Ever since Disney started the trend of creating live action versions of their final generation of beloved hand-drawn animated films, The Little Mermaid loomed as the most difficult and most anticipated of the bunch. The mixture of underwater settings, hybrid Mer-people actors and talking sea life provided challenges the likes of which Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin or any of the other adaptations have ever faced. Despite these hurdles, director Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) stays faithful to the original and does enough things right to make this journey under the sea worthwhile.
Regardless of any early (and petty) internet backlash, the casting is the first thing that the film nails. Halle Bailey has the pipes to belt out all of Ariel’s tunes and even has the character’s fluttery speaking voice absolutely down. She’s not perfect, but Bailey certainly brings the right adventurous vibe and rebellious attitude that makes Ariel unpredictable and endearing. Not to be outdone, Bailey’s co-star Jonah Hauer-King is beyond charismatic, portraying Ariel’s love interest Prince Eric, bringing more depth to a character that is originally just a plot device. Hauer-King gives 110% in every scene, leaving it all out on the ocean floor.
While that might sound like a recipe for sparks to fly, unfortunately, despite both actors being superb on their own, the romantic chemistry just isn’t there on screen when together. Hauer-King sells his side of the love interest aspect hard, but Bailey comes across uncomfortable and slightly cold in a lot of their interactions, just not portraying a young person falling madly in love at first sight.
Melissa McCarthy’s villainous turn as Ursula is easily the biggest and best element of the live-action The Little Mermaid. From the stunning design of the character’s bioluminescent tentacles to the uncanny channelling of original voice actress Pat Carroll — both in speech and singing voice — McCarthy owns every second of screen time. Disney has never had an animated character adapted to live action so unbelievably spot on as what McCarthy and Co. have pulled off in this movie. Additionally, coming in a close second is Javier Bardem’s take on Ariel’s father, King Triton, and the lauded actor brings the most heart of any character here, alongside the appropriate dash of terrifying that Triton requires.
I previously mentioned how faithful the film is to the original and all the big moments and song numbers are intact and well represented. The iconic imagery alongside the sing-a-long melodies doesn’t venture too far away from the source, although numbers are jazzed up a bit with bigger orchestral swells and production. One main complaint is the visual choice to go hyper-realistic with the sea creatures in Ariel’s home. Beloved numbers such as Under the Sea leave out the fairy-tale whimsy of the waves of fish playing instruments and putting on a show. Instead, the film just provides beautiful CG creatures in their natural environment with sidekicks Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) having the only anthropomorphization while providing the song’s exposition. Diggs and Tremblay settle nicely into the roles, but the character designs all could have benefited from more stylization rather than photo-realism.
Not every bit of the film is completely faithful as The Little Mermaid has changes and story padding aplenty, including new songs and extended scenes galore. In one bit of clever gender-bending casting, Awkwafina brings her natural squawky comedic voice to the dopey seagull Scuttle. The bird even gets the one good new catchy song that has Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fingerprints all over it. Aside from that number, the rest of the new songs are forgettable and the film clocks in at an unnecessary half hour over the original version, sorely needing a trim to move this one along.
Overall, there’s not much more you can ask for from an adaptation of this kind. The core story beats and songs are all intact, the visuals pop and the cast all embody the characters they are tasked with bringing to life. The Little Mermaid isn’t perfect and there are some frustrating choices, but nevertheless should please fans, old and new.
Score: 4 out of 5