For most of us growing up with Disney animated movies, the brand came with a sense of enchantment. The stories were presented in two-dimensional landscapes, but it was nonetheless engrossing. The storytelling, the characters, the immersive animated environments, everything felt like it had a soul. The live-action remakes have attempted to carbon copy these animated movies but instead have felt like soulless clones. Director Rob Marshall’s remake of The Little Mermaid does not swim perfectly, but one cannot deny the existence of a soul in this adaptation.
For example, let’s talk about the charismatic crab, Sebastian. The adaptation does not shy away from the realism of the sea creatures. Sebastian looks precisely like a crab, and all the animated characteristics that would bring his expression to life are removed. Yet, somehow, the character works way better than it should and is full of charm. The same can be said for this new version of The Little Mermaid. The realistic vision is flawed but is riddled with personality. And not to mention, Ariel herself, Halle Bailey, gives a show-stopping performance as the heart and soul of this Oceanic fairy tale.
The Little Mermaid’s story
Those familiar with the animated film can expect similar story elements. Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a mermaid with big dreams of living above the ocean, where she can become her own person. It’s a relatable story for most children who dream of finding adventures beyond their pond. All the familiar characters are present, including Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (Awkwafina).
Each one of them acts as a friend or a guide to Ariel. Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), does not trust mankind outside of the water and remains overprotective of Ariel. In doing so, he forbids Ariel from interacting with anyone from above the ocean. One might even say the king is controlling to an unhealthy extreme.
The king’s behavior backfires, as Ariel would do anything to have her own agency. So, she gives up a piece of herself to a sea witch named Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) in hopes of experiencing a world beyond her own. And to possibly find a connection with a man named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who she saved from a shipwreck.
Themes about autonomy
This writer brought his niece and brother-in-law to the screening. In one scene, Ariel is having a heart-to-heart with her father about being free from the ocean. In said scene, this five-year-old girl (my niece) stares at her dad and states seriously, “See, Dad, you have to let me go one day.” A moment that conjured laughter because of the delivery.
This is a strong indicator that the message of the 1989 animated film communicates faithfully in the remake. Ariel dreams of being a fish out of water to carve her path. But she’s fighting against a wave of expectations placed by her father, who happens to be the governing force of the sea. The same is true of Prince Eric, a man who feels burdened by royalty’s shackles.
During a time when laws are being overturned that remove certain protections and rights for women and other minorities, reminding children that they have their autonomy is a valuable message. And it’s a message that is wonderfully accessible in this remake.
The CGI realism and voicework
One of the biggest complaints with The Lion King was the realistic approach to the animals. It’s a difficult task to convey genuine emotion from certain wildlife. For example, when Simba cries at the death of Mufasa, his mouth opens as he sobs while the rest of his face stays indifferent. It’s a sequence that should be tragic but becomes unintentionally funny due to Simba’s expressionless face.
Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder were given similar hyperrealistic treatment. At first, this was concerning. However, Sebastian’s personality breaks through thanks to a charming vocal performance by Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Blindspotting). Diggs, as a voice performer, injects a heavy dose of charisma into a mostly emotionless creature. The animation choices assisted as well, emphasizing Sebastian’s thoughts and feelings with his crabby eyes.
Awkwafina’s role of Scuttle does precisely as intended. The character is meant to be humorous as she provides the gossip (the “Scuttlebutt”) from above the sea. The main nitpick with Awkwafina as a voice actor is that she is simply performing as Awkwafina. The audience does not see Scuttle; they see a seagull with Awkwafina’s voice. As for Flounder, well, no amount of sweetness from Tremblay’s performance can change the fact that Flounder looks dead inside, unfortunately.
The Little Mermaid is too long
The live-action remake gets a lot of aspects correct. The spirit of the story, the music, and the performances of its live-action leads. That said, the 135-minute runtime could have been trimmed down. This is more true in the movie’s first hour than in the back half.
The script meanders on various subplots in the first hour, such as a dinner conversation with Prince Eric’s family. The scene adds very little to the overall experience. Tightening a few of these scenes could have allowed the audience to arrive at the conflict quicker. That being said, once the story arrives at Ursula’s doorstep, the film finds fresh momentum.
Production and costume design
The most surprising aspect of Rob Marshall’s vision of The Little Mermaid is the gorgeous production and costume design. The sets, locations, and wardrobes are wonderfully executed. This should not be surprising, considering Marshall has worked with Production Designer John Myhre on numerous films, including Chicago and Mary Poppins Returns.
One scene, in particular, is Caribbean inspired, with so much culture radiating from every corner of the screen. The colors in the sequence and the Island-inspired clothing are vibrant. Award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood brings a lot of cultural flavor to the movie, and it’s one of the many aspects that make this version of The Little Mermaid feel fresh.
The Little Mermaid is Halle Bailey’s moment
Then there is Ariel. It’s baffling that a controversy existed over the casting of Halle Bailey. After seeing the film, it should be perfectly clear why Bailey was chosen. We truly do not deserve her talent.
Halle Bailey is Ariel, and her vocal performance is an absolute show-stopper. When that first verse hits, it will drive a Buick of emotions through the viewer’s heart. She is simply a fantastic vocalist. This writer rarely becomes teary-eyed by music, specifically a vocal performance. Halle Bailey almost brought tears. She’s the real deal.
The Little Mermaid could be tighter in runtime. This aside, it might be one of the best Disney live-action adaptations thanks to a faithful retelling of the story’s main theme of autonomy and a smashing lead performance by Halle Bailey. The film rises above the tide of mediocre live-action remakes because of her talent.
My rating for this film:
★★★ / ♥♥♥♥
The Little Mermaid is now available in theaters! Will you go see it? Let us know what you think on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord! And check out Luna’s review of Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale, a book inspired by The Little Mermaid.
Book Review: Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale