“But Daddy, I love him!” That’s one iconic line from Disney’s 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid that you won’t hear in the live-action 2023 adaptation. Based on both the animated feature and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale that inspired it, director Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns) delivers a version of the story that has surprisingly few amendments, but enough changes to settle any concerns about a teenager giving up everything for a human she doesn’t know. Retaining most of the classic Alan Menken/Howard Ashman songs alongside three new tunes with lyricist Lin-Manual Miranda, The Little Mermaid is a splashy family-friendly musical extravaganza that will inspire a new generation of kids to wish they could swap their legs for fins.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) and is destined to rule the seventh sea alongside her six sisters. But her real passion lies above the surface, consulting with her friend Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina, Raya and the Last Dragon) about all her sunken treasure finds and housing them in her grotto with the help of her friend Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, Luca). After rescuing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, A Dog’s Way Home) from a shipwreck, King Triton finds Ariel’s shrine to the human world and forbids his daughter from pursuing her passions. So when her banished aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, Gilmore Girls) offers her the chance to trade her voice for three days on land, Ariel takes it. Followed by her father’s major-domo Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs, Hamilton), Ariel must overcome Ursula’s sneaky treachery if she is to make her dream of becoming a human forever come true.
This version of The Little Mermaid is similar to Disney’s 2018 adaptation of Aladdin in that its biggest hurdles are overcoming the expertly crafted animated sequences that inspired it. Like that film, when Rob Marshall lets the cast do their own thing with the material, it feels fresh and original. Where it fails, it flops, with “Under the Sea” feeling particularly underwhelming in comparison to its animated counterpart (ironic since, with the exception of Halle Bailey from the waist up, that sequence is all computer animated). Sometimes a line from the animated film is spoken word-for-word in the remake, which, with the exception of Melissa McCarthy’s delivery, often feels out of place. In general, the musical numbers from the animated classic underwhelm visually, although Halle Bailey’s vocals deserve all the praise. A second reprise of “Part of Your World” adds haunting new depth to Ariel’s signature song, which allows her to perform the song without instant comparisons to Jodi Benson’s version.
In terms of story changes, the biggest tweak is the expansion of Prince Eric’s character, who is the adopted son of royalty and has a living parent(Noma Dumezweni, Mary Poppins Returns). Contrasting Ariel’s hunger for knowledge of the human world, Eric feels the call to explore the sea in spite of his mother’s fears for his safety, as their island kingdom is under constant threats from the ocean. Eric is given one of the film’s new tunes, “Wild Unchartered Waters,” which is essentially his answer to “Part of Your World.” And like Ariel, he has his own grotto of sorts, a library full of souvenirs from his sea voyages. As expected, the expansion of Prince Eric’s character makes him more than just a handsome face for Ariel to swoon over, with the pair discovering that they’re actually kindred spirits. This makes the second act feel more new than the rest of the film.
Confusingly, the film opens with a quote from Hans Christen Anderson’s fairytale (“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more”) in spite of doing nothing with it. The line makes sense in the fairytale's dark ending (the mermaid fails to get the kiss and is turned into seafoam!), but this film thankfully uses Disney’s happy ending (minus the instant wedding), so the quote never has a payoff. This adaptation also references mermaid lore, including Ursula’s reason for taking Ariel’s voice being that it wouldn’t be fair for her to have her siren song on land. But it also never explains these things to an audience that may be unfamiliar, which is a curious choice. It feels like an earlier draft included this missing exposition, with the editing not excising other lines referring back to it. There are enough context clues to fill in the gaps (sailors trying to harpoon a dolphin fearing it’s a mermaid, for example), but it’s sure to create confusion among a large number of audience members.
With much of the first and third acts set underwater, an entirely CG environment, the visual effects feature many uncanny valley moments. Many scenes feel undercooked in this regard and in particular, the hair often feels possessed. It’s not constant and some sequences are to be praised, looking far better than the underwater hair in DC’s Aquaman. But at times, it feels like the hair almost detaches from the live-action human’s head. One particularly distracting scene involves King Triton’s beard seemingly pulled in one direction while his long hair is swirled the other way. It’s frequent enough to repeatedly take you out of the story, which is a shame.
The cast, however, is mostly outstanding. Halle Bailey exudes Ariel’s childlike wonder for the human world and she’s a delight in her first major film role. Melissa McCarthy channels enough of Pat Carroll’s essence while making the role her own, retaining all of the camp that has made Ursula a fan-favorite villain while also putting her own spin on the character. Daveed Diggs makes his Sebastian different enough from Samuel E. Wright that his performance never feels like a copycat, adopting a Trinidadian accent instead of a Jamaican one. And on paper, Awkwafina as Scuttle doesn’t sound like it makes much sense. She actually ends up being one of the biggest scene stealers, especially with her Lin-Manuel Miranda-infused rap “The Scuttlebutt,” which doesn’t really blend with the songs from the original film (nor do the other two new ones), but you don’t mind as much because of how fun the number is.
Overall, this live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid flounders in its attempts to recapture the magic of the animated classic. The minor story tweaks are sure to appease parents who take offense with the original film’s portrayal of a girl who changes herself for a boy she doesn’t know, but it otherwise doesn’t add much to the story. This version is sure to be successful for its diversity and inclusion aspects, incorporating merpeople of every ethnic background and perceived gender. But aside from allowing a new generation to see themselves in a classic fairytale, any sea witch can see that the animated classic will still reign supreme for the time being.
I give The Little Mermaid 3 out of 5 starfish.
The Little Mermaid splashes into theaters on May 26th.