THE LITTLE MERMAID | Walt Disney Studios Canada | May 26, 2023
Starring: Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina
Directed By: Rob Marshall
“The Little Mermaid,” visionary filmmaker Rob Marshall’s live-action reimagining of the studio’s Oscar®-winning animated musical classic, opens exclusively in theatres nationwide May 26, 2023. “The Little Mermaid” is the beloved story of Ariel, a beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure. The youngest of King Triton’s daughters and the most defiant, Ariel longs to find out more about the world beyond the sea and, while visiting the surface, falls for the dashing Prince Eric. While mermaids are forbidden to interact with humans, Ariel must follow her heart. She makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, which gives her a chance to experience life on land but ultimately places her life – and her father’s crown – in jeopardy.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
The Little Mermaid takes audiences under the sea once again with an excellent live action remake of the animated classic, that despite not offering anything new or drastically different from the animated masterpiece, soars thanks to the incredible cast led by the sensational Halle Bailey as Ariel in what is destined to be a career defining performance.
Back in 1989, Walt Disney Animation began its renaissance with The Little Mermaid, which single handedly saved the studio. From Alan Menken’s majestic musical score to the brilliant lyrics of the late Howard Ashman, the story of this young, independent mermaid curious about the human world who fell in love with a human has enchanted audiences ever since its release. With the string of remakes of their animated classics, it was no surprise that Disney eventually turned its eye to one of its crowning jewels, and while it does not offer much new to the story and has a few missteps, it is an entertaining remake that will put audiences under a spell thanks largely to the unforgettable lead performance of Halle Bailey.
Never for a second does The Little Mermaid break the Disney live action remake formula. Largely following the plot of the original film very closely, with some plot points are flushed out and new songs are written to extend the film’s runtime to two hours and fifteen minutes, the film largely delivers everything audiences loved about the original animated film in live action. Ariel’s story is updated, giving her more modern motivations so she is not merely leaving the ocean to get her man, but forging her own path in life and breaking free from her father’s shadow, while Eric is given a true character arc and even his own musical number which he was not presented with in the animated film. But for the most part, there are no surprises here, which as a die hard Disney fan is something I liked because there is no point reworking one of the most influential animated films of all time. And under the talented direction of Rob Marshall, who is no stranger to the musical genre, it’s impossible not to have a truly delightful time going under the sea once again.
Compared to other live action remakes from the Disney catalog which had incredible new musical numbers like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, the new songs in The Little Mermaid add very little to the film. While the best of the batch was Eric’s number “Wild Uncharted Waters”, the songs fail to capture the magic of the original songs, which are still the standouts. Bailey’s performance of “Part of Your World” and its reprise are the definitive vocal performances of those songs, flooring audiences with the sheer power and range of her voice. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is deliciously evil and wildly entertaining thanks to Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, while “Kiss the Girl” is pure Disney magic capturing the spirit and magic of the original film in every single frame. “Under the Sea'' remains an incredible song, brilliantly performed by Daveed Diggs and Bailey, even if the realistic approach to the sea creatures prevents it from being the show-stopping number that it was in the original film.
Without any question, it is the performances that make the film. A star is truly born with Bailey’s performance as Ariel. She was born to play Ariel and brings the film to life the second she appears on screen. Bailey has an infectious energy that draws the audience into the film with her sweet yet determined personality that is Ariel through and through, with a magnetic screen presence that prevents you from focusing on anything else but her the entire film. Then she begins singing, and I was left speechless and moved to tears with her outstanding rendition of “Part of Your World”. The world may not know her name, but by the end of the weekend, Bailey is destined to be one of the brightest and most in demand stars in all of Hollywood.
Though, the perfect casting does not stop with Bailey. McCarthy gives what is without question the best performance of her illustrious career as Ursula. Even before you see McCarthy in costume and makeup, the inflections of her voice are an homage to Pat Carroll’s legendary performance in the animated film that captures the darkness and playfulness of this iconic Disney villain. Reveling in Ursula’s dastardly plan, McCarthy is an absolute scene stealer that makes “Poor Unfortunate Souls” one of the best scenes of the entire film. Diggs is pitch perfect as Sebastian, bringing to life the fan favourite character and capturing that much needed Caribbean energy in “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” that matches the film’s tone perfectly. Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina are fun as Flounder and Scuttle respectively, even if they don’t get enough screen time, while Javier Bardem is the right choice for King Triton despite the script not giving him the role he deserves. Rounding out the principal cast is Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, and beyond looking identical to his animated counterpart, Hauer-King brings a tenderness and adventurer spirit to Eric that is exactly what this version of the character requires. His chemistry with Bailey is sweet and endearing, even if it is not as electrifying as it needed to be to fully sell the story’s central romance.
With half of the film being set underwater, the film had to rely heavily on CGI. At first, it’s very distracting, especially the turtles in the first five minutes, but you eventually adjust and get swept up by the familiar story. Had the production design been more colourful, leaning heavier into the film’s animated roots rather than creating a photorealistic under the sea life, the CGI would have been easier to forgive as it would have added a much needed vibrancy to the film. It’s tough to truly dock the film points on this one issue, as this story cannot be told without CGI in the live action format, but some tweaking of the production design objectives would have given the CGI a better chance to seamlessly blend in with the fantasy of the film’s story.
The other pitfall of the remake, and the one that irked me the most, was Alan Menken’s new musical score. Menken’s score in the original film was majestic and regal, winning him his first of many Academy Awards, that injected the film with a grand feeling that elevated it at every turn. Instead of largely reusing his score like he did with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Menken composed a largely new score that shifts away from the compositions of the original and instead matches the Caribbean setting of this version of the film. And it never for a second pops, under orchestrating the musical moments and leaving the actors to do the heavy lifting with their vocal performances, while the score for the rest of the film is instantly forgettable and leaves you thinking about what the score was doing in the original film during that exact scene. It may not be something that general audiences notice, but as someone who has seen the animated film countless times and views it as one of Disney's finest films of all time, it was a let down to say the least.
Even with its issues, The Little Mermaid evokes that Disney magic for the film’s entire run time that audiences love and desire from their live action remakes, easily making this remake another slam dunk. Led by a breathtaking performance by Halle Bailey, which is destined to be one of the best performances of the year, and supported by an equally as impressive supporting cast including a scene stealing Melissa McCarthy, The Little Mermaid brings Disney’s animated classic to life that is certain to have audiences falling in love with this timeless story all over again.