Review | The Little Mermaid | 2023

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In 1989, Disney's original The Little Mermaid ushered in what is widely considered to be one of the the studio's most creatively rich periods, known unofficially as the Disney Renaissance, lasting throughout the 1990s and ending with Tarzan in 1999.

Disney's new, live action Little Mermaid, comes in the midst of a much different time for the studio, one less defined by a creative renaissance and more on mining its classic animated films and repackaging them as live action films aimed at a new generation, often with new songs and inflated runtimes. This trend has yielded a few gems (Cinderella, Pete's Dragon), but it's mostly yielded bloated, joyless bores like The Lion King and Aladdin, whose attempts at photorealism zap the stories of their original magic. 

The Little Mermaid lies somewhere in the middle of this new crop of films - not as fresh and colorful as Cinderella but not as wholly redundant as The Lion King, but its success lies almost solely on the back of its star - newcomer Halle Bailey, whose performance as Ariel is truly the stuff star turns are made of. Her casting has caused some controversy amongst braindead racists due to the color of her skin, but grown adults who are upset that a fictional mermaid is black instead of white aren't the kind of people who should be taken seriously and the less said about them the better.

The film around Bailey, however, leaves much to be desired. The new songs are nothing to write home about: Prince Eric's "Wild Uncharted Waters" is meant to be Eric's version of an "I Want" song, much like "Part of Your World" is for Ariel, but lacks the oomph of the original Menken/Ashman tunes, while Lin Manuel Miranda's "The Scuttlebutt" is perhaps one of the most heinous songs Disney has ever produced. This Little Mermaid is also criminally under-lit, its underwater and nighttime sequences lack color and vibrancy; faces are often lost in the shadows and the overall look of the film lacks personality and cohesion. Coming so soon after the spectacular Avatar: The Way of Water, the dullness of The Little Mermaid's underwater sequences stick out like a sore thumb.

Yet nothing highlights the creative bankruptcy of Disney's dedication to animal photorealism in their live action remakes as "Under the Sea." The Oscar-winning centerpiece of the animated film, "Under the Sea" actively describes fish playing instruments, yet here they just sort of float there while Ariel swims amongst them, the song's lyrics falling flat as nothing it is describing is happening on screen. There's just no joy in seeing realistic looking fish acting like actual fish. Like The Lion King's expressionless lions, the sea creatures of The Little Mermaid are as lifeless as its color palate.

To its credit, the film expands Prince Eric's role in order to deepen his connection with Ariel, casting both of them as misfits who don't fit into their respective worlds who find adventure in each other. This makes Ariel's choice to give up her fins to be with the man she loves feel less problematic, allowing both of them to give up something to forge a new path together. It's just a shame that the film itself feels so cheap. Bailey is so luminous that it's easy to overlook just how bland everything else around her is. This will doubtlessly mean a lot to a lot of little girls and I'm glad they get to see Bailey in this role because she is a star in the making. But by the time we reach the climax and Melissa McCarthy's Ursula becomes a giant CGI monstrosity hidden in darkness to mask the subpar special effects, one begins to wonder what, exactly all this money is being spent on to look so cheap. Bailey, and audiences, deserve better than this.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE LITTLE MERMAID | Directed by Rob Marshall | Stars Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy | Rated PG for action/peril and some scary images | Now playing in theaters nationwide


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