Can you hear me now?
Fascinated with all things human, Princess Ariel (Halle Bailey) knows the rules set down by her father King Triton (Javier Bardem): contact with the above world is forbidden. As the youngest daughter of the sea king, Ariel explores dangerous shipwrecks and collects anything she can, but her secret dream is to experience it for herself. In an act of defiance, she saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning after a sudden storm blows their ship off-course, earning the ire of her father… and sending Ariel into the clutches of Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the banished sea witch. Granted three days to live among the humans but stripped of her siren-song voice, she’ll need the kiss of true love from her islander prince to remain or else belong to the sea witch for all eternity… if only she could remember the crooked deal.
With the exception of Maleficent and Cruella (due to significant story departures), many live-action remakes of these beloved Disney animated features mostly make viewers just want to watch the originals again. The live-action Lion King was a photo-realistic animal feature that wasn’t photo-realistic; kids do watch Animal Planet and Nat Geo Wild, you know, so maybe those hyenas weren’t a great choice for flunkies after all. Great villains helped make these features memorable, but Aladdin’s live-action Jafar had none of his animated presence, and though you can’t actually hate Luke Evans as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, these villains never come close to their animated counterparts. Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall was tasked with adapting The Little Mermaid into yet another family friendly money grab, but will tapping Poppins alumni Lin-Manuel Miranda for some musical help and writer David Magee for a fresh script make all the difference?
Why on Earth is the new Little Mermaid over two hours long, especially when the original clocked in at ninety minutes? It could be because they sorted out iffy material, gave Prince Eric an actual back story, and added a couple of new songs by Miranda (including one for the prince himself) to flesh out the story world. Only true fans of the 1989 original may even notice the lyrical changes and removed songs, but in their place are better storytelling, smarter characters, and a world that hints at things bigger than a mermaid princess enamored with a human prince. There are imperfections — it’s weird hearing a song about a “hot crustacean band” with no instruments being played — but most of the changes are improvements. For example: this Ariel isn’t as naive as her animated counterpart, course-correcting the instant she suspects any misunderstanding. In place of the film serving as a renaissance for Disney animation, this little remake champions exploration, diversity, and courage for all ages, providing a smarter successor that is (dare it be so?) better than the original.
Bailey embodies Ariel so perfectly the rest of the cast had to step up, and it really works this time. Bardem gives King Triton the dangerous dad vibes the original glossed over; it would have been nice to see even more of that. Disney might have used actual witchcraft so McCarthy could be possessed by Pat Carroll. McCarthy looks and sounds like she spent her early twenties belting out “Poor Unfortunate Souls” into a mirror and emulating every nuance of Ursula. Some of her CGI isn’t perfect in places, but none of that it due to Melissa failing to fully commit; it’s eerily screen-accurate in the way Angelina Jolie almost disappeared into Maleficent. Jacob Tremblay is a spot-on Flounder in a reduced role, but Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina make the voice roles of Sebastian and Scuttle their own, including a song that’s right at home with any musical chorus number imparting information to viewers in a fun way. Playing with underwater shadows and bio-luminescence isn’t exactly true to life, but the VFX folks weren’t exactly going for Avatar 2 accuracy.
Much of the goodwill earned in the first Maleficent was entirely squandered in a wretched sequel that even Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t save. Simarly, there are more than a few dangling plot threads left at the end of this film, easily seen as a set up for a franchise should it exceed box office expectations. Giving credit where credit is due, the best change is removing proof animated Ariel could have avoided everything simply by writing it down; after all, she signed the contract, didn’t she?
The Little Mermaid 2023 is rated PG for action/peril, some scary images, and life’s full of tough choices, idn’t it?
Four skull recommendation out of four