REVIEW: The Little Mermaid (2023)

A mermaid princess named Ariel (Halle Bailey) goes against the wishes of her father Triton (Javier Bardem) to investigate the world of humans, only to fall in love with the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). To go on land to meet him, Ariel makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), which backfires disastrously – putting Ariel, Eric, and Triton’s lives in peril. You probably knew all of that, but y’know; just in case.

Once again Disney plunders its animated back catalogue to make a live-action blockbuster; thankfully this time around it is with generally pleasing results. Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is by no means flawless, and does not come close to the creative success of his previous Disney feature Mary Poppins Returns (2018), but in the context of the company’s cartoon-to-live-action adaptations it is definitely a welcome reprieve.

Generally speaking Disney’s strategy of exploiting their animated features for intellectual property has felt opportunistic and cynical, and in the rush to get them all in front of audiences there has been a lot of underwhelming cinema made. Bill Condon’s 2017 take on Beauty and the Beast remains the high water mark of this collection of films, alongside Charlie Bean’s underrated Disney+ exclusive Lady and the Tramp (2019). The remainder seem to fall into two piles: the flawed but interesting (I would include Cruella, Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Jungle Book) and the flat-out flawed (honestly, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Pinocchio, and Dumbo number among the worst film projects Disney have ever released). In at least one case (The Lion King) they were simply so directly cribbed from the original that they felt entirely unnecessary.

Where these films tend to do best in when changes get made. Whether it is a change in story or tone, or even simply fresh design, the more adventurous adaptations offer the best of both worlds. If Disney must revisit the past so repeatedly, they can at least update a film’s social attitudes and politics or bring a sense of play to their conversion from fine art to photography. The Little Mermaid succeeds reasonably well in this regard. There is a fair attempt to give the film a Caribbean-come-Latin America aesthetic, and as a part of that the film’s casting and design favours people of colour and some appropriate colonial influences – the Portuguese blue tiling throughout Prince Eric’s castle is delightful. It is properly decent world-building that helps enormously when fleshing out an 83-minute animation to 120 minutes of live-action.

The film looks great. The extensive CGI used to create Triton’s underwater kingdom is vibrant and consistent, while Ursula is rendered in an effective and respectful way to the original. The cinematography is strong, and well framed. Choreography and music are, as one might expect from the director of Mary Poppins Returns and Chicago, top-notch. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s songs remain a delight 34 years after they were first released – particularly given a few judicious changes to outdated lyrics.

There are of course three new songs. All film adaptations of musicals tend to have them, mainly because pre-existing songs are ineligible for Oscars. Menken contributes new numbers for Ariel (reasonably catchy) and Eric (entirely unnecessary), while Lin-Manuel Miranda offers a Hamilton-esque rap number for sidekicks Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) that is hands-down the worst and most wrong-headed new addition for the film.

The performances are excellent, and often lift parts of the film that feel underwhelming. As is being noted by pretty much all viewers, Halle Bailey is a sensation as Ariel. Jonah Hauer-King gives Eric some character and personality he lacked back in 1989. Melissa McCarthy is a big surprise, honouring the late Pat Carroll’s legendary performance as Ursula while managing to introduce a few idiosyncrasies of her own. Supporting actors like Noma Dumezweni as Eric’s Queen mother and Art Malik as the butler Grimsby are a highlight.

Not everything works. In places things get a little odd or awkward, and in a few key moments unintentionally funny. There is no chance of this new version replacing the original as the iconic adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story. It is also at least 20 minutes too long. What seems important is that they key elements work well, the animated film is treated with appropriate reverence, and the new ideas are mostly engaging ones. There may not be any compelling reason for The Little Mermaid to exist, but it at least manages to be broadly entertaining while it is here.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Little Mermaid (2023)

  1. Think Angourie Rice would bet The Perfect as Ariel In In The Little Mermaid” live-action remake

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