Ariel sits on a rock and sings.

Film Review: The Little Mermaid

Film Reviews

The Little Mermaid
Director: Rob Marshall 

DeLuca Marshall and Marc Platt Productions, Walt Disney Pictures
In Theaters: 05.26

The arrival of another Disney remake is hardly an event. Though in the case of The Little Mermaid, the hype and anticipation has been inordinately high, courtesy of online trolls and culture wars, giving it baggage and a curious audience.

This remake of the beloved Disney film based on the classic tale by Hans Christian Andersen follows Ariel (Halle Bailey), the youngest daughter to King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Atlantica. While Atlantica is a paradise, Ariel finds herself unfulfilled and wanting. She wants to be where people are … you get the idea. 

After she saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck, she becomes infatuated and wants to be with him in the world above. The only way that this can happen is by making a deal with her estranged aunt, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who was banished from the kingdom. Ursula favors isolation and surfaces occasionally to star in dreadful movies that her husband directs. Ariel must give Ursula her beautiful voice in exchange for a pair of legs so she can venture forth on land and pursue Prince Eric. Ursula is not to be trusted, however, and Ariel soon realizes that she may have made a huge mistake.

Like all remakes of Disney animated classics, The Little Mermaid is redundant. It’s a big step up from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin in that it actually feels like a movie rather than a shoddily thrown together television special that somehow wound up in theaters. A big part of this comes from director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), who knows how to stage a musical for the screen. The dance sequences show off the astoundingly realistic sea creatures and other animals, they are so well done that you’d have to be opposed to the film not to appreciate them. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is also gorgeous. 

The plot revisions work well enough (particularly Triton and Ursula’s new backstory), but the movie runs long. Further, some of the singing had a bit too much of a modern pop sound for my taste; the crisp, clear belting of the original is still my personal preference. That being said, additional songs added for this version, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lin-Mauel Miranda, are fun and mesh well enough with the beloved classics. 

The bulk of the online venom spewed against this film has been about the casting of Bailey as Ariel, as some have taken umbrage to the casting of a Black mermaid, which is a ridiculous position at best. Bailey beautifully rises to the challenge of proving the haters wrong, giving a charismatic, star-making performance and bringing more depth to the character by giving a more key and human performance. She seems to channel the backlash against her into a subtle, yet effective subtext regarding the weight of Ariel’s feelings of being an outsider trying to find her place. McCarthy deserves some credit for disappearing into the role of Ursula, though she’s also the only major cast member who can be rightfully accused of just doing an impression of the previous actor who played the role. Bardem could give moving and nuanced characterization to a car commercial, and he has some wonderful moments, as do Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs as the voices of Scuttle and Sebastian, respectively.

The Little Mermaid isn’t new or great enough to be called a new Disney classic. It does manage to be an enjoyable and visually sumptuous summer blockbuster that can be readily enjoyed as a family moviegoing experience or even merely as a nostalgia fix for anyone who grew up with the original. –Patrick Gibbs 

Read more reviews of live-action adaptations: 
Film Review: Aladdin
Film Review: Mulan