Another year, another live-action Disney remake. While this recent batch wasn’t the first go-round (the 90s brought us a Jungle Book one and two One Hundred and One Dalmatians films, and Tim Burton later did his own take on Alice in Wonderland), the past eight years or so have felt like a concerted effort on Disney’s part to remake all of their animated works, or in some cases, create prequels based around certain characters.
This barrage (or glut) has been a mixed bag to say the least. On the one hand, many have been highly successful at the box office with 2019‘s The Lion King becoming a top-ten all-time grossing film and others scaring up more than a bit of money. On the other, many have been direct to streaming releases that come and go nearly unmentioned (anyone remember 2019’s The Lady and the Tramp?). Reception has been mixed across the board, with few able to agree on which ones are really the good ones. All can agree that at least some of them are bad, and that the blatant nostalgia bait feels at least somewhat insulting.
But however creatively bankrupt these remakes are, each film should be ultimately assessed on its own merits. And Rob Marshall‘s take on The Little Mermaid can’t help but stand out. While it doesn’t go so far as to really justify its own existence (the original film is ultimately far superior), this one is better than most at capturing the charm and magic that made the animated film such a delight.
One may look at the 135 minute runtime and balk. After all, the original film was an economical 83 minutes. And sure enough, padding the film with another fifty minutes mostly dragged down the pacing with unnecessary extra moments or action scenes. All of that said, the benefit of the extra material is the effort to develop a real relationship between Prince Eric and Ariel. In the original, they mostly fell in love because they were both beautiful people, and Eric was enchanted with Ariel’s singing. Here, they at least attempt to show that their romance is based on a shared yearning to explore beyond the edge of the map. It’s not deep or complex, but it is at least something.
It also helps that the film is cast pretty well. Halle Bailey does a more than capable job of capturing Ariel’s dual nature of doe-eyed innocence and her fierce determination to carve her own path away from her father. When forced to act with just her face after she loses her voice, Bailey exudes such a force of personality through her eyes that you can believe this Eric would fall for her. Jonah Haeur-King is also competent as Eric, taking a character that even with added characteristics still feels a tad flat, and gives him some form of a personality. Javier Bardem, meanwhile, feels wasted on Triton. He’s good at barking angry commands, but the character is more a plot piece than an actual character. On that note, the decision to change Ariel’s sisters into six other mermaids representing the seas felt pointless, as those characters have almost no screen time.
On the opposite end, Melissa McCarthy‘s limited screen time as Ursula is used quite well. McCarthy hams it up to just the right degree, resulting in one of the better translations of an animated Disney villain onscreen. It feels just campy enough without being too cartoonish. McCarthy absolutely kills it in her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” one of the film’s better moments. She’s having the time of her life, and when she scutters about her lair with tentacles dancing about, the film has some real energy to it.
The same can’t be said for “Under the Sea,” sadly. Daveed Diggs‘ performance as Sebastian is capable enough, but that number feels like a mediocre cover band’s take on the song. This song is where the decision for photorealism feels most like a flaw, a trade down from the easy anthropomorphism of the classic animation (and the less said about this movie’s Flounder, the better). “Kiss the Girl” is somewhere in the middle, with this version inserting some Awkwafina goofiness. Mileage will vary on Awkwafina’s performance as Scuttle; if you like her, you’ll likely laugh at the additions to “Kiss the Girl,” and if you don’t, you won’t. The CGI does a better job with her than with Flounder or the creatures of “Under the Sea,” or maybe Alan Menken’s composition is just so good it shines no matter what it’s dressed up in.
“Part of Your World” has lost none of its magic or power though. Bailey is a great singer, and despite the bland, cool color palette of the underwater sequences, she brings wonder to the song and makes you feel her longing for something more. As for the new songs, they are a mixed bag. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a talented lyricist, but some songs feel better conceived than others. A brief one titled “The Scuttlebutt” has some fun Miranda rhymes, delivered in the near-rap stylings of Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs. It’s mostly a vehicle to deliver plot news, but it’s reminiscent of the cut “Morning Report” from The Lion King. However, the Prince Eric number “Wild Uncharted Waters” feels like a total swing and miss. Melodramatic solo male numbers have already been parodied (see Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, “Agony” from Into the Woods, or “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II), and this one does nothing to distinguish itself.
Despite some hits and misses, this retelling of The Little Mermaid does a solid job conveying the magic of the original story. What this one gets right that many of the others like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo didn’t is that it doesn’t aim for over-realism or big-budget spectacle. It remembers that it is a fairy tale about characters and their desires. The CGI-driven Hollywood machine squeezes its way in here and there, but Marshall still infuses the first film’s spark and makes this not a slog to sit through. The upcoming slate of remakes, sequels, and prequels (Snow White, Mufasa: The Lion King, Hercules, Lilo & Stitch, and more) would do well to remember what worked here.