What to Watch Verdict
Halle Bailey shines in a lavish live-action remake of Disney’s animated classic
Halle Bailey’s soaring voice and charisma
Melissa McCarthy brings camp gusto to the story’s villain
At their best, the visuals add oomph and dazzle to the songs
The photorealistic CGI sometimes swamps the characters
Halle Bailey makes a splash as the headstrong heroine of The Little Mermaid, yet not every element of Disney’s lavish live-action remake of its beloved animated movie is a watertight success.
Back in 1989, Disney’s cartoon adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale was the film that launched the studio’s second golden age, the so-called "Disney Renaissance". This proved to be a decade-long run of critical and audience favorites — including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King — that turned the company’s fortunes around.
This proved to be a decade-long run of critical and audience favorites— including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King—that turned the company’s fortunes around.
More recently, Disney has been industriously churning out re-workings of many of its animated classics as glossy live-action films, but the results have been distinctly variable, ranging from veritable hits such as Cinderella and The Jungle Book to outright misses such as Dumbo and Pinocchio. The new Little Mermaid falls somewhere in between.
Still, even if some of the enchantment of the original is missing, Bailey’s soaring voice and charisma make much of the story work. She, of course, is Ariel, the rebellious teenage mermaid whose fascination with the human world has put her at odds with her stern father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). Not that his disapproval deters her from adding to her collection of "gadgets, gizmos, whosits, whatsits and thingamabobs" (as she calls human artifacts that have fallen overboard), or from saving drowning mariner Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and falling in love with him.
Ariel’s yearning for Eric and his world leads her to make a fateful bargain with her estranged aunt, scheming sea witch Ursula, played with camp gusto and husky menace by Melissa McCarthy, here channeling the spirit of drag queen Divine: the model, apparently, for the character’s original cartoon incarnation. Ursula tricks Ariel into taking a potion that gives her human form for three days in return for her voice, but the now mute Ariel must win Eric’s love in that time or lose her soul.
Telling this story, Chicago director Rob Marshall goes overboard with photorealistic CGI effects, which work better in some places than others. McCarthy gets swamped by the overly busy—and sometimes blurry—visuals in her big number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls". The weird appearance of the film’s computer-generated trio of comic sidekicks, Jamaican crab Sebastian, bird-brained seagull Scuttle, and Flounder, Ariel’s fishy best friend (voiced by David Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay respectively), is even worse.
On top of this, Marshall stretches things out unduly. The original movie ran for 83 minutes; the remake clocks in at two and a quarter hours. True, the new film does include some extra songs with lyrics by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (including a rap number for Scuttle and Sebastian) on top of the familiar tunes by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.
Yet even at its extended length, some of the film seems skimpy. Resembling models in a luxury skincare ad rather than rulers of the seven seas, Ariel’s multicultural sisters are barely characterized (life as a mermaid evidently allows ample time for a full beauty routine), while the idyllic island kingdom ruled by Eric’s regal adoptive mother (Noma Dumezweni)—somewhere in the Caribbean—is sketchily portrayed.
Happily, these flaws aren’t enough to sink the film. Bailey’s Ariel is radiant throughout and, in places, Marshall’s hyper-stylized visuals add oomph and dazzle to the songs, such as in Sebastian’s dazzling calypso number, "Under the Sea", and Ariel’s yearning "Part of Your World".
The Little Mermaid hits movie theaters on Friday, May 26.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.