Movie Review: Halle Bailey shines in Disney’s live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’

Walt Disney Studios’ live-action “The Little Mermaid,” opening nationwide on May 26, 2023, dives deeper into the fairy tale and is a fresh, joyful companion to the 1989 animated film.

The Little Mermaid
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

For those who didn’t grow up watching Walt Disney Animation Studios’ original “The Little Mermaid” on repeat, the film is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a teen mermaid named Ariel who longs to learn more about the human world but is forbidden from visiting the surface by her father, King Triton. After breaking Triton’s rules to save human Prince Eric from a shipwreck, her determination to live on land leads her to strike a deal with sinister sea witch Ursula. In exchange for her voice, Ariel has three days to live as a human and share a “true love’s kiss” with Prince Eric, or she will be transformed back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula.

The Little Mermaid Halle Bailey

Those who doubted Halle Bailey’s ability to embody the beloved Disney princess Ariel won’t have legs to stand on once the film is released. Director Rob Marshall’s reimagining of the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ classic will cement Bailey as a star, and she’s more than worthy of the accolades – and she already earned praise and support from the original Ariel, iconic Disney Legend Jodi Benson, who memorably voiced the animated character. With pitch-perfect, soaring vocals and a passionate, determined, and utterly charming performance as the movie’s titular mermaid, Bailey nailed her breakthrough role and is likely to have a long career in Hollywood if she wants it.

The Little Mermaid Ariel

The online debate surrounding Bailey’s casting has been both heartbreaking and inspirational. While the film’s social media posts are plagued by ignorant comments about “woke Disney” daring to cast a Black actress as a mermaid, the trolls can’t mar the positive impact of Bailey’s triumphant performance. When the movie’s first teaser trailer dropped in the fall of 2022, social media was flooded with videos of little Black girls gasping with delight as they watched Bailey sing “Part of Your World.” Representation matters, and it’s written on the faces of kids who see themselves in the princesses, superheroes, and leaders they watch on screen. After all, “The Little Mermaid” was made for them, not for the cynics looking for hot takes and clickbait.

But is the movie any good? Disney fans and critics alike tend to push back against the studio’s live-action remakes of classic animated films such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King,” as if a new version of the story might tarnish the old one. Though there are a few missteps, “The Little Mermaid” is the best of these adaptations so far. It’s crowd-pleasing and beautifully made, and the ideal family film for grown-ups looking for more sophisticated storytelling than the usual offerings for kids. Parents be warned: the movie clocks in at over two hours, so younger children might get restless.

Kids-at-heart who grew up in the 80s and 90s popping open clamshell-case VHS copies of “The Little Mermaid” will likely enjoy the nostalgia trip of the live-action movie. The plot skews closely to the animated original, but with script updates by David Magee and additional musical numbers by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda to enhance the character development. Disney fans who have the 1989 version memorized (this reviewer included) will quickly spot where the new story deviates, to mixed success, depending on the scene. Overall, the changes are welcome and necessary to transition from a 2-D animated movie to a live-action summer blockbuster. 

The Little Mermaid

Marshall and his crew were tasked with creating a behemoth of a film, essentially three worlds-in-one: a musical, an underwater CGI adventure, and an island romance. When the film’s trailer was released, online feedback was largely negative regarding the CGI effects, but the finished movie is gorgeous. The underwater sequences teem with photo-realistic sea creatures and colorful merfolk, and the above-ground scenes are sun-drenched and idyllic. “The Little Mermaid” is as much a love letter to the ocean as it is to the animated original, and in its best moments, the movie is transporting. You can almost feel the sea spray splashing from the screen. 

The music of the 1989 film, written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, played a significant role in the story’s success and received two Academy Award nominations and one Best Original Song win for “Under the Sea.” Menken returns as the 2023 film’s composer, and three-time Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda lends his talents as the lyricist for three new vocal tracks: “Wild Uncharted Waters,” “For the First Time,” and “The Scuttlebutt.”

The Music of The Little Mermaid

Sung by Sebastian the crab (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle the seabird (Awkwafina), “The Scuttlebutt” is a hilarious rap duet that features Miranda’s signature syncopated style. “For the First Time” is a heartfelt reflection of Ariel’s inner monologue, giving her a “voice” while on land. The one track that felt a bit overblown was “Wild Uncharted Waters,” but that may be a result of the staging, which has Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) stumbling down a rocky cliff to the ocean. Hauer-King’s vocals were solid, but the song stymied the plot rather than moving it forward. Still, the song was well-intentioned, as it did allow the audience to learn more about Eric’s goals and perspective.

On the topic of Prince Eric, pop star Harry Styles was originally in talks to play the role, but Hauer-King, being a lesser-known actor, served the film well. The inclusion of Styles might have overshadowed Bailey’s brilliance, while Hauer-King’s understated and endearing performance allowed Ariel to remain the center of the story. In true fairytale fashion, Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is handsome and adventurous, but in Ariel’s presence, he’s a touch awkward, which enhances their sweet chemistry.

The Little Mermaid - Ariel and Prince Eric

Their love story is more believable in the live-action film, with Ariel and Eric connecting beyond physical attraction. Both are curious collectors and explorers, and they don’t need words to recognize these qualities in each other.

As for the supporting cast, they brought their A-game. In the role of sea witch Ursula, Melissa McCarthy borrowed the best of Pat Carroll’s vocal performance and the body language of her animated counterpart while infusing the part with comedic moments that were all her own.

The Little Mermaid - Ursula

While Ursula is fearsome, she’s also a blast to watch, and McCarthy clearly relished the role. Jessica Alexander portrayed Ursula in her human form, and her charisma and dramatic impact with a relatively short amount of screen time were impressive.

The Little Mermaid | Poor Unfortunate Souls

One of the unofficial requirements of being a Disney princess is having animal friends, and Ariel has a few aquatic besties that bring the laughs. Awkwafina is hysterical as Scuttle, a loyal yet daft seabird who often leads Ariel in the wrong direction. Daveed Diggs plays Sebastian the crab, who is tasked by King Triton to keep an eye on Ariel. Though Diggs’ portrayal is a bit muted at the beginning of the film, Sebastian loosens up as the action progresses, and Diggs brings buoyancy, humor, and flair to “Under the Sea” and “The Scuttlebutt.” Teen actor Jacob Tremblay is charming and sweet as Flounder, Ariel’s anxious fish friend who tags along on her adventures.

The film’s royals and royal-adjacent characters were also well-cast. Noma Dumezweni plays Queen Selina, Prince Eric’s adoptive mother, a new character for the live-action movie. Dumezweni brings a regal yet grounded bearing to the role, and her affection for Eric is shared by Sir Grimsby (Art Malik), who adores the young prince, though his adventurous spirit exhausts and exasperates him. 

The Little Mermaid King Triton

Academy Award winner Javier Bardem plays the overbearing King Triton, and though the actor is wholly committed to the role, his character design is one of the film’s few flaws. Under the sea, Triton is stately and intimidating, but above water, he looks a bit deflated. This is unfortunate, as his appearance affects the poignancy of a key scene in the film. Still, most moviegoers will hopefully look beyond any styling fumbles and appreciate Bardem’s earnest performance as a loving father who recognizes the errors of his domineering ways.

Ariel’s mermaid sisters, played by a diverse group of stunning and talented actresses, needed far more screen time and dialogue, but their character designs and costuming were on point. Representing seven fictional oceanic regions, each sister has a unique and thoughtfully designed look inspired by real-life sea creatures from all over the world. The sisters reflect the care and research that went into every element of the film’s production, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. 

Ultimately, “The Little Mermaid” deserves to be seen on the big screen, with Bailey’s spirited and heartfelt performance anchoring the beautiful film. Even without the legacy of the animated original, this version stands solidly on its own, successfully capturing the allure of the sea, the joy (and anguish) of young love, and the exhilaration of living fully as your true, authentic self.

“The Little Mermaid” opens in theaters nationwide on May 26, 2023.

The Little Mermaid | Official Trailer

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