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  • Nate Adams

'The Little Mermaid' review: Halle Bailey shines in murky, but solid live action remake

Courtesy of Disney


Often regarded as one of the finest animation achievements that ushered in the next wave of Disney mega-hits, (“The Lion King,” and “Beauty and the Beast” etc.), 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” is fondly cherished among its fanbase. And considering the current wave of Disney’s nonsensical thorough highly lucrative ploy of reimagining its backlog of content for modern day audiences, a new version of “The Little Mermaid” was inevitable. Luckily, the flamboyant iteration from director Rob Marshall (Oscar winner for “Chicago”) keeps all the elements folks cherished about the cartoon intact while also introducing rising star Halle Bailey, who absolutely crushes the lead role of Ariel, to the world. And what a talent she is. 

It’s a big surprise in comparison to recent Disney misfires “Dumbo,” and “Pinocchio” that shows when ingredients mesh at the right time (or you capture lightning in a bottle with the casting of Bailey) there is something fresh that can be pulled from these adaptations. Thanks to Bailey, and a slew of other character performers, along with the vibrant tunes remastered from 1989, 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” isn’t the total bomb many had expected upon first glimpses of the underwater sequences. Perhaps you winced when you saw Sebastian anthropomorphized as an actual crab or thought “Hmm Flounder looks…different.” 

Those problems are still prevalent (I’m not sure I ever got passed Sebastian’s look despite vocal performer Daveed Diggs having a ball), but there’s enough charm and grace, plus a heaping dose of nostalgia from popular tunes like “Kiss the Girl,” which is an absolute banger here, that sooth over those rough patches. Including the aforementioned underwater sequences that appear as though they were shot in a dark fishbowl. James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” this is not. 

Essentially a shot-for-shot remake with added fluff for context, writer David Magee, working alongside powerhouse composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, has injected some new flavor (and lyrics) into “The Little Mermaid,” which was originally helmed by Disney royalty Ron Clements and John Musker. In 2023, we get more answers in regards to Ariel’s admiration for the human world, but also Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King - terrific) gets a ballad, transferred from the Broadway production, that helps emphasize the romantic courtship between the two star-crossed lovers. King and Bailey are a great fit and their swooning romance above sea level is transporting. As the film was shot on various locations throughout the Italian countryside, the cinematography in those moments are gorgeous and offer a nice breather in between the muddled underwater green-screen tomfoolery. 

But no amount of CGI can take away from Bailey’s oversized sense of wonder, especially as she belts “Part of Your World” with all the bravado any patron would expect. Another surprise standout is Awkafina’s rendition of silly bird Scuttle, who, thanks to Miranda’s chops, is given a rap number alongside Sebastian that doesn’t whiff. Others don’t fare quite as well: Melissa McCarthy is a shade underwhelming as the vicious sea-witch Ursula (“Poor Unfortunate Souls” lands with a thud); and Javier Bardem straight up looks lost playing King Triton who elicits laughter for all the wrong reasons. 

But if you can set aside the murky “Aquaman” aesthetic and follow the gaze of Bailey’s transformational performance, the heart of “The Little Mermaid” remains sound. The decision to allow Ariel and Eric more time to frolic on the island, engage in afternoon diversions, and let their love organically bloom ends up being the right call and keeps this Disney adaptation from sinking under the weight of its lofty expectations. Go ahead and take the dive. 

Grade: B 

THE LITTLE MERMAID opens in theaters everywhere Friday, May 26th. 


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