Movie Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’

Review by James Lindorf

For 18 years after the deaths of Walt and Roy O. Disney, in 1966 and 1971, respectively, Disney animated features hit an all-time low. While there was still some financial and critical success, most notably with 1977’s “The Rescuers,” most movies in that period fell well short of the previous successes. Then, in 1989 the release of “The Little Mermaid” would usher in a second golden age of Disney animation. The surf and turf animated musical was the 6th highest-grossing film that year and has delighted generations over the last 34 years. Between 1989-1998 Disney released other powerhouse films like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “Mulan” bringing in more than 2.4 billion at the box office. Those four films have already been treated to the live-action remake process, and now it is time for Ariel to get a whole new look.

Ariel’s new look, in particular, has been a source of vitriol and threatened boycotts from the racist and inflexible portions of society. They are only doing them a disservice because Halle Bailey (Grown-ish) is fantastic as Ariel, the beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure and an obsession with the human world. By her side is Sebastian, voiced by Tony Award® winner Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), Jacob Tremblay (Room) as the voice of Flounder, and Awkwafina (Shang-Chi) as Scuttle. Ariel will need help from each of them to navigate the uncharted waters of love with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), avoid being caught by her over-protective father King Triton (Javier Bardem), and survive her dealings with the nefarious sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy).

From a storytelling perspective, 2015’s “Cinderella” and 2016’s “The Jungle Book” are the two most successful films to transition from animated to live-action for Disney. They expanded on the characters and the story in meaningful ways that felt like logical extensions of the previous work. On the other end of the spectrum is 2019’s “The Lion King,” which left many people wondering what the point of changing animation styles is if you aren’t going t use the opportunity to enhance the story. “The Little Mermaid” falls somewhere in the middle. The new film runs nearly 40 minutes longer than the original, but the plot doesn’t drift far from the original. Some updates have brought the story in line with a modern aesthetic. “Kiss the Girl” underwent some lyrical changes to make the experience more obviously consensual. Ariel is also a little more vocal about her exploration and enjoyment of the human world with one of the three new songs. In addition to a new song for Ariel, Disney, musical icons Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda also crafted songs for Prince Eric and Scuttle. Other than the addition of the new songs, all changes are minor. It is more a case of scenes being elongated than new ones being added to the story.

The main reason families will be flocking to theaters is not the story but the new look, which is inconsistent at best. Everything above the water looks great, while everything below the surface looks rather poorly done on average. Disney should be embarrassed for releasing an underwater film in this state just five months after releasing “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Individual characters generally look good, but it feels like nothing goes together and that the water is a green screen instead of their natural environment. However, when they are on the surface, and the water breaks over Flounder to help keep him alive, or Ariel in mermaid form is helping someone or spying on a ship, it looks great. Doing so many things well makes the inadequate elements even more distracting, and it’s a shame to frequently be pulled out of a scene to think about how bad it looks.

Another inconsistent element is the strength of the supporting cast. Daveed Diggs is great as Sebastian, even if his Jamaican accent isn’t as over the top as Samuel E. Wright’s version in the original. Jonah Hauer-King is good but occasionally a little too stiff, particularly in his solo scenes. Still, he has good chemistry with Bailey, which is essential to that role. Then there are Melissa McCarthy and Awkwafina, who have big fan followings from other films and often find themselves playing a version of the same character. While Awkwafina plays Scuttle, who is no longer a seagull but a Northern Gannet diving bird, as a tropical bird by way of New York, McCarthy actually does some great character work. Director Rob Marshall lets her riff occasionally, and the classic McCarthy you love or are tired of comes out, but when she is just playing Ursula, she can steal a scene from anyone. The most shocking element in the film is the terrible performance of Oscar winner Javier Bardem. Daniel Radcliffe was more lively playing a corpse in “Swiss Army Man” than Bardem is as a father of seven, a widower, and the King of the oceans.

There is no doubt that for a generation, especially children of color who don’t have as many opportunities to see themselves in a role of this nature, this will be their version of “The Little Mermaid.” It has all the classic songs, and the new ones aren’t half bad, either. It has jokes, romance, action, and magic; how could you not fall in love with a story like that as a child? For adults in their 30s and 40s who grew up with the original, the 2023 version is enjoyable but lacks that “it” factor. Like a new musical artist covering one of your all-time favorite songs, it can be great in its own right, but it sounds wrong because it’s not the way you are used to it. That is likely how “The Little Mermaid” 2023 will be remembered by millions of people trying to recapture their youth for a couple of hours.

While the Disney live-action remakes have been hit or miss with critics and fans alike, there is one thing, they all have in common, they are bankable. The five significant films from the Disney Renaissance earned 2.4 billion during their theatrical runs. At the same time, the four live-action remakes released to date have brought in 3.9 billion. That number is even more impressive when you remember “Mulan” was released amid the pandemic and only went to theaters in countries without Disney+. While more often than not, Disney has failed to recapture the magic in a “more adult” format, with returns like these, they will be making these films for years to come. “The Little Mermaid” 2023 may not have the magic to enthrall kids and kids at heart, but it is worth the price of admission with a score of 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: PG
Genre: Kids & family, Musical, Fantasy
Original Language: English
Director: Rob Marshall
Producer: Marc Platt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, John DeLuca, Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Release Date: May 26th, 2023
Runtime: 2h 15m

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