake take place on land, further adding to the attraction of life above the sea; though, life under the sea is nothing to squawk at.
While Daveed Diggs’ version of “Under the Sea” takes to the second chorus to really get going, the visuals are simply stunning. The sheer variety of marine life featured is astounding, and the CGI is cleaner than most of Disney’s output of late (no, this bar isn’t high, but they still pole-vaulted it in my opinion). The film spent the majority of its development in post-production; it was time well spent.
One problem people have been having with Disney’s live-action remakes is that they’re shot for shot the same film as the original, and at that point, what is the point of making a new adaptation anyway? ‘The Little Mermaid’ does share many scenes with the 1989 film, but it expands upon them in ways that give this version meaning.
Most of the additions in this film are welcome – from expanding Ariel and Eric’s relationship from infatuation at first sight to a true depiction of friendship and love developing from shared interests, to Eric’s mother the queen, and actually stating why King Triton so despises the surface world. The expanded runtime of the film lets it touch on so many unanswered questions from the original and helps create a more immersive world without taking so much time for exposition and backstory that it feels as if you’re being dragged to the bottom of the ocean.
Ariel is also given a second solo song in the film, “For the First Time”, where she sings about her initial experience on land. It’s a beautiful and honest account of what it feels like to be in a whole new world and the excitement and nervousness that come with it.
The only difference from the original film that stands out in a negative manner is Scuttle’s new song, “The Scuttlebutt”. Perfect name aside, it reeks of Disney’s desire to modernize only through the inclusion of rap, and is so drastically different from the rest of the songs in the movie that it feels out of place. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s lyrics are catchy, and the song flows nicely, but Awkwafina’s delivery had me wishing she was just squawking the entire time instead. Will little kids love this song? Yes. Will it be all over TikTok this summer? Yes. Is it actually a good song? No. Thankfully this sequence is only two minutes long, and the banter between Scuttle and Sebastian makes this at least tolerable, even if it left me feeling as awkward as Ariel does during this scene.
Going into this film, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I went in with low expectations because that’s what I’ve come to expect from the caliber of Disney’s films of late. I was not expecting to fall in love with Ariel and Eric, have Eric’s song stuck in my head on a loop, or be counting down the days until the film is released so I can see it again.
‘The Little Mermaid’ has everything that diehard fans of the original would want to see in a new adaptation, while providing enough new content to more than justify its creation. Hopefully this remake can re-launch an era of top-quality Disney films, as its predecessor did. Whether or not it will is up to audiences, but either way, this movie is a great addition to Walt Disney Studios filmography.
On land or under the sea, I just loved being part of this world.
‘The Little Mermaid’ premieres in theaters on Friday, May 26th.