The original version of The Little Mermaid is widely regarded as the film that kicked off Disney’s animated renaissance. Back in 1989, the studio wasn’t the box office juggernaut it is today, with lucrative franchises in its grasp like Infinity Stones, so you can imagine how now, 34 years later, expectations are through the roof for the latest in a long line of mixed reviewed, but fairly reliable box office performers drawing from the creative well of that period. And charitably, one could attribute some of the negativity around this updated original to fans who cling to nostalgia amidst the tempest that is modern media criticism. It’s hard to say whether diehard fans of the original will give the 2023 version of The Little Mermaid a fair shake, but viewed through the lens of today, it’s a delightful, all-ages romp with heart, humor, and a hopeful message about seeing past our differences and forging peaceful understanding.
Off top, Halle Bailey‘s Princess Ariel brings vocal ability to the role that’s undeniable, and in her acting performance, she captures the innocence and eye for mischief that the story needs to propel its plot forward. The longing in her rendition of “Part Of Your World” helps to economically convey not only her curiosity about the surface world but the notion that her destiny lies beyond the shoreline. And when (spoiler alert) Ms. Bailey has to deliver a voiceless performance, her physical and facial acting ensures that we remain in touch with her POV.
But with Jonah Hauer-King‘s Prince Eric, however, the story forces the audience to have to work a bit harder to get to his center. Yes, we’re introduced to an almost textbook romantic lead, with an appetite for danger and a heroic heart (and of course he has an adorable pet upper!). And yes, his love for the spoils of the underwater world mirrors Ariel’s love for the surface, and he too feels restricted by responsibility. But were it not for the chemistry between the two leads that crackles whenever they’re paired, a viewer might find him a little too flimsy to be a compelling partner for our Ariel. But sometimes, part of being a heartthrob is being enough of a cipher that desirable qualities can be projected upon you…and smiling nice. So 10/10 in that respect.
Ursula the Sea Witch is one of the more iconic Disney villains, and I’d imagine that for most fans, how they feel about her will sink or sail this film for them. Melissa McCarthy chews the seaweeded scenery here, and while it certainly felt like there were additional levels of menace yet to reach, she made for an entertaining antagonist who made her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” her own, in one of the film’s standout musical numbers.
Speaking of standout musical numbers, the scene-stealers in this film were Daveed Diggs‘ Sebastian the Crab and Awkwafina‘s Scuttle the Seagull. The Grammy-winning “Under The Sea” is the original’s signature song, and Daveed puts his all into delivering a version that is worthy of comparison to Samuel E. Wright‘s classic. Awkwafina, on the other hand, performs a Lin-Manuel Miranda original that is an absolute bop. And comedically, the chemistry and banter between the two characters were great. As comic relief sidekicks go, the two were top-tier. Sign me up for a spinoff!
Alongside the winning soundtrack, the visuals of the film were also a highlight, one that unfortunately the trailers didn’t do justice. While certainly there are dark and murky moments in the early going, they’re meant to create a sense of mystery and danger that contrasts with the vibrance and wonder of the undersea. But once we’re on dry land in earnest, the bright Caribbean setting and the variety of flavors in director Rob Marshall‘s visual palette allow us to enjoy the excursion alongside Ariel and experience a different kind of wonder. And that all culminates in another amazing musical sequence, “Kiss The Girl,” where water and land life alike try to bring our leads together in romance.
Overall, everything works. King Triton, played admirably by Javier Bardem, strikes the right notes of distrustful dad who lays down the law a little too forcefully, and Norma Dumezweni‘s Queen Selina is appropriately regal, but frustrated by her son’s childish love of trifles, yet supportive of his search for true romantic love. And as the rising action puts the two figures into conflict, their respective sympathetic performances keep us buoyed long enough for a satisfying resolution.
Obviously, like many Disney movies, the ending might be a bit too tidy and the victories might feel a tad unearned. However, as family-friendly films go, that can be forgiven when it’s a fun time in the cinema that makes you smile and laugh throughout and leaves you feeling good at the end. It’s best not to compare it beat by beat to the original, and to appreciate it as a film that puts its own spin on a familiar story. On that level, it works as one of the Disney live-action retellings you can love alongside its animated counterpart.