Halle Bailey aside, The Little Mermaid sinks under its own weight

Rob Marshall’s murky remake of the Disney classic drowns in plodding scripting and terrifying character designs, taking away from its luminous lead performance.

The spate of recent live-action Disney remakes has run the gamut in quality from pleasantly diverting (Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon) to unwatchable abominations (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast.) Even the most well-received entries of the bunch struggle to find reasons they should exist in the first place. Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is no different, but for one crucial factor that sets it apart from the rest: Halle Bailey as Ariel. Bailey is so captivating and winsome in the titular role that this remake almost feels worth it just to launch her into movie stardom. Unfortunately, sub-par CGI effects and clunky changes to Howard Ashman’s classic songs often make it feel like Bailey is left to carry the movie on the strength of her remarkable talent alone. With a shaggy runtime of two hours and fifteen minutes—a full hour longer than the original cartoon—it’s a heavy load for one performer to bear.

Despite the stretched-out script, the story here basically remains the same as in the 1989 animated Disney film. Ariel (Bailey), the adventurous youngest daughter of merman King Triton (Javier Bardem), has a fascination with humans that grows even stronger after she saves handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck. In order to have a chance at winning the prince’s heart, Ariel trades her voice to sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) in exchange for legs. Of course, there’s a catch; she only has three days to win Eric’s kiss, or she’ll be forced to return to the ocean to live as Ursula’s servant. 

Bailey brings a winsome innocence and playfulness to Ariel that never feels put-on or cloying, a remarkable feat. There’s a real feeling of spontaneity as she joyfully discovers the human world for the first time. There’s a matter-of-fact openness about her that grounds the character, despite her fantastical circumstances. Bailey emotes beautifully even when her character is stripped of her ability to speak or sing. That said, her version of “Part of Your World” is easily the high point of the entire movie. Bailey’s voice is powerful and rich, and she makes just enough changes to the original song to really make it feel like her own. It honestly feels like a moment that recalls Whitney Houston taking on Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in The Bodyguard. The classic version of the song will always be beloved, but Bailey’s rendition paints this lovely I Want song in a whole new light. 

The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney Studios)
(L-R): Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s no wonder then, that in this Little Mermaid, even when Ariel’s been silenced, her inner monologue often continues in the form of new songs. Bailey’s voice feels like a resource that’s too powerful to waste. Sadly, the original songs written for this movie by musical jack-of-all-trades Lin-Manuel Miranda fall incredibly flat. The numbers created for Ariel and Eric are generic love ballads, but the movie’s most unforgivable new addition is a comedy rap called “The Scuttlebutt,” which has already gone viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. It’s unclear who decided that minor character Scuttle the sea bird, gratingly voiced here by Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), needed her own song, but the out-of-place tune brings the entire film to a grinding, cringing halt. 

Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs fares slightly better as Sebastian the crab, though his dryly amusing moments are immediately undercut by his character’s bizarre design, which recalls Spongebob SquarePants’ Mr. Krabs more than either Sebastian from the cartoon or a real crustacean. Scuttle and Flounder the fish (voiced by Jacob Tremblay of Room fame), on the other hand, are “realistic” in their design, and come off as unappealingly blank-faced as The Lion King remake’s eerily emotionless lions. 

The movie’s production design suffers greatly from trying to straddle the divide between the animated film’s colorful, fun aesthetics and the standard live-action remake to be gritty and true to life. It was disheartening to see that during all-time classic Disney song “Under the Sea,” the fish and underwater animals only mill around Ariel and Sebastian, unsmiling and cheerless. But for a welcome, too-brief moment when pairs of starfish started to partner dance with each other, the CGI animals never played makeshift instruments, made silly expressions, or did anything fun and memorable like in the cartoon. Even during Sebastian’s fast-paced rap, Ariel and Sebastian simply ride along on a fleet of sea turtles who stared blankly ahead. 

Marshall, who previously decimated Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Into the Woods by draining every bit of comedy from it, seems equally determined to remove the light-hearted humor and kid-friendly jokes that characterized the original Little Mermaid. The movie opens with an unnecessarily tragic quote from the original Hans Christian Andersen story, spread across gray waves. Gone is the iconic, murderous French chef. Ursula’s campy, gay eels Flotsam and Jetsam have been silenced. Even Ariel’s mermaid sisters, who are charmingly vain and self-absorbed in the cartoon, are now solemn environmentalists whose only concern is protecting the coral reef. It’s a worthy cause and all, but can’t anything even be fun anymore? Songs like “Les Poissons” and “The Daughters of King Triton” were greatly missed, especially after being made to endure “The Scuttlebutt.”

The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney Studios)
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ursula is one of Disney’s most iconic villains, but McCarthy doesn’t make the role her own. At her best, she’s doing a decent impression of Pat Carroll, who originally voiced the sly sea witch. It’s not entirely McCarthy’s fault. Along with Bardem’s Triton, who’s lost in a cloud of his own CGI hair, Ursula is the chief victim of the film’s moments of dark, muddy lighting and mushy-looking special effects. Her octopus tentacles often feel entirely separate from the top half of her body. Screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi, Mary Poppins Returns) also made the baffling choice to saddle Ursula with more expository dialogue than ever, especially in the first third of the movie. Since her eel sidekicks aren’t speaking characters anymore, McCarthy is left to spin around her dim cave, talking to herself. Even the added detail that Ursula is King Triton’s sister, a plot beat first wedged into the Broadway musical, fails to add any novelty here.

Like other Disney remakes before it, the script often falls into the trap of over-explaining itself, sweatily patching up any so-called “plot hole” from the original with repetitive clarifications. We’re reminded again and again that Ariel can’t remember her deal with Ursula, so that’s why she’s not pursuing the prince’s kiss with more urgency. It feels like a wholly unnecessary reminder. Bailey and Hauer-King’s palpable chemistry is another one of the film’s chief saving graces. Ariel’s shy crush on Eric feels earnest and real, more so than most mainstream movie romances of late, especially in franchise fare.

Magee thankfully avoids the trap of making Ariel a “girlboss,” but there are some thoughtful new scenes between Eric and Ariel that give her a chance to have a little more agency, even though her voice has been stolen. For example, in the original cartoon, as Eric tried to guess Ariel’s name during “Kiss the Girl,” Sebastian simply whispered it in his ear. Here, in a truly lovely moment, Eric is showing Ariel the constellations while they’re out in the rowboat. She runs her finger down along his lips repeatedly as he points out Aries until he finally realizes she’s making him say “Ariel.”

The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney Studios)
Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo by Giles Keyte. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Interactions like Ariel touching Eric’s lips also make this one of the more sensual live-action remakes. There are moments between the pair that feel genuinely sexy and romantic, like a close-up shot of their hands sliding along the same pair of oars. Eric’s kingdom is no longer loosely based on France, as in the cartoon, instead resembling a Caribbean island like the Dominican Republic. Ariel and the prince are free to frolic barefoot and dance together in colorful, beachy outfits. Jessica Alexander, playing Ursula’s human seductress form, Vanessa, provides a slinky, vampy foil to Bailey’s radiant Ariel that energizes the final act, even as the too-long screenplay starts to outstay its welcome.

“Part of Your World” excepted, most of the film’s best scenes happen on land. Not coincidentally, those scenes happen away from the CGI. It’s frustrating to see that, though this movie spent years in development, the technology still can’t capture the graceful movements and delicate lighting choices that the 1989 cartoon mastered. The undersea scenes stand as a testimony to the enduring beauty of traditional, hand-drawn animation more than the potential of computer effects.

Ariel and Eric’s appealing romance, as well as Ariel’s coming-of-age struggles, will likely make this remake a hit with teens. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but with its creaky runtime and scant humor, it’s hard to imagine young children engaging with this movie the way they might with the cartoon. It feels decidedly pitched toward older viewers, for better or for worse.

Audiences’ patience with these remakes seems to run a little thin, and those criticisms aren’t entirely unwarranted here. But even the most cynical remake hater might find themselves won over by Bailey. It’s surprisingly easy to look past the remake’s flaws when she’s onscreen. Taking a classic character and making her your own is no small feat, especially when almost everything else in the film is working against you. Bailey rises above the mess and delivers the most likable Disney remake protagonist by far. A star is born. 

The Little Mermaid becomes part of your world in theaters May 26th.

The Little Mermaid Trailer:


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Shannon Campe

Shannon Campe is a writer, performer, and producer living in Chicago, Illinois. Her work includes the series “Little Women: a Modern Audio Drama.” Visit her online at Shannon-Campe.com.

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