Cast your mind back to 1989. The break-up of the Soviet Union was underway, the Berlin wall came down, and a certain animated red-headed mermaid took the movie-going world by storm. Ah, life was good!
The Little Mermaid immediately became one of Disney’s most-loved films. It was natural then that here, in 2023, it gets the live-action treatment, joining the likes of Beauty & the Beast, Dumbo, The Lion King and The Jungle Book. But the quality of these remakes has been patchy – so where does this reimagining fall on the Disney spectrum?
The youngest of King Triton’s daughters, Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure. Longing to find out more about the world beyond the sea, Ariel visits the surface and falls for the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Following her heart, she makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), to experience life on land.
Sadly, the most talked about part of this live-action remake has been the fact that Disney decided to cast a person of colour as the titular sea-dweller. Yup, even in 2023, we can’t escape the fact that some film fans still take issue with this type of casting. My take on the situation? It’s a film about a mermaid, who cares?
Thankfully Halle Bailey is really rather good. She plays Ariel with the same sweetness and innocence that Jodi Benson captured so beautifully all those years ago. Her rendition of Part of Your World is powerful, punchy and delivered beautifully. Sadly, she’s let down by a film that’s far too long, has some rough special effects and features some decidedly dodgy performances. But more on that later.
The film works well when director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) is allowed to focus on what he does best: music and songs. The reimagined Under the Sea sequence positively sizzles on the screen as all manner of CG sea creatures dance around Ariel, Flounder (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) and Sebastian (voiced by Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs).
Melissa McCarthy’s Poor Unfortunate Souls is also a highlight, brimming with evil deliciousness, and showcasing why McCarthy was the ideal casting choice for the legendary sea witch, Ursula.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t quite match the energy of this sequence. The CGI at times is particularly rough and outside of McCarthy and Bailey, who look like they’re having an absolute blast, the rest of the acting from the live-action cast is really quite poor.
It’s impossible to take Javier Bardem seriously as Ariel’s father, King Triton. This isn’t helped by some noticeably bad CG mixing between his face and the quite obviously computer generated armour, and Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is a bit of a wet lettuce. And while I’m normally a huge fan of Awkwafina, her role as Scuttle, the dimwitted seagull, is increasingly irritating as the film progresses. Her rap (yes that’s right, there’s a rap in The Little Mermaid), The Scuttlebutt, is so far past the realms of taste that you’ll be unable to do anything but cringe in horror.
And herein lies the problem with most of Disney’s live-action remakes. You can throw as much cash at them as you like, but without passion, they become soulless money-driving husks, paling in comparison to their animated predecessors. Where The Jungle Book was clearly a passion project for director Jon Favreau, The Little Mermaid is a tickbox exercise for Disney that would have been much worse had it not been for Melissa McCarthy and Halle Bailey – who frankly deserve so much better.