The Little Mermaid was probably my favourite of the classic Disney canon growing up. I loved all the songs, could relate to Ariel in so many ways, and I had a crush on Prince Eric. These Disney animated classics are special to so many of us, which is why there’s such skepticism over these live action remakes. So where does The Little Mermaid stand in all of this? Well, it isn’t an exact copy of the animated version, and while some changes are appreciated, others were a little head-scratching.
In this version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) never been above the sea. Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), has strictly forbidden any of his daughters from going to the surface because of what happened to their mother all those years ago. But Ariel’s always harboured a curiosity for the above world, seen in how she collects trinkets from shipwrecks. Director Rob Marshall keeps most of the first half under the sea, besides a brief moment to introduce Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and all his swashbuckling ways. This choice is to clearly make Ariel’s emergence to the surface more significant, and while I don’t hate it, this also makes the first half a bit of a drag to get through.
Despite the ardent efforts of all those involved, the under the sea moments feel dull and washed out. Even the jaunty number ‘Under the Sea’ just doesn’t really pop as hard as the original. Also, the segue into musical numbers aren’t naturally conceived, mainly because the preceding action just doesn’t give enough reason as to why this character is suddenly bursting into song. It feels like the musical numbers are merely there because they were there in the original, with no thought going into their placement. Every single time a character starts to sing, we as the audience must understand why, which is why the musical numbers feel a bit abrupt here. Bailey’s voice is tremendous, though. ‘Part of Your World’ is one of the only numbers to give me sheer goosebumps because of how good she sounded. I can understand why Marshall said no one they saw “surpassed the bar” after Bailey’s audition.
I’m sorry to say, however, that Bardem is miscast as Triton. He doesn’t convey the awe and magnificence that’s necessary for a character who’s a literal sea god. In the original, the relationship between Triton and Ariel is clear as day, and we can see the pain he feels in doing what he feels he must, even though he knows his actions will hurt his daughter. The lack of connection between Ariel and Triton really hurts this version, since so much of the narrative flows around the father-daughter relationship.
Things improve significantly when we move out of the water and onto land. The film does develop the romantic spaces here a bit more compared to the original, which is a welcome change. There’s more common ground forged between Ariel and Eric, both avid explorers curious about the world. Eric even has a trinket room, just like Ariel does. They both feel like outsiders in their own family, and clash with parental figures over these differences. Bailey and Hauer-King have wonderful chemistry together, and are the main reason why The Little Mermaid becomes watchable. Their romantic day out together, culminating in the ‘Kiss the Girl’ musical sequence, is the best part of the movie.
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula is also one of the strongest parts of the movie. She conveys the humour and menace so necessary to the character, and I really enjoyed every single moment of her screentime. The only problem here is the scenes with her are much darker, since she has been banished to the darkest part of the sea, and so sometimes it’s hard to really see her facial expressions. It reduces the role to something that relies on her fantastic voice acting, as opposed to giving us the whole picture. ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is probably the only sequence where we get to see her full acting range, and it’s a shame the film didn’t give us more of those moments.
The climax is where the movie really lets itself down. Everything is so dim, and the CGI on Ursula looks horrendous. The choice made to switch up what happens at the climax is frankly unnecessary and undermines the romantic spaces set up before. In the original, Ariel saves Eric after the storm, and he saves her from Ursula – they save each other. Also, the fact that Eric risks his life for a mermaid is significant, and proves that not all the people above are savages.
The Little Mermaid ends up being a rather mixed effort. Bailey and Hauer-King are stars though, and I hope someone casts them as leads in a rom-com soon.
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Are things better under the sea? Not in this live-action remake. There are some great performances though, from Bailey, Hauer-King and McCarthy, which kept things enjoyable.
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