By Josh Taylor
The Little Mermaid has to be seen to be believed. A vibrant, summer flick that builds upon the lore of the animated film rather than simply being a retelling. It features the things you love from the original, adding new story elements, expanding character roles, and becoming something new in the process. It isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it isn’t as bad as the internet will tell you. Ever since it was announced Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid already had its critics. Complaints online state that Disney needs to stop remaking their animated films into live-action because nobody wants to see them, but the box office numbers don’t lie. The Lion King and Aladdin were both in the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2019.
On top of the “remake” conversation, the casting of Halle Bailey in 2019 brought out the worst in some people. Whether you believe that Ariel is a character meant for a white actor or that black actors should get their own stories rather than being fit into existing ones, what matters is that people had strong opinions and they’ve continuously been letting people know for the last few years. With all of that on my mind, I walked into my film screening with an open mind. The film begins with a short quote, a nod to the story's author, Hans Christian Andersen. It gave me a feeling that something was different. We were already in unfamiliar waters. The first act takes place mostly underwater. Those familiar with the Disney version know that this is where we meet Ariel, her sisters, King Triton, and all of Ariel’s animal sidekick friends. Sans a musical number or two, most things here are the same. I wasn’t wowed until Halle Bailey’s rendition of Ariel’s “Part of Your World”. If you need a reason as to why Bailey was cast in the role, it’s this tune. The way she not only sings, but it’s the small acting choices she makes. The mannerisms, the slight giggles, her voice breaking, the glances at both the surface and ocean floor. Halle Bailey became Ariel in that moment and I never again questioned the choice for her to play this role from there on.
Another familiar song, “Under the Sea”, showcases the smart choices that director Rob Marshall and his crew made when reworking this animated classic. The Little Mermaid had to balance the right amount of cartoonish elements with the real world and make it believable but also entertaining. The Lion King went so far into realism that it’s CGI animals lack expression, but not the creatures of The Little Mermaid. Is it weird that Sebastian’s eyes are bulging out of his crab head or that Flounder looks at people straight on when he talks despite his eyes being on the side? At first, yes, but after a few minutes, I completely bought in. This is a world where Mermaids live after all. With “Under the Sea” the sea creatures couldn’t just pull out saxophones or bang on seashell drums, so they came up with a clever Fred Astaire-style musical dance number instead that works perfectly for the song.
Speaking of CGI, the film's computer graphics look fine for the most part, but in a post-Avatar 2 world where water sequences have shape and style to them, The Little Mermaid’s underwater scenes lack texture and because of that, it feels strange to watch hair move around or to watch Ariel swim backward, moving her arms in what looks like nothing. It’s a small gripe though as the coral, sea creatures, and CGI elements of the live-action cast all look brilliant. Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula is monstrous with an overwhelming presence. Part of that is due to the actress herself, but part of that is the work of the computer graphics team. Her tentacles, glowing in the darkness, wrap around everything, extending her body in different directions, and making her feel unescapable. McCarthy’s acting is a great mix of campy and intimidating. The actress has never felt more villainous, and that’s great to see. Her threat always feels present, even during the second act where we rarely see her. The third act climax, which brings her back on screen, is the big ending a film like this needs. McCarthy feels powerful, intimidating, and powerful, but she’s also naive and blinded by her power. It’s incredible to watch play out, it’s just a shame she isn’t part of what I’d consider the best part of the film, its second act. During the second act, we get to see Ariel on land, gallivanting around with Prince Eric. However, what’s important here is that Rob Marshall not only recreates some classic scenes but also expands upon the original film. Here the cast grows with characters I didn’t think would get that much screen time, but become a delightful part of the story. Eric’s mother, played by Noma Dumezweni, commands every scene she is in. I honestly couldn’t wait to see her again after each scene she appeared. The family butler, Grimsby, portrayed by Art Malik, feels like Batman’s Alfred in all of the best ways. Not only did he play a much larger role than I anticipated, but this film wouldn’t be what it is without Grimsby and the choices he makes.
The second act also expands the setting. It’s long been debated where Disney’s animated classic takes place, but the live-action film makes it known that we are on an island in the Caribbean and it’s filled with all types of people. We meet farmers, vendors at a marketplace, employees of the royal family, and many more. As vibrant as the coral in the ocean is, it isn’t nearly as colorful and fun as this cast is during a song and dance number at the market. There’s also a rendition of the song “Kiss the Girl” which plays out differently than in the animated version. This one focuses on the work of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle (Now a northern gannet rather than a seagull.) whose roles are all expanded on for this version of the story. Eric also gets a lot more to do in this film. Jonah Hauer-King is Prince Eric. He’s likable, charming, good-looking, and seeks both love and adventure. Hauer-King elevates the character far beyond the animated version. Eric now feels 3-dimensional. He has dreams, ambitions, and goals, and isn’t afraid to be both a royal and one of the people of the island. He even gets his own song for this film. It is one of the least memorable songs on the soundtrack, but hey, at least he gets to belt out some notes while dramatically looking out over the ocean.
By the final minutes of The Little Mermaid, I felt like I had connected with this film, maybe even more so than the animated tale that kicked off Disney’s Renaissance. I honestly haven’t felt this way since 2015 when Disney opted to remake Cinderella. It feels different enough from the animated film that I’d want to revisit this movie again and it didn’t leave me feeling like I’d rather just go home and watch the animated version. Sure, it has it’s moments where I thought they failed to capture the spirit of the 1989 original, but there is a ton here to fall in love with that feels both familiar and new. Younger audiences will see Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King and want to mimic them. Like many, I’m not a major fan of Disney continuing to remake their animated films, but if they are going to do it, they found a magic formula with The Little Mermaid. Give us the moments we remember and love while expanding the story and creating something different. If the animated version is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s novel, interpreting it to the Disney style, I think the live-action remakes can be adaptations as well, interpreted in new, unique ways. The Little Mermaid succeeds at being an adaptation worth telling in this way.