The Little Mermaid (2023)
Updated: Jul 7
The newest Disney live-action remake is a safe, but charming adaptation
The recent Disney live-action remakes have been coy ways to sell the same product to viewers twice. The trend started with the winningly improved The Jungle Book (2016), but has subsequently begun to play it safer with each remake. The Lion King (2019) was almost blatantly a shot for shot copy and paste from the animated version. The latest of this trend of live-action remakes is of the animated feature that kicked off the second Golden Age of Disney back in 1989: The Little Mermaid (2023).
The Little Mermaid follows the tried-and-true tale of the adventurous mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey), who longs for the human world and falls in love with the human prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). However, her protective father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids her to interact with the “surface world,” as such Ariel makes a dangerous pact with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to turn human for three days.
Rob Marshall directs this remake, and the go-to musical director of the past two decades does not disappoint. Just as he was able to reinvigorate scenes in his Chicago (2002) or Into the Woods (2014), with The Little Mermaid he takes complex animated songs, such as the “Under the Sea” or the “Kiss the Girl” and retains much of the visual magic that made them captivating in the original. However, as with many of these other live-action remakes, much of the expressiveness and abstraction that can be found in animation is sacrificed for a blunter and blander realism. This occurred with The Lion King, where the realistic animals appeared inexpressive through the emotional climaxes of the narrative, equally in Beauty and the Beast (2017) where the “Be Our Guest” song had the impossible task of living up to its animated counterpart. Thanks to Marshall’s expert hand, however, most of the songs in The Little Mermaid retain their glamour and shine.
As with all these recent remakes, there are tweaks and revisions within The Little Mermaid both for artistic or tactful reasons. Ariel and Eric get engaged not married after meeting for only three days, Eric is giving more background and context, there are more scenes involving Eric and Ariel bonding, three new songs are added, composed by original scorer Alan Menken and new lyricist Lin Manuel Miranda. These new songs are all largely forgettable, save for a rap called “The Scuttlebutt.” Marshall knows that the original material is incredibly strong, and thus largely follows the same beats for the key elements of the narrative. This can prove a disappointment for those who wanted something new and daring along the likes of Maleficent (2014) or The Jungle Book, but to expect a big studio to take risks was foolhardy of me to think.
The casting of The Little Mermaid made waves on the internet for racist and disgusting reasons. The apparent complaint of some internet users was that Ariel being a brown-skinned girl was “inauthentic.” Even though this argument is invalid out of the fact that this is a fairytale and a fantasy where the inauthenticity starts at sea witches and mermaids, if one was to dive into the logic of these comments: is a pale red-headed girl in the Caribbean Sea more authentic than a brown-skinned one with dreadlocks? Putting aside this disgusting debate, the casting of The Little Mermaid works magnificently in all fronts. Halle Bailey is a true revelation, capturing the wonder, mischief, and charm of Ariel, and living up to the high bar that voice-actress Jodi Benson had set in the original. Elsewhere, Hauer-King is convincing as Eric, who benefits from an expanded role, and the riskier bets of Bardem as King Triton and McCarthy as Ursula pay off. Many fears surrounding these actors and their takes on these roles were that they would bring their flamboyant big style to them. But either from a personal acting choice or under Marshall’s directing, Bardem and McCarthy bring an effective restraint donning unexpected gravitas and charisma to their scenes.
In the end, The Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney live-action remakes. The film doesn’t seek to reinvent much, but it does adjust and revise where necessary. The blunting transition from animation to live-action is largely tempered by the inventive and creative hand of Marshall, and the electric performances from the entire cast, with Bailey at its center, is enough to make The Little Mermaid an enjoyable time at the movies.