After spending the better part of the last decade regurgitating time-honored animated classics and giving them a fresh coat of live-action (or in the case of The Lion King, “photoreal” paint), the nostalgia train at Walt Disney Studios is pulling out of the station for perhaps the final time with the release of The Little Mermaid. Clocking in at 135 minutes — nearly a full hour longer than its hand-drawn 1989 predecessor — this update continues the studio’s recent trend of padding out running times for no good reason, turning concise and well-placed stories into bloated exercises in patience whose additional scenes add almost nothing of value to the experience.
Yes, pacing is one of the primary issues facing The Little Mermaid, as the narrative lurches forward with less momentum than one of the subaquatic snails which populates the film’s vast underwater environments. And those environments pose another problem: director Rob Marshall’s insistence on rendering the ocean with as much realism as possible results in murky visuals and expressionless creatures, a far cry from the vibrant colors and playful designs that made Ron Clements and John Musker’s animated film such an indelible classic. This unfortunate decision even has a negative impact on the beloved musical number “Under the Sea,” where the lyrics rattle off various species and their instruments — “the newt play the flute/the carp play the harp/the plaice play the bass/and they soundin’ sharp” — while none of this action actually occurs onscreen. It may still be the best sequence in the film, but there’s a level of charm that feels noticeably absent.
Unfortunate creative decisions notwithstanding, it’s impossible to find fault with Halle Bailey, making her feature film debut in an undeniably star-making performance. Perfectly capturing the same blend of wistfulness and rebellion that has endeared fans to the underwater princess for the past 30 years, Bailey also has the voice to imbue “Part of Your World” — arguably the greatest “I want” song in Disney history — with a soul-stirring quality that feels nothing short of magical. It’s no wonder adopted orphan Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is enchanted by Ariel’s silky voice; we feel the same way, and we’d rather more of the film’s new musical numbers have been allocated to Bailey, which would have made for a significant improvement over an ill-conceived third act number called “The Scuttlebutt,” which finds Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina and re-envisioned as a diving bird) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) rapping about the local gossip.
Elsewhere, Melissa McCarthy turns in a better-than-expected performance as Ursula the sea witch, dialing back her signature brand of comedy and replacing it with a delicious wickedness. McCarthy acquits herself nicely in “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” borrowing heavily from Pat Carroll’s original rendition — it’s a truly admirable impersonation — but without quite matching its bawdiness. Visually, the bioluminescent tentacles are a nice touch, but the additional backstory fleshing out Ursula’s relationship to the royal family is an unnecessary insertion that accomplishes nothing whatsoever. Likewise, a new wrinkle added to explain the fate of Ariel’s mother has no real bearing on the narrative, and it’s hard to imagine Javier Bardem’s portrayal of King Triton would have changed one iota had this been excised completely.
The Little Mermaid is better than most of Disney’s recent spate of remakes, but it’s not as if the bar were set especially high. The human performances, most notably Bailey and McCarthy, help offset the lack of emotion from the film’s CGI creations, and the signature musical numbers still evoke strong emotions. It also bears taking note of the significance of casting an actress of color to portray the leading role here, a decision that caused much consternation in certain (racist) corners of the internet. The largely manufactured outrage doesn’t diminish the fact that a new generation of viewers will be able to see themselves reflected in a major Disney character, and that’s worthy of praise, even if the film itself were borne out of little more than a desire to mine nostalgia for box office returns.