The Little Mermaid

Beneath the sea governed by King Triton (Javier Bardem), his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey, "Last Holiday") flouts his rules because of her fascination with all things human.  Triton hates the land dwellers for having killed his wife and so tasks his major-domo, the crab Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs), with keeping Ariel in line.  But when a handsome young man is in danger of drowning when his ship sinks in a storm, Ariel saves him and upon awakening Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, "A Dog's Way Home") will become obsessed with finding “The Little Mermaid.”

Laura's Review: B

Disney’s live action remakes have mostly been a desultory lot, only Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” and Kenneth Branaugh’s “Cinderella” having been received with much enthusiasm.  Their latest has been taking hits over casting (heaven forbid a mythical creature be portrayed by a young black woman!), some reacting in horror to the presence of a real fish as Flounder on the film’s poster.  The blatant commercial delivered by the film’s stars as part of this year’s Oscar telecast only heightened the backlash.  Even I was annoyed by that bit.  So it was with low expectations that I settled in for the live action “Little Mermaid” and surprise - it was much better than I anticipated.

That isn’t to say, this “Little Mermaid” doesn’t have problems.  Hauer-King may have a nice face and a nice voice, but his prince is bland.  And while folks have objected to live action photorealism dispensing with animated ‘magic,’ this film looks better when it avoids the “Fantasia” treatment for musical numbers and sticks to more natural seascapes.  Effects overall are inconsistent, some blue screen scenes looking more like rear projection.  Javier Bardem’s Triton appears top heavy, his scaled and tailed bottom half too slim to support his torso.  Perhaps the most surprising negative is Oscar winning costume designer Colleen Atwood’s (“Nine,” “Alice in Wonderland”) work, her mermaids in garish colors, some featuring unnatural patterns, Ariel’s dress on land uninspired.

But in adapting Hans Christian Andersen and Disney’s animated adaptation by John Musker & Ron Clements, David Magee ("Mary Poppins Returns") has added richness in detail, Erik the prince of a Caribbean nation, himself an outsider having been adopted by Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni, "Mary Poppins Returns").  Like Ariel’s obsession with the world above her own, Erik is fascinated by the one below his, collecting sea treasures just as Ariel mines shipwrecks for foreign objects.  Bailey has a beautiful singing voice, one which transports familiar Menken songs like ‘Part of Your World’ into new heights.  When she gives up that voice in a deal with her evil Aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the sea witch plotting to get back at Triton by stealing his daughter while promising her legs which will vanish if she doesn’t receive true love’s kiss within two days, we’re treated to one of McCarthy’s all time best performances, the actress commanding her scenes, singing in a husky voice and vamping like a Broadway diva.  The trio who voice Ariel’s sidekicks give rich and characteristic performances, young Jacob Tremblay’s Flounder the Sergeant Major damselfish sweetly innocent, Daveed Diggs’s Trinidadian take on Sebastian delightful and Awkwafina’s gannet Scuttle great comic relief.  Awkwafina even gets the best new song from Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘Scuttlebutt,’ a rap clearly indebted to ‘Hamilton’s’ creator (there are two other new tunes, one given to Ariel and one to Erik, plus a new reprise for ‘Part of Your World’).  Art Malik ("A Passage to India") as Queen Selina’s PM Sir Grimsby and Martina Laird as housekeeper Lashana are another interesting pair, coconspirators in Erik and Ariel’s romance, one white, one black just like Erik and his adoptive mother.

I was dismayed by the film’s 2 hour 15 minute running time, but go-to musical director Rob Marshall ("Chicago," "Mary Poppins Returns") never lets things lag, alternating musical numbers with adventure, ‘kiss’ suspense building into a crescendo as Ursula takes human form to lure back Erik with Ariel’s voice.  Director of photography Dion Beebe (“Mary Poppins Returns”) makes the dry-for-wet ‘underwater’ scenes seem natural as actors ‘float’ in rigs against blue screen wearing skullcaps so swirling CGI hair could be added later in post-production.

Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid” began a new era for Disney animation.  The new live action version, while far from perfect, turns out to be a most pleasant surprise.  It is certainly worthy of the theatrical release denied their more recent remakes.

Walt Disney releases 2023's live action "The Little Mermaid" in theaters on 5/26/23.