Disney’s live-action remakes have been hit and miss. Expectedly, no one imagined The Little Mermaid would be able to succeed either since it’s difficult to capture an underwater world where mermaids and animals sing and dance in a convincing way. Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall shoots his shot, taking the seemingly unadaptable material and breathing a breezy life into it.
Much like the 1989 animated movie, The Little Mermaid is all about the mermaid Princess Ariel (Halle Bailey) who develops a keen interest in Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who is from the world above water. However, Ariel’s father King Triton (Javier Bardem) forbids her from having any interaction with the human world. Defying her father’s wishes, Ariel cuts a deal with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), where she trades her voice for legs. Of course, Ursula has her own nefarious intensions, so Ariel isn’t quite getting everything she wished for.
Marshall doesn’t try to replicate the animated film beat for beat. Instead, he sticks to the core story and themes but also understands when to omit or add something. For the most part, the CGI of the sea creatures are brought to life beautifully; however, there are moments when the special effects aren’t as polished, especially with the movement of the characters’ hair and a few locations looking particularly “green.” In fact, apart from the musical numbers under the sea – intentional pun – where it’s campier and more playful, the rest of the oceanic adventures are unmemorable. The good news is, the best parts of the film take place on land, and that’s where The Little Mermaid really comes alive.
As the lead, Bailey dazzles in the fish-out-of-water role – literally. For the second half of the film, Ariel’s voice is taken away and she has to convey a lot of emotion through her eyes and gestures. Some actors have a tendency to overact in these types of roles and go full slapstick at times, but Bailey brings a subtle nuance to it here. She doesn’t overdo it, as she channels Ariel’s frustration and wonder into how she carries herself on screen. In terms of the musical numbers, Bailey more than delivers, as her singing voice is simply a gift and mesmerises much like Jodi Benson did in the animated film.
Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian and Awkwafina’s Scuttle are the other standouts here. Sebastian is still the nervous wreck from the animated film, but Diggs also plays him as a caring companion for Ariel – and yes, he still performs the popular song “Under the Sea.” Awkwafina is the comedic relief of The Little Mermaid, but she also brings a lot of heart to Scuttle. The northern gannet is silly at times, but there’s no disputing the bird’s loyalty to her friends.
As far as Disney live-action remakes go, The Little Mermaid is certainly one of the better ones. The reason for its success is simple: It understands the source material and themes, but it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel entirely. Naturally, there will always be the question if these live-action remakes will be able to capture the magic of the animated classics. Marshall comes close, though, and this is sure to be a special film for a whole new generation of fans.