Disney’s Academy-Award winning adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name, The Little Mermaid (1989), was the catalyst for the Disney Renaissance; a decade that catapulted worldwide critical and commercial success for the animation studio. And now, thirty years on director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid has become the next addition to Disney’s live-action remake repertoire as it finally arrived at theatres in May 2023. Eva Sutton reviews
As a fan of Disney’s renaissance era, the studio’s on-going lukewarm attempts at recreating the magic of their animated classics have appeared to me as needless and empty cash cows that I stubbornly turn a blind eye to. But I have to admit, as I sat in my seat at a late Wednesday night showing of Marshall’s Mermaid remake, popcorn in hand, I found myself excited to see once again my favourite Disney princess and her story reimagined on the big screen.
And within its 135 minutes of screen time, the film certainly makes an effort to fill the shoes left by the animated original.
What The Little Mermaid (2023) possesses in comparison to its live-action predecessors is an unabashed spirit that is translated on screen by none other than Halle Bailey’s spellbinding performance as Ariel. It was during Bailey’s emotional rendition of Part of Your World that I knew our live-action Ariel was in safe hands – not only does her captivating voice effortlessly capture Ariel’s desperation and desires, but she also makes the song her own (I also admit that I might have shed a tear or two during this scene).
Original songs from the 1989 soundtrack are given respectable justice, but they are so undoubtedly superior that they make renowned Broadway composer Lin Manuel Miranda’s new additions stick out like sore thumbs
Bailey handles the pressure of portraying such a childhood favourite with grace and sincerity and she exceeds expectations through expressively capturing Ariel’s innocent curiosity and kindness with ease. I believe fans could not ask for a better interpretation of the headstrong mermaid, and she is undoubtedly the beating heart of the film.
For the most part, the rest of the cast also make decent efforts. Melissa McCarthy’s performance of Ursula is convincing. Jacob Tremblay and Daveed Diggs manage to emote the lifelike, albeit expressionless, CGI given to Flounder and Sebastian to provide comic relief as fun and playful sidekicks. While Prince Eric has never been the most interesting of princes, Jonah Hauer-King gives him a charming and innocuously sweet portrayal, and the adaptation enhances his character through displaying his kindredness with Ariel through his thirst for adventure.
Javier Bardem’s stoic King Triton, however, causes the character to fall flat as cold and distant. He and Bailey struggle to connect with each other and they fail to convey the significance of their father-daughter relationship, thus reducing the poignancy of Ariel’s permanent departure from her homeland at the end of the film.
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s original songs from the 1989 soundtrack are given respectable justice, but they are so undoubtedly superior that they make renowned Broadway composer Lin Manuel Miranda’s new additions stick out like sore thumbs. Hauer-King’s “I want” song Wild Uncharted Waters is forgettable and Akwafina’s Scuttlebutt is jarringly out of place. Bailey returns to save the day with For The First Time and the second reprise of Part of Your World, but I would enjoy listening to her sing my shopping list, so it is to her again that I award my praise.
The adaptation fares for the better when it actually steers away from copycat nostalgic moments and instead fleshes out the original story. The moment Ariel steps foot on-land the film garners its own personality, significantly through how it develops Ariel and Eric’s romance in ways that the original never did. Hauer-King’s chemistry with Bailey is palpable and their scenes together are akin to a sweet but not too sugary romantic-comedy and almost had me giggling and kicking my feet.
Of course, there is a magic to Disney’s animated classics that is impossible to replicate through CGI talking fish. But there are more important and significant kinds of magic that will be created by Rob Marshall’s 2023 adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
As the first Black live-action Disney princess, Halle Bailey’s Ariel will allow for more young Black girls to grow up seeing themselves represented on screen – Bailey’s locks, for example, are “incorporated into Ariel’s look” to honour her Black heritage – and I cannot wait for a new generation of curious, kind and headstrong girls to fall in love with Bailey’s enchanting portrayal of Ariel.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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