Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Review
By Ben Lewis
The debate rages on concerning Disney’s live-action remakes. Are they a way to recapture the magic of the original and reintroduce it to a new generation, or just a cynical cash grab that relieves the company of the obligation to create new stories? I’ve always been rather cynical and reluctant to get as excited about childhood classics being remastered, but The Little Mermaid is the first I’ve seen that makes me think there might be some hope for the concept.
A retelling of the classic 1989 story; the film focuses on a mermaid named Ariel (played by Halle Bailey) who is fascinated by the human world. Facing unyielding opposition from her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), Ariel turns to a sea witch, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), seeking to be made human. Her wish being granted, albeit with some pretty sizeable caveats, she washes up on the beach to be discovered by the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) who she falls in love with. With only three days to convince the prince to requite her feelings and bestow upon her “true love’s kiss”, she sets out to pull off the unlikely romance and escape Ursula’s sinister plot.
The promotion of the film was marred by an unsightly and racist backlash to Halle Bailey, as a Black actress, being cast as Ariel. Following the films release, there have also been reports of ‘review bombing’, with bots leaving negative ratings en masse. Bailey’s performance thoroughly justified her casting and silenced her critics with a memorable performance. Putting aside her singing, which was utterly incredible, her acting was also spectacular. For a significant portion of the movie, Bailey must convey emotion, motivation, desires, and thoughts using only her facial expression and body language, and she absolutely nails it.
Make no mistake, Bailey was absolutely fantastic in her role and is a more than worthy successor to Jodi Benson.
Another casting highlight is the charismatic Daveed Diggs as Sebastian; the crab tasked with keeping an eye on Ariel, who steals more than a few scenes with his one-liners and terrific vocal performance. The last casting point I want to touch on is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula. Ursula is one of my favourite Disney villains and I was more than sceptical when Melissa McCarthy was chosen to play the sinister sea witch, and while I still maintain that Pat Carroll is the superior selection, I must acknowledge that McCarthy brought a unique flair to the character that I was most impressed by. She convincingly portrays both the charming façade of a mentor figure just wanting to help Ariel out, and the creepy nature of a devious villain with ulterior motives.
As with any remake, I was fascinated to see how Disney handled one of the inherent issues with remaking old classics – how true to remain to the source material. It’s a bit of a catch-22; do you try and clean up errors or make some changes to take a tale in a different direction, or do you stick as close to the original story as possible?
Well, to its credit, The Little Mermaid manages to balance the two quite nicely. It both tweaks the story to reflect modern times and standards, while remaining true to the original film, at times being even more faithful to the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than the 1989 film was. A small little alteration that I particularly appreciated was King Triton’s daughters; updated to reflect the different ethnicities of each of the seven seas they watch over. When it comes to live-action remakes I always ask myself if whether the film does enough to justify its existence besides visual and graphical upgrades, and by a narrow margin, I would say The Little Mermaid does. For comparison’s sake The Lion King and Aladdin (both 2019) most assuredly do not.
Unfortunately, the trade-off for the film achieving this balance is a greatly extended running time; while the animated version only ran for approximately 83 minutes, the remake goes for over 130.
While the extra near-50 minutes is well utilised and allows for added depth, the film does still feel a touch longer than it needs to be.
Prince Eric is the biggest beneficiary of the added length; being given a strong backstory and sense of not fitting into his world that serves to parallel him with Ariel’s lack of belonging. New characters are introduced to complement this point, and overall works well – Eric feels like a three-dimensional character rather than just a generic love interest. Speaking of which, the romance between the two leads is so much better this time around. The extra scenes and screen time they share together really does make it seem as though they’re genuinely falling for each other. Sure, it’s still an unrealistic, love-at-first-sight Disney romance, but it feels far more organic and sweeter; especially when they’re indulging their shared interests or hiding from Eric’s handlers. The extra time is overall a benefit, but I still maintain the film could’ve been shaved to under two hours.
The last area that I want to address is the music – a crucial component of the 1989 film. All but two of the songs in the original make a return, and four new songs were written by composer and original scorer Alan Menken along with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Some of the lyrics in returning songs were updated to again reflect modern times, namely “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl” – both songs, interestingly enough, along with “Part of Your World” are definite highlights from the film that I found myself listening to again and again. Bailey’s performance in “Part of Your World” is downright hair-raising – the crown jewel of the soundtrack. However, not everything in the film could be a success and the new songs really do show the best and worst of Miranda. “Wild Uncharted Waters”, a solo for Prince Eric is the best of the bunch and written to near perfection.
I would not be surprised if it’s the song that finally earns Miranda an Academy Award and EGOT status. I speak no hyperbole when I say it is genuinely one of the best songs in the movie, which makes it all the more frustrating when you compare it to the auditory hellscape that is “The Scuttlebutt”. Somebody badly needs to sit Miranda down and drill it into him that not every production needs a hip hop track. I feel sympathy for all the parents that will have to hear this song over and over again, because not only is it easily the worst song on the soundtrack, but it might also be one of the worst Disney songs of all time.
The style is jarring and completely ill-fitting, the lyrics don’t match the film’s tone (or the rest of the soundtrack), and the vocal performance is awkward at best.
Miranda should consider himself lucky that the Golden Raspberries don’t have an award for Worst Original Song because otherwise he may well have ended up joining the elite crowd of people who have won an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year.
Overall, The Little Mermaid is an enjoyable experience and a faithful adaptation. It took what was good about the original and changed what wasn’t for the better. The performances are terrific, the music is still magical (with one VERY notable exception), and the visuals are, for the most part, passable to impressive. Fans of the original are going to love it, a whole new generation will be drawn in, and possibly even a few naysayers of the past will be converted as well. I recommend giving it a watch, and even if you’re looking for a fun way to fill a couple of hours, you could do worse than spending it “Under the Sea”.
VERDICT – 3.5 shipwrecks out of 5.