Love them or hate them, the live action Disney remake is here to stay. The newest, 2023’s reimagining of The Little Mermaid, seems to be one of the most divisive yet, judging by early online reactions. For me, the film was a long time coming—as a child, I would rewatch the 1989 original on VHS until the tape was worn out. I so obsessively had it on rotation that I knew almost every line of dialogue at a certain point. For a young queer kid trying to find my identity, longing to be “part of a world” that would accept me, I latched onto the messages of love and otherness more than anything else. Despite my deep love of the original, I was still cautiously optimistic for a remake, especially one with Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) behind the camera. The good news is that The Little Mermaid is not a total misfire, like Mulan or 1994’s Jungle Book. There is merit to the filmmaking, a passion for the series at large, and some truly stunning imagery and musical numbers. Glaring issues aplenty threaten to literally rob the film of its soul, but more on that later…
This slightly updated (and much longer) iteration of The Little Mermaid expands and tweaks the central story in subtle ways that work more often than not. The first third is quite rough, and an almost exact beat for beat reproduction of the original movie. Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) longs for a life beyond the responsibilities to his kingdom, where he can be free to explore the ocean and its curiosities to his heart’s content. Ariel (Halle Bailey) similarly collects trinkets from the surface, and daydreams about the world above. Ariel neglects her father’s strict regulations, whilst Eric refuses to back down and return to the kingdom. By embellishing a sort of Yin and Yang to the central relationship here, the love story is strengthened and made more natural. Tonight is the fabled Coral Moon, and also the first glaringly obvious cut song. King Triton (Javier Bardem) has ordered all of his daughters to gather for it, yet they have opted to cut classic “Daughters of Triton” for some inexplicable reason. Scuttle (Awkwafina) the bird still identifies strange human objects for Ariel’s amusement, always incorrectly of course. Awkwafina is hilarious here. She understands the proper comedic delivery for a fully-animated character; she was also terrific as Sisu in Disney’s underrated Raya and the Last Dragon.
Even for those possessing the mildest of familiarity with the concepts and images conjured up by nostalgia, there are so few changes to the story at large that I almost admired the audacity. Ariel, in need of “constant supervision,” is entrusted to Triton’s right-hand crab, Sebastian. Daveed Diggs does what he can, but the shadow of recently-deceased Samuel E. Wright looms so large that he is impossible to emulate. Also a mixed bag is Ariel’s bestie Flounder (Jacob Tremblay)—tragically underutilized, especially in the film’s latter half. Before long, shortly after a showy but effective iteration of “Part of Your World,” Ariel manages to save Prince Eric from a burning ship. She takes him ashore, as he clings to her voice to revive him.
When King Triton discovers Ariel has been galivanting with humans (their mortal enemies!), he destroys the precious trinkets in her souvenir-cave. Bardem’s Triton completely lacks presence in one of the many mismanaged casting choices. Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) the Sea Witch uses this opportunity to make her grand entrance. The silent electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam take Ariel to her eerie hideaway, rippling with underwater fire and lingering ‘souls’ that are represented as long-armed starfish with a single eye. McCarthy’s Auntie Ursula is every bit as grandiose and campy as her animated counterpart. Inspired by drag queens, McCarthy balances an over-the-top persona brilliantly with a foreboding darkness. The logistics behind Ursula being Triton’s sister in this new version seem a little strange, but nonetheless, Ursula forges ahead on her plot to steal back the ultimate power. She offers Ariel a blood-binding contract to transform her mermaid fin to human feet. The only catch is that she must receive a kiss from the Prince by sunset on the third day, lest Ursula owns her soul. Ursula steals Ariel’s voice, drops in some amnesia for good measure, and sends Ariel on her way.
Back on land, Prince Eric struggles to think of anything other than his mystery woman. His parents find him mad, forbidding him from voyages and from chasing after “girls who don’t exist.” Ariel, captured in a net by a fisherman, gets brought to the castle. Noting her muteness, Eric cannot hide his disappointment: she can’t possibly be his dream girl. The chemistry between Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey blossoms beautifully over the course of the movie. Bailey’s wildly expressive features channel Ariel’s energy, and Hauer-King gives off confidence and curiosity in a way his animated counterpart rarely showed. Neither match the nuance of animation—the romance here is ramped to a new level. Ariel blows a seashell with Eric, and plays with his lips so he can learn her name. They are downright adorable. The film takes a turn away from being an exact replica and into a proper experience once we are on land.
Marshall and creatives understand the iconography of The Little Mermaid, following some of the best visuals almost exactly as they appear in animation. This leads to a surprisingly satisfying amount of moments—key scenes like the water splashing against the rocks in the “Part of Your World” reprise, or Ariel taking the reigns during a carriage ride with Prince Eric are fantastically realized. I really felt the Disney magic with moonlit “Kiss the Girl,” which emerges as arguably the most fully-realized carryover from its animated counterpart. Both “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are powerful show-stopping numbers that highlight the talents of Bailey and McCarthy, respectively. Marshall stages both in bombastic tribute, channeling his Chicago expertise at perfecting performances. As good as these parts may be, they are bogged down by several frustrating missteps.
Despite seeming to mostly understand what works, some drastic cuts and alterations are made to what was already perfect in the first place. Gone is the dastardly Chef Louis, and his song about stuffing Sebastian and boiling him alive. Flounder’s role, as previously mentioned, has been significantly reduced. Sanded down, Triton does not have nearly the same impact. Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” is disastrously bad and horribly executed. New songs are just okay—none have the impact of the originals, nor the catchiness of sequel songs “Tip and Dash” or “Jump in the Line.” None of these issues are as glaring or distracting as the underwater moments.
By far the aspect that bothered me the most here was the lighting and darkness to the underwater sequences. The animated version was immaculate in this regard, serving as one of the brighter and most colorful during the golden age of Disney. The entire first segment of this movie is bogged down by poor CGI for any hair in the water, and for barely being able to see anything happening. McCarthy’s performance almost outweighs the distractingly bad water elements—during the finale why is it impossible to make out a single detail on Giant Ursula’s face? Filming underwater is no easy feat understandably. However, in a world where Avatar: The Way of Water has revolutionized underwater filmmaking, the laziness in this aspect is inexcusable. All the more frustrating is that on land, the cinematography and colorful aesthetic absolutely soars.
I did appreciate Little Mermaid lightly touching on aspects from Disney’s final direct-to-video title before being bought by Pixar: 2008’s The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, including the mentioning of Ariel’s mother, Athena, being killed by humans. When the additions to the tale do work, they feel entirely organic and not forced in for the sake of it. Casting for the main three roles in Ariel, Eric, and Ursula was surprisingly much better than anticipated. Ultimately, The Little Mermaid is a mixed net of fishy delights and aggravating contrivances—a film whose glimmers of greatness always outweigh its missteps. The child in me is just happy that perhaps a Prince Eric with a torn-open shirt, Ursula’s outrageous tentacle-shimmy, or Ariel’s exploration of what it means to belong can awaken new generations of gay boys everywhere.
Oh you poor unfortunate soul! Come explore uncharted waters when The Little Mermaid swims ashore in theaters everywhere on Friday, May 26th.