Director: Rob Marshall
Writers: David Magee and John Musker
Stars: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy
Synopsis: A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
While the ongoing debate surrounding Disney’s decision to adapt its older animated movies into live-action films continues, it is undeniable that these adaptations persist due to their financial success. The latest addition to this lineup, The Little Mermaid, not only aims to be profitable but also endeavors to capture the essence of the original animated classic while offering a fresh perspective. This recent rendition of the beloved Disney Renaissance tale manages to achieve this goal, although it is not without flaws. The film succeeds in bringing the enchanting story to the big screen, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia for Disney movies of the past. The Little Mermaid stands as one of the finest live-action adaptations released to date, if not the very best.
However, engaging with the film proves challenging from the start. While the breathtaking cinematography captures the mesmerizing and perilous nature of ocean waves, the story loses its momentum thereafter. The absence of an opening musical sequence, omitting both the sailor’s song and the introduction of the sisters, immediately raises concerns about the pacing, which persist throughout. It takes around 15 to 20 minutes before “Part of Your World” finally emerges as the film’s first musical sequence. This peculiar pacing sets the tone for the movie, struggling to strike a balance between providing an enjoyable and entertaining experience while grappling with scenes that feel necessary but uncomfortably protracted.
As one dives into the underwater realm, the captivating visual effects draw viewers into the story. While the film’s promotional campaign may have hinted at a more subdued color palette, the underwater world is surprisingly vibrant and colorful. However, there remains a pseudo-realistic quality that prevents complete immersion. In comparison to James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which achieves near photorealism, The Little Mermaid retains a distinct animated quality. At times, it feels as though I am watching CGI recreations of the actors rather than the actors themselves, contributing to occasional clunkiness. The characters’ hair never quite appears natural, and their attempts to simulate swimming seem off, revealing that they are clearly not in water but rather creating the effect in a studio. Nevertheless, the design compensates for these shortcomings. The visually stunning mermaids’ fins appear realistically adapted, as if mermaids truly existed. The extension of scales onto their bodies creates an appearance akin to clothing, offering a unique and distinct look that sets them apart from the shell-bras of the 80s animated film.
A notable addition to the story is the introduction of mermaids possessing a unique and individual “Siren’s Song,” seamlessly integrating with the film’s narrative and aligning with the lore surrounding mermaids. Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) song serves a dual purpose, proving her voice to Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the sea witch, while encompassing “Part of Your World” with similar melodies. This subtle addition adds significant context to why Ariel ultimately loses her voice. In addition to surrendering other aspects of her mermaid identity, Ariel must also relinquish her captivating Siren allure, including her voice. This added dimension grants her more autonomy, even in the absence of her voice. It is a much-desired inclusion that, coupled with other expanded character traits, grants Ariel greater depth, enhancing the captivation of her story.
Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) also receives substantial additions that greatly enhance his character, transforming him from a somewhat bland yet visually appealing animated counterpart into a more well-rounded persona. While some of these traits effectively contribute to his emotional growth and his relationship with Ariel, others feel lacking and fail to provide meaningful progression for his character or the overall story. Instead, they seem clumsily inserted into the narrative to attempt a more three-dimensional portrayal. Unfortunately, this expansion comes at the cost of other characters such as Flounder and Scuttle, who are reduced to near accessories. Their inclusion becomes almost superfluous, reaching a point where their presence seems unnecessary from the outset.
Among the core characters, Halle Bailey as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula truly stand out. Bailey flawlessly embodies the titular character, showcasing her remarkable voice and effortlessly capturing the naivete of the young mermaid who yearns to explore a world she does not perceive as the evil her father warns her about. McCarthy initially struggles to find her rhythm in the early scenes, but once she delves into “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” she completely embraces her performance, becoming the iconic sea witch in a truly captivating manner.
Undoubtedly, the songs are the standout moments of the film, elevating it into a truly enjoyable and entertaining experience. Alongside the heavily marketed “Part of Your World,” the film includes several songs from the original, along with a few additional songs for Ariel, Eric, and Scuttle. “Under the Sea” evokes vibrant visuals reminiscent of the animated musical numbers found in another Disney hit from 1994, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from The Lion King. These songs pay homage to the grand musical style prevalent in Disney films of that era. Ariel’s new song seamlessly blends in with the rest of the soundtrack, fitting as if it were part of the original film. Eric’s song, while pleasing to the ears and visually appealing, feels slightly too modern in style, without necessarily adding a distinct positive or negative impact to the overall film. However, the same cannot be said for Scuttle’s song addition, a rap number clearly penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, included primarily to showcase the rap skills of Awkwafina as Scuttle and Daveed Diggs as Sebastian. While both actors demonstrate impressive abilities, the song itself becomes grating and easily stands as the weakest aspect of the film, perhaps better off left on the editing floor.
Another minor point of discussion has been the decision to alter some lyrics in “Kiss the Girl.” Personally, I found the alteration to be so slight that I hardly noticed the difference. The change promotes a healthier environment by encouraging the two main characters to kiss, even though one of them cannot verbally express consent. However, it’s worth noting that the original version contains other problematic lyrics that remain unchanged in this adaptation, creating a sense of cognitive dissonance regarding the film’s intended message.
Despite the unevenness resulting from these additions and adaptations, watching The Little Mermaid was still an enjoyable experience. Halle Bailey undeniably shines in the leading role, and her future in the film industry is undoubtedly promising. The songs and story beats evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia, and although I may not actively seek to revisit the film in the near future, I can envision myself casually putting it on in the background for some lighthearted fun. The Little Mermaid successfully brings the beloved Disney classic to life, showcasing captivating visuals, enhanced character development, and memorable performances. While it may not be without its flaws, it stands as one of the finest live-action adaptations released to date, preserving the essence of the original while offering a fresh take on a timeless tale.