While the House of Mouse has been accused of being artistically bankrupt, their neverending lineup of live-action remakes has no end in sight. The biggest problem with these is that they either stick too close to the original (The Lion King) or stray too far (both Maleficent films). Only two have been a complete success: The Jungle Book and Cruella.
With the release of The Little Mermaid, they’ve found a new way to get stuck in the middle. Director Rob Marshall (Annie, Chicago) makes a far better film when it gets out of the sea, but he’s saddled with sticking to the source material, never giving the film the room it needs to breathe.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) longs for more than living under the sea, ruled by her father King Triton (Javier Bardem). After a storm knocks Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) overboard, Ariel saves him and decides she wants to be where the people are, making a pact with her aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human. After trading her voice for legs, Ariel now has just three days to earn Eric’s love, or become another in a long line of Ursula’s poor unfortunate souls.
If there’s one thing working in The Little Mermaid’s favor, it’s Bailey. She is as perfect an Ariel as we could hope for. Full of childlike wonder in a young adult’s body works far better onscreen than if they’d kept her 16 years old. I don’t know if her age is explicitly stated, but they do mention it’s Eric’s 21st birthday, so odds are they’re letting Bailey play close to her actual age.
The new songs range from cringe worthy to hilarious to hilariously bad. A rap conversation, appropriately called “The Scuttlebutt,” between Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) and, of course, Scuttle (Awkwafina) is an instant Lin-Manuel Miranda classic. Speaking of which, Miranda joining forces with Alan Menken was both a blessing and a curse because while “The Scuttlebutt” is a hilarious earworm, Eric never deserved his own song, let alone one so laughably bad.
There’s also some other odd filmmaking choices. Hearing Sebastian sing his huge number about all the fish in the sea who play all these instruments while being surrounded by all kinds of fish who aren’t playing a single instrument is just bewildering. I know they were aiming for photorealism, so thankfully it works for the rest of the film. It’s also a huge shame that “Les Poissons” was cut. Sebastian makes a joke about the cook, but maybe it can make the cut for a deleted scene once it hits Disney+. There’s also some horrible lighting decisions making it look as bad as a Game of Thrones episode. And surprise surprise, Melissa McCarthy steals the movie.
The Little Mermaid is far from the debacle many feared it could have been, but it also never gets close to capturing the instant classic status of the original. Considering family films are starting to become few and far between in theaters though, you could definitely do worse. Keep expectations in check and there’s plenty to enjoy, but be warned: the original ran a lean 83 minutes, which has been bloated like a dead sea urchin to 135. Considering it’s almost twice as long, it’s such a shame it’s only half as good.