Disney’s continued attempts to remake their classic animated films into live action films has been spotty at best. Some of the films were pretty good, such as Cinderella, The Jungle Book or (kind of) Aladdin. Others were considerably big step downs such as Beauty and the Beast, Mulan and Dumbo and those that were just best forgotten like The Lion King and Pinocchio. This weekend a new film joined this company, the classic The Little Mermaid.
In anticipation of this movie, I rewatched the original animated movie last Saturday. It had been literally decades since I had seen it and I wanted a refresher before the live-action version. It was fine, I liked the music but the relationship with Eric and Ariel in the animated movie felt rushed and I just did not buy it. I also did not like how they dealt with Ursula’s tricking Eric into a wedding ceremony. It made Eric look like nothing truly mattered to him. I know he was meant to be betwixt by Ursula’s magic, but it just rang false to me. I still liked it, but it, as an animated film, was way below the other renaissance Disney films from the late 80s and early 90s for me.
Seeing that the new live-action film was considerably longer than the animated movie (live action was 2 hours and 15 minutes and the animated was barely 90 min.), I hoped that they would address some of the issues I had, especially with the relationship between Ariel and Eric.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) was a mermaid who had her head in the surface world. She was fascinated by everything human being despite the objections of her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). When she rescued Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck, Ariel fell for the handsome prince. After an upset Triton destroyed her collection of human artifacts, she was approached by her evil aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who made Ariel a deal that would see Ariel changed into a human, with legs and feet, and she could stay that way as long as Ariel is able to get a true love kiss from Prince Eric before the sunset of the third day. Otherwise, Ariel would belong to Ursula.
I am happy to say that I really loved this new version, considerably more than I liked the animated one. They added several scenes between Ariel and Eric that really fleshed out the characters and created a pairing that was engaging immediately. I found Eric and Ariel’s connection so much more enjoyable, believable than I ever did in the animated film. I was in on them right away. The chemistry was so much better here than I ever could have guessed.
Part of that is because Halle Bailey, a casting that caused a ton of controversy on the Internet because of the fact that Bailey is a black woman cast in this white mermaid role, was amazing as Ariel. Bailey has a fantastic presence about her, just beaming off the screen. Halle Bailey is a star in the making and this performance will only elevate her ever further. Add to that fact that she had an amazing voice and that her songs as Ariel were powerful and beautifully delivered. Anyone who is upset because this Ariel has the wrong skin color is just not giving this talented actor her due.
Jonah Hauer-King does a great job too. I had never seen him before either (at least he does not jump out of my memory) but he does such a solid job of bringing Prince Eric to life and giving him many more layers than the character got before. I even think the film does an admirable job of showing Eric’s conflict when Ursula shows up with her magic to betwixt him. Here, I believed that he was really in love with Ariel and that he showed the internal struggle against the magic spell cast upon him by the sea witch.
I did have a couple of issues, both on the special effects side. First, I did not feel as if the underwater scenes were very special. None of them felt to me that these characters were underwater. After Aquaman and, more recently, Wakanda Forever, we saw great CGI showing underwater characters where you could tell they were underwater. The fact that The Little Mermaid scenes did not feel as accurate was distracting to me.
Secondly, I was a little put off by the character design of Sebastian the crab. I did not think he was a character that was fully imagined in this live action version. The character design did grow on me as I became more used to it. However, I loved the voice acting of Sebastian, performed by Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs. I found that voice performance to be one of the strongest in the film. I really hope that the rumors of Daveed Diggs being cast as the Thing in the MCU’s Fantastic Four remake turns out to be true.
Other voice actors were decent. Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle was a standout. I thought her work with Daveed Diggs was exceptional. Jacob Tremblay as Flounder was fine, but Flounder felt like the least important of the main cast.
Javier Bardem did a wonderful job as King Triton. I believed everything he did with that character. Melissa McCarthy was a revelation as the evil Ursula. She brought the right amount of humor mixed with menace. I know McCarthy was another controversial casting jobs for this movie, but she nailed this roll beautifully.
There was one notable scene that was cut from this movie (though referenced during it) and I think that was a wise decision. I did not feel as if this scene fit very well in the animated movie and its omission here worked for me. In fact, every time they made changes in this film, I think it was for the overall betterment of the movie.
The music was still really well done. There were some new songs and a few updated lyrics and I never thought that it was out of place. I wanted to specifically mention how amazing I thought Melissa McCarthy was with the song Poor Unfortunate Souls. I wondered if it was actually her singing and she is listed as the artist on the soundtrack. I had no idea she could sing like that and that number was a standout for me.
These live-action movies have to answer a question… what is the purpose of it existing? Some of these films add to the story and build upon what was there. Some of them are nothing more than a shot-by-shot remake. The Little Mermaid improves upon the original, adding several scenes that highlight characters and enhance the story. In particular when it comes to the relationship between Ariel and Prince Eric. Because of that, I found The Little Mermaid to be a rousing success and thoroughly enjoyable.
I dunno, all these live-action Disney flicks seem such a cynical, soul-crushing exercise, corporate Hollywood at its very worst.
This felt like it had a reason to exist though. It improved on the story and the characterization. Most of them are certainly not anything but a waste, but this, I found, engaging and purposeful.