Back in 1989, the animated version of “The Little Mermaid” ushered in what came to be known as the “Disney Renaissance,” an era of creative and commercial prosperity where the company reclaimed its position as the king of animated family entertainment. Now in 2023, the company is looking to a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” to put it back on top of that mountain, minus the animation. Sure, the MCU is doing well, but the studio hasn’t really been connecting with younger audiences lately, at least not at the box office. The pandemic forced “Soul,” “Luca,” and “Turning Red” to go directly to streaming, “Raya and the Last Dragon” opened too soon after theaters reopened to be a blockbuster, “Encanto” didn’t perform as well as its legacy would suggest, and “Strange World” simply did not find an audience. The best performer since 2019 was last year’s critical flop “Lightyear” with $118 million domestic, a number “The Little Mermaid” is projected to nearly match or even beat by the end of the four-day Memorial Day weekend.
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The story, as before, is that mermaid princess Ariel (Halle Bailey) wants to leave underwater life behind and live on the surface with humans, especially the hunky Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids her from so much as visiting the surface, and enlists his crab servant Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on her. A falling-out between father and daughter sends Ariel right into the tentacles of opportunistic sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who offers Ariel a chance to be human for three days. If she can get a true-love’s kiss from Eric in that time without using her voice, she can stay human forever. If she fails, she becomes Ursula’s slave. She sets out on the adventure of a lifetime on land, aided by Sebastian and her friends, fish Flounder (Jacob Trembley) and stork Scuttle (Awkwafina). Can she get the kiss despite Ursula’s scheming?
The good news is that the musical numbers fans love are well-translated here with excellent vocals from Bailey and Diggs and some gorgeous choreography. I was mimicking bits of “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Kiss the Girl,” and Ariel’s non-lyrical siren song for days after I saw this movie, much to the annoyance of people around me. Also, the cinematography is beautiful with luscious blues and greens (sadly not red though, I miss Ariel’s vibrant red hair) and Bailey and Hauer-King have delightful chemistry as they fall in love.
The bad news is that the film goes for some additions that don’t work. The new songs range from well-meaning-but-unmemorable (Eric’s “Wild Uncharted Waters”) to downright painful (Scuttle’s “The Scuttlebutt,” which may mark the single lowest point in composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career). Eric is given a parallel storyline similar to Ariel’s, which does add some much-needed depth to his character, but also results in some eye-rolling redundancy. The CGI-heavy climax pales in comparison to the genuinely tense animated version. And I really hate to say it, because her singing and mute scenes are terrific, but Bailey is often wooden when speaking her lines.
It all balances out to a pretty good movie, perhaps the best of Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics. The kids at my screening loved it, though I may have just been hearing particularly high-pitched adults. The animated version is still superior, but this new “Little Mermaid” is a decent successor and a great way to introduce the iconic story and characters to a new generation.
“The Little Mermaid” is rated PG for action/peril and some scary images. Its running time is 135 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.