Little Mermaid, The (United States, 2023)

May 23, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Little Mermaid, The Poster

With the arrival of Rob Marshall’s live-action The Little Mermaid, Disney has now successfully converted all four of their major late ‘80s/early ‘90s animated musicals into updated iterations. Of the quartet (which also includes Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King), this is the best example of doing a “remake” rather than a “regurgitation.” The Little Mermaid, with a running length that exceeds that of its predecessor by 52 minutes, explores areas not touched on by the animated version. Although there is some bloat, the narrative has mostly been expanded in ways that justify the existence of the remake – something patently untrue of the other three major films. Although money was undoubtedly the primary driver for remaking The Little Mermaid, at least on this occasion the filmmakers have proven able to engage in something more than nostalgia-mining.

Singer Halle Bailey proves to be an inspired choice for Ariel. Although Jodi Benson will forever be identified as the mermaid (due to her providing the voice in the 1989 film and also in several direct-to-video spin-offs and a TV series), Bailey more than holds her own in defining the character for a new generation. Her voice is expectedly strong and she proves to be a capable actor. Ariel’s signature song (“Part of Your World”) is a show-stopper. Bailey is also gifted with a new song (composed by Alan Menken with Lin-Manuel Miranda providing lyrics), “For the First Time,” which gives her a second opportunity to highlight her vocal talents.

For the most part, the secondary performers are well-chosen for their roles, be their contributions in-person acting or voicework. The standouts are Daveed Diggs, whose Sebastian is every bit as flamboyant and rambunctious as the one essayed 34 years ago by the late Samuel E. Wright. His “Under the Sea” is this movie’s “Be Our Guest.” Then there’s Melissa McCarthy, who was born to play Ursula. Watching her scheme, primp, undulate, and ooze evil, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. Her iteration of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” may be superior to the one delivered by the late Pat Carroll.

The basic storyline tracks that of the 1989 musical (and deviates from the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen), introducing the plucky heroine (who was 16 in the animated film but may be slightly older here) and her faithful friends, the fish Flounder (voice of Jacob Trembly) and the seagull Scuttle (voice of Awkwafina). Ariel has a fascination with humans and, in violation of an edict set forth by her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), she ventures to the surface to save the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) when his ship is wrecked. As a result of her actions, Ariel incurs the wrath of her father who provides her with a minder, the crab Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs), to keep her from doing anything rash. Sebastian fails; Ariel seeks out the help of the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who offers a bargain: in exchange for Ariel’s voice, she will grant the mermaid a three-day period as a human. At the end of that time, if she has not obtained a kiss of true love from Prince Eric, she will become Ursula’s property to do with as the sea witch sees fit. Thus it is that Ariel, mute and with legs, enters the human world.

One of the most obvious improvements to this The Little Mermaid is to flesh out Eric’s character. In the animated film, Eric was a plot device. Here, he’s given a backstory and a layer of substance. His relationship with Ariel is permitted the opportunity to develop. Those familiar with the earlier movie may note the complete removal of the comedic subplot involving the overeager chef Louis (including one song, “Les Poissons”). This is a good decision – what may have worked in a cartoon would have seemed forced and out-of-place in these more “realistic” circumstances.

There are some areas where The Little Mermaid stumbles. The action sequences were never a strong suit of the original production but at least they were short and allowed the animators to show their wares. Here, they take up too much time and the CGI lacks artistry. They are unexciting and obligatory. Then there’s the need to hammer home the central theme of inclusivity and tolerance with sledgehammer subtlety. Those ideas were evident in the 1989 movie but the screenplay didn’t repeatedly mention them. Finally, in keeping with this film’s more adult tone (at least compared to that of the 1989 version), the violence is surprisingly explicit. Granted, there’s no blood or gore but at least two sequences (especially the one in which Ursula’s fate is depicted) may shock sensitive preschoolers.

The two songs skipped over from the animated movie (“Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons”) aren’t missed. The three new ones are a mixed bag; this isn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda in top form. (Judging by his work in two other Disney collaborations, Moana and Encanto, I expected better.) “Wild Uncharted Waters,” sung by Eric, has a bland, generic sound – no one will be humming this one on the way home from theaters. Ariel’s “For the First Time” is quite good – a solid addition to the soundtrack and the likely Oscar nominee. (One reason to have new songs in a remake is because the classic tunes can’t be re-nominated.) Then there’s “The Scuttlebut” (a rap featuring Sebastian and Scuttle) that could charitably be called forgettable. It’s awkward and feels like a proverbial square peg in a round hole.

To the extent that the music of The Little Mermaid has generated controversy, it’s because of changes to the lyrics of “Poor Unfortunate Soul” and “Kiss the Girl.” Although the stated reasoning for changing the words is dubious, the actual changes are fine. Miranda makes sure the new material fuses well with Howard Ashman’s classic lyrics and it’s doubtful anyone without a political agenda will notice (or care).  

2023’s The Little Mermaid in no way replaces 1989’s edition, nor is it likely to go down in history as the “preferred” version. For a story like this, there’s something about a purely animated approach that can’t be replicated in a live-action repetition. Nevertheless, as an alternate telling with a more mature point-of-view and a greater focus on narrative over music, Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid leaves its mark and Halle Bailey’s Ariel can stand alongside Jodi Benson’s.

Little Mermaid, The (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2023-05-26
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1