The Little Mermaid, Disney’s latest live-action reboot of a classic animated film, begins with a quote from Hans Christian Andersen about suffering. It really sets the stage for what comes next. The Little Mermaid, in this incarnation written by David Magee and directed by Rob Marshall, is neither the best of the live-action remakes (Pete’s Dragon) nor the worst (Pinocchio). It is thoroughly middle of the road, inoffensive in its aims and so sweet it’s borderline cloying. At 135 minutes, it is so long it will challenge small children’s ability to sit still and face in one direction for any amount of time but based on the sighs and gasps of the twelve-year-old girl sitting near me in my screening, it is just right for Disney’s desired tweener audience.
Halle Bailey stars as the live-action Ariel, and she is the film’s best asset. She is sweet and precocious, believable as a frustrated teen longing for adventure and independence, with a fraught relationship with her overprotective father, Triton (Javier Bardem). Ariel is curious about the human world, but humans killed her mother and Triton has forbidden Ariel to go to the surface, which, of course, only stokes her curiosity more. Because she witnesses Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) be nice to his dog once, she’s convinced all humans aren’t bad, even though, you know, they murdered her mom.
This is a strange beat, and the film doesn’t make much of it—did people from Eric’s kingdom kill her? It seems like they’re experiencing a lot of misfortune on the high seas that is damaging their country’s economy, is Triton doing it as revenge? I have so many questions about Ariel’s mom!—but Ariel already has one really good reason for believing the best of humans: merpeople aren’t all the same, why would humans be? Why we’re mucking up that very simple and straightforward logic with the bit about her dead mom, I don’t know, except these live-action remakes have a nasty habit of explaining stuff no one was asking about in the first place. But then, when you double the length of the movie, you’ve got to fill that time somehow.
And boy, does The Little Mermaid struggle to fill time. Most of the added runtime comes on land when Ariel has given up her voice for a chance to be with Eric. As sparkling as Bailey is as Ariel, when she can’t sing, the film loses some shine. They attempt to mitigate that by using “Part of Your World” as a refrain, standing in for Ariel’s inner monologue, but it’s inconsistent and only minimally effective. Also, as an adult, the cotton candy fluff of Ariel and Eric courting is chemistry-free and boring, but then, this isn’t for adults. It’s for kids, and the innocent, wide-eyed romance between Ariel and Eric is fine for that age bracket. Again, that twelve-year-old was sighing her little heart out the whole time even as I repeatedly checked my watch.
The classic songs come through the remake blender largely intact, but the new songs are rough. Eric has a totally forgettable number meant to be a counterpart to “Part of Your World”, but it falls flat as Eric is not an interesting character, no matter how much we’re told he’s not like other boys, he’s a cool boy! And Scuttle, voiced here by Awkwafina, has a horrible rap from Lin-Manuel Miranda—truly, he has gone too far—called “Scuttlebutt” that leads to the film’s lowest point.
Awkwafina, who has been accused of appropriating Black culture and African-American Vernacular English as part of her stage persona, rapping with Daveed Diggs as Sebastian the crab, doing a weak Caribbean accent, furthering the erasure of actual Afro-Caribbean talent in the film industry, to a silenced and bewildered looking Ariel is…something. Bailey looks confused throughout the scene, probably because she’s acting opposite nothing, which is a real skill even vastly more experienced and trained actors struggle with, but it ends up looking like she’s wondering what the hell she’s doing here, in this car crash of appropriated cultures.
But there is some stuff that works in The Little Mermaid. Not enough to sustain its immense runtime, but bright spots, nonetheless. Besides Bailey’s genuinely charming performance, Melissa McCarthy is very good as Ursula, playing the sea witch with a campy edge borrowed straight from Divine. Bardem is also solid as Triton, especially when he sees how far he’s pushed Ariel away through his attempts to control her. This version of the film does an excellent job portraying the battle of wills between a scared dad who can’t express his concern in productive ways and a strong-willed daughter incapable of understanding her father’s fear. It’s actually poignant!
And some parts of the film look very good. The mermaid effect is spectacular. Ariel is beautiful in fish form, her iridescent tail shimmering in shifting light, her shell bra replaced by a scaly bit that grows from the fine iridescent scales that cover her body. It’s a neat character design, and each merperson has their own unique look. Ariel’s sisters, guardians of the seven seas, get a little more screentime here (Bridgerton’s Simone Ashley pops by for half a second as Indira), and I know it’s done just to sell more toys, but they each have distinct color and scale patterns that reflect which region of the world they’re from, and they all look really cool.
But other parts of the film look rather poor. There is definitely a problem with underlit scenes, especially underwater, and at every opportunity to create something visually stunning and indelible, Marshall backs away, as if allergic to memorable imagery. The sight of Ursula in kaiju form is almost indiscernible against a stormy night sky, which is too bad because it looks like it might have been cool, if only we had some more highlights to work with.
In all, The Little Mermaid is a mixed bag. It’s too long, the new songs suck, Eric is never going to be interesting no matter how hard anyone tries, and there is a lack of visual boldness which is disappointing in a film set in part in a fantastical underwater realm. But the mermaids look cool, Halle Bailey is great, and the target tween audience might find enough here to satisfy. Adults, though, will be dead bored. If you’re a grown ass adult who wants to watch a movie about a protagonist torn between the surface world and a fantastical underwater realm featuring a red-headed fish-woman, just watch Aquaman.
The Little Mermaid is exclusively in theaters from May 26, 2023.