Halle Bailey Is the Reason Disney’s “Live-Action” The Little Mermaid Shines at All

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Halle Bailey Is the Reason Disney’s “Live-Action” The Little Mermaid Shines at All

Despite their lackluster reception by critics and audiences, Walt Disney Studios remains committed to digging into their lauded animation vault to remake their classics into live-action…well, not remakes, really. Approximations? Hollow facsimiles? It’s not a cheap shot to state the truth: Most of these experiments have been middling to ok, with an infrequent home run like David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon. So, it’s mildly surprising that their latest, The Little Mermaid, resides in the upper tier of their questionable pack of remakes. 

Following Disney’s usual template, The Little Mermaid is a very faithful adaptation of the 1989 animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, right down to meticulously reproducing many iconic sequences from the animated classic. The story also remains the same: Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the mighty King of Atlantica, who has become an overprotective girldad in the wake of his wife’s death at the hands of humans. However, Ariel is intrigued by every aspect of humankind, from their ships to their gadgets galore. She’s a collector of their detritus and secretly heads to the surface to make sneaky peeks at their ways whenever a boat comes near. 

On one of those adventures, she observes a human who seems actually kind, compassionate and as curious as she is, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). When a sudden squall kicks up, Ariel up saves his life and becomes a smitten kitten for his clean-cut good looks. Eliciting no sympathy from her father or siblings to try and see him again, Ariel succumbs to a sketchy offer from her long-lost, exiled aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). In exchange for her voice, Ariel will be given three days to get Eric to kiss her and live happily ever after. If not, Ariel becomes Ursula’s to use as leverage against her big beef with her brother Triton.

Weaving in the Oscar-winning songs by Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman, and by sticking to an already entertaining rendition of the story, The Little Mermaid was already leaning on strong bones for this remake. Smartly, they cast well with Bailey who carries the whole film with her Ariel performance. You can’t help but be taken in by her expressive face, which reflects the wonder of Ariel’s experiences both under the sea and top side. She’s also fin-forward in conveying Ariel’s sense of curiosity as an integral facet of her being. It’s inspirational for kids to see, and comes across as genuine to Ariel’s character in making her a more fully-formed person, which adds some heft to the storybook romance of it all. 

This version of The Little Mermaid also benefits from some smart additions that flesh out the storyline in richer ways. Prince Eric is revealed to have been orphaned as a baby by a shipwreck that killed his parents, which gives him a more interesting history and connection to the sea. Scenes are staged with the citizens of the island that Eric calls home, which makes room for a diversity of people more authentic to the Caribbean locale. There’s also more clarity in emphasizing that Ariel’s personality matches her deceased mother’s, rather than just labeling her the rebel of the family. While it’s a subtle addition, it’s one that gives more context to King Triton’s singular protectiveness of his youngest, churning up his fears that her similarly strident inquisitiveness could also lead to doom.

But for all the good, there’s also plenty that bogs down this adaptation, the primary being its overlong, two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime. The kids near me were squirming hard by the 90-minute mark, a by-product of some very pokey pacing that could have been remedied with a more discerning edit. Sequences go on longer than needed, or just don’t need to exist, like a shark attack in the first act or added musical numbers that don’t feel vital to the story. In fact, there are three brand-new collaborations between Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda: “For the First Time,” “The Scuttlebutt,” and “Wild Uncharted Waters.” None are instant classics and each are responsible for exacerbating the glacial pacing. Does Prince Eric need an “I Want” song? No. Does the frenetic rapping and loud mix of “The Scuttlebutt” make the actual lyrics mostly indecipherable? Yes. Only “For the First Time” provides a narrative purpose, sharing Ariel’s inner thoughts as she first experiences the human world.

The visuals are also predictably problematic. Director Rob Marshall has gone for a photorealistic approach with the marine world. On the positive side, the sea looks gorgeous and might have the added effect of connecting young audiences to be more invested in the incredible biodiversity of real ocean creatures. However, in movie-making terms, it’s a real limiter when it comes to translating performances to the aquatic characters of note, especially Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs). In particular, the accurate angelfish design of Flounder leaves little room for emoting, so there’s a chasm in connecting the fish in the frame to its vocal performance. That goes for the hyper-realistic crab design of Sebastian too. If his look doesn’t inspire lunch plans at Joe’s Crab Shack, then he’s just as likely to conjure comparisons to the design of Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob SquarePants. They both emote through their eyes in a distractingly similar way, which got me brainstorming a crossover with the two of them out-grouching one another. And that wandering of mind is the direct result of design that doesn’t inspire emotional investment in the characters presented on screen. Yes, they are well-rendered critters, but their designs don’t elicit the kind of compassion achieved with their 2D counterparts.

The CG is also problematic when it comes to Marshall’s choice to obviously shoot every mer-person as dry for wet, meaning no tank work for the actors, relying instead on CG to animate their hair as the cheat in selling the cast underwater. Not great when you’ve had two recent water-centric films (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water) purposefully shooting their actors underwater to ensure audience buy-in. Rest assured, be it child or adult, no one is going to believe any human actor in this The Little Mermaid did even a day in a dunk tank for the ocean scenes.

Another disappointment is the way Ursula is framed, making for a very undercooked villain. Her early scenes are shocking merely for how poorly she’s consigned by the script as an “exposition dumper” for her own story. She gets to recite arch monologues to no one, which is a waste for someone like McCarthy who truly shines when given character interaction. Ursula really only comes to life for the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sequence, and even that is marred by the albatross of the CGI tentacle animation they lean on during the big number. McCarthy does get some good quips in here and there, and she looks great in Ursula mode. But that ultimately gets tarnished by a very badly designed and rendered finale battle that is—yet again—overlong, over-dark and underwhelming in its execution.

In the end, does a live-action The Little Mermaid feel vital? No. It gives fans of the animated original pretty much the same movie, beat for beat, with some slight adjustments that score on the positive side. Bailey is also a joy to watch, and important for kids today to see as a heroine for a new generation. But Marshall should have seen to a much-brisker cut that cuts the overindulgent fat and gets to the good parts quicker.

Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem
Release Date: May 26, 2023

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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