Ariel, a young mermaid longing to experience the human world, 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.
Disney’s live-action remakes have fallen on a spectrum from awe-inspiring to mediocre to horrendous. The Little Mermaid‘s execution reminds me most of the Aladdin remake, in that it’s trying so hard to emulate the style and feel of the animation instead of embracing the fact that it’s in live-action, which makes the look and feel turn out artificial. The visuals in the underwater scenes fail to establish a balance between fantastical and photorealistic, and look too much like they were a shot on a soundstage, with the actors and the effects not blending in too well. Not to mention the beautiful and immersive underwater worlds we’ve recently seen in Aquaman, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and The Little Mermaid‘s depiction can’t distinguish itself or awe in a new way. Halle Bailey is possibly the best Ariel we could’ve gotten — though at first it feels like she’s trying too hard to emulate a 1989 animated character, she eventually gets the chance to make the performance her own as the film goes by, and gives Ariel that naive curiosity and goodness she needed. And her wonderful, angelic singing voice does songs like “Part of Your World” justice. Daveed Diggs is a highlight as the voice of Sebastian, giving us a laugh-out-loud entertaining time as the iconic sidekick and a personality that feels like Diggs is having the time of his life. But Melissa McCarthy as Ursula is an absolute blast here — she feels like what Ursula was always meant to be had they ever made this story into live-action, but McCarthy also makes Ursula borderline likable when she’s not doing evil things due to simply how much fun she’s having being flamboyant, cackling and over-the-top. Though some were concerned about her casting as Ursula, I think she completely nailed it and elevated the whole movie.
The Little Mermaid‘s strengths often lie in the aforementioned cast members, but Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King also have a lot of chemistry, and the movie’s heart gets to flow a lot more naturally when they’re hanging out in the surface world, including the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene. But besides that, Prince Eric’s character arc, including his relationship with his mother, really only feels “cute” and that’s it. Perhaps that’s all you should ask for in a Disney remake, for it to be sweet and likable enough for kids, and the movie delivers on that part, as the underwater scenes and the themes of compassion will be enough for younger audiences to feel that intrigue. But it also reuses a lot of the tropes we see in these Disney live-action remakes, not to mention the movie is concerned with anything but Ariel’s role as a sister, as Triton’s other daughters are a mere afterthought in the script, and Triton himself is perhaps more understandable than the writers wanted. For a director like Rob Marshall, who’s a cinematic musical veteran including with Chicago and Mary Poppins Returns, the shots during the musical scenes feel often redundant. There’s an atrocious new song led by the usually great Awkwafina that feels too much like the songwriters took a decades-long break before writing this song instead of fitting in well with the rest of the music, and a song delivered entirely through narration in Ariel’s head that could have also been directed in a more creative way. Like I said, the film feels too much directed in the language of animation that it simply feels like an animated movie in live-action rather than a live-action adaptation of an animated film.
Though there’s a lot that can be enjoyed, The Little Mermaid fails to justify its existence in the live-action medium, as there’s too much here that feels like the style of animation, even in something like Moana, would have complimented better, and those visuals feel too devoid of that effortless personality in live-action, but it still has its charm and is still one of the more watchable live-action remakes of Disney classics.