REVIEW | The Little Mermaid might be Disney's best remake yet

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
Photo: Disney
Film: The Little Mermaid

Where to watch: Now showing in cinemas

Cast: Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, Jonah Hauer-King

Our rating: 4/5 Stars

The youngest of King Triton's daughters, Ariel is a beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure. Longing to learn more about the world beyond the sea, Ariel visits the surface and falls for the dashing Prince Eric. Following her heart, she makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, to experience life on land.

It seems like aeons ago when details for The Little Mermaid first reached audiences. The minor controversy sparked by its casting choices (stoked by racist trolls) assured the film would furrow a space into the public consciousness. When actual teasers and trailers finally started circulating online, positive anticipation started to snowball, with many viewers excited to see how Disney would handle their next remake.

Now that the highly anticipated film has been released, all scepticism can be put to bed because The Little Mermaid, directed by Rob Marshall, might be Disney's best remake yet. Though the film loses some of the whimsy and vibrance of its animated predecessor, it's still able to recapture some of its magic. This is helped along by the superb performances (from actors and voice actors alike) and the wonderfully crafted underwater seascapes. The latter features one of Disney's most tasteful uses of CGI in any remake.

The story mostly stays true to the original, with minor plot tweaks to appeal to modern sensibilities. Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the underwater ruler, and just wants to see what the world above her's has to offer. Her repressive father forbids her to go anywhere near the surface, but Ariel ignores his wishes. After saving a human, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), from a shipwreck, Ariel falls in love and becomes more resolute in making it to the surface. She makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch (Melissa McCarthy), to be turned into a human. But Ursula has ulterior motives, and Ariel may be in more danger than she thinks.

Due to the plot tweaks in the film, Ariel is given much more agency in her own story. This is the remake's most positive change. She becomes someone who's more active in the plot instead of having things passively happen to her. Halle Bailey is a perfect fit for Ariel as well, effortlessly embodying her free spirit and delivering wonderful vocal performances in all her musical numbers. She even breathes life into the scenes where she interacts with her expressionless sea-creature friends. The great tragedy in many of the Disney remakes is their CGI treatment of animal characters, who are often rigid and robbed of visual emotion. Melissa McCarthy does a similarly outstanding job as Ursula, bringing a high-energy performance to the live-action version of the character.

Though the performances are solid all around, the on-screen romantic chemistry between Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King, who both play the film's main characters, is lacking. Hauer-King doesn't quite have the magnetism to be a convincing Prince Charming, but he is not a complete ill-fit. The film's writing does effectively show the similarities between their characters, though, making their bond more emotionally compelling. They are both free-spirited, have a sense of adventure and have a rebellious streak.

The underwater world created for the film is genuinely majestic and a marvel to see. King Triton's sea kingdom feels vibrant and brings much-needed magic to its story. Its beauty doesn't match the original animated fairy tale but is much more realistic, emphasizing the beauty found under the sea. However, realism holds the film back from creating a more fantastical world. There are times in the film when it feels overly conscious about making a more believable setting and story when such concerns are largely unnecessary.

The film's treatment of its beloved soundtrack is mostly successful, with some songs being removed and some musical content being added. However, the music feels weakly incorporated throughout the film. The songs feel like they are few and far between, almost making them feel like a surprise when they pop up.

The most notable musical addition is a rap song performed by the character of Scuttle, voiced by Awkwafina. New lyrics for the film were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mind behind Hamilton the stage production. Scuttle's rap is where his contributions are most obvious. Daveed Diggs, who also played two characters in Hamilton, is the voice of Sebastian in this film. His selection for the role raises the question of why an actor of actual Caribbean descent was not cast instead.

Overall, The Little Mermaid proves to be an entertaining and well-made addition to Disney's long and ever-expanding list of remakes. The film is well-paced, with no dull scenes during its run-time. It is not perfect, but it does make some improvements to the original animation, especially in its story. It's bound to be enjoyable viewing for younger audiences and a nostalgia trip for older viewers. The Disney remakes are often viewed as cash grabs, but The Little Mermaid shows they can still provide a fun theatre-going experience.


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