To make a fairytale work, the biggest element required is believability. Readers have to believe that the world they’re reading about is possible and the characters within it create a sense of connection, and in Rob Marshall’s directed Disney’s first live-action film adaptation of The Little Mermaid, believing in singer-turned-actress Halle Bailey’s Ariel is the easiest imaginable.
In 1989 Disney, then known as Walt Disney Feature Animation released The Little Mermaid, a cartoon full of vivid colors, stunning animation styles, and entertaining characters. This animated film was a new iteration of a tale about a young princess whose longing to be more than she was expected to be and to explore a world she could only see from afar, was enthralling. Though the story by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson was more than 200 years old at the time, it was a classic story that young girls and women the world over could relate to, and it’s still so today in 2023.
Being set in the 1800s means seafaring is an essential element to the tale because it’s on his rigged ship that Ariel sees Eric, the man of her dreams for the very first time. With the sea roiling beneath its hull, and his shipmates singing boisterously to celebrate his birthday, Eric dances, and laughs, showing him to be a young man full of life, vigor, and charm, and with the handsome debonair looks of actor Jonah Hauer-King exhibiting all of these fine traits, it’s completely understandable why Ariel becomes starry eyed.
This opening sequence is the most intense of any of the more recent Disney live-action films, which as mentioned at the beginning, immediately lends to the believability of the story. Setting the tone for the whole film.
Below the surface, is the kingdom of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the taciturn ruler of the Seven Seas, and his seven daughters representing the dominant races of those mainland continents and countries. I won’t lie, I laughed because seeing them all together was like looking at a meeting of the United Nations. In the depths of the ocean for some reason is more brightly coloured than the world above Ariel has her tavern of hidden treasures, where she sings about wanting to be a part of a world she knows nothing about but is convinced it’s better than the one she lives in. On an aside; The Little Mermaid is a great analogy of people believing the grass is always greener on the other side, because she’s convinced herself that on land, girls don’t have to obey rules, are free from patriarchy, and everyone has equal access to the same things. Oh, my sweet summer child.
But I won’t dwell on this, because Bailey absolutely shines as Ariel. As a singer, there’s never been any disputing how extremely talented she is, but the music of the film is vastly different from what she’s sung previously as an R&B artist, and she never falters once. This role shows just how versatile she is as a singer and actress. She perfectly evokes the shy curiosity of a young woman discovering a new world and love for the first time, and the stubbornness of a daughter determined to prove to her father that exploring beyond his reach takes bravery. Perhaps more bravery than Triton himself doesn’t possess.
Bailey and Hauer-King have terrific chemistry which makes this film work completely. With an updated script by David Magee, audiences are treated to discovering a new depth to Eric. Rather than being a prince who only cares about living carefree without any responsibilities, this newer embodiment of Eric wants to sail around the world to learn about different countries and cultures to help his island home forward. Yes, you read that right. Eric’s Kingdom is an unnamed island in the Caribbean, with steelpan music and a seaside village inhabited by a multi-racial community to round out this idyllic view of what Island life was like during colonial times. A true fantasy.
Ruling this island is his Black adoptive mother Queen Selina played by Noma Dumezweni (The Watcher). With a fear of the ocean and its mysterious gods and mermaids, Queen Selina believes the best thing for her son is to stay away from the ocean, lest he is lost to the waves. This update of Ron Clements and John Musker’s 1989 screenplay is a pleasant surprise because it gives audiences a chance to learn more about Eric as a person, and not just the fantasy Ariel envisions him to be. Hauer-King’s interactions with Dumezweni and his valet Sir Grimsby (Art Malik) provide some of the best and most heartfelt scenes in the film.
Rounding out the cast is Daveed Diggs as Triton’s Major Domo and Ariel’s reluctant caretaker Sebastien. A crab with biting wit and the heart of a soft. Diggs doesn’t have the authentic Jamaican accent of Samuel E. Wright, which as a Caribbean person, was a personal affront to me for how bad it was, but Diggs’s spot-on comedic timing and line delivery makes it forgivable. Now, on the other hand, Awkwafina’s Scuttle was more irksome than amusing. Her very distinct way of speaking when playing animated characters completely throws off the scenes she’s in as she doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the cast, especially in the two sequences where she sings/raps.
Of course, you can’t talk about The Little Mermaid without talking about the supposed villain, Ursula, the witch of the sea. Though there are some new and necessary changes to the story in this film, nothing new was done for Ursula, as such Mellisa McCarthy is given nothing new to do, but she absolutely does the best with the material given. It was great to see her take on a more angsty role from those of her previous films, as such it would’ve been great to see her scenes with Triton extended because I believe she and Bardem would’ve added a great dynamic to the narrative.
Technically the writing, performances, music, costume design, and cinematography are all very strong. From a directing standpoint, Marshall does a terrific job, utilizing his years of experience directing on-screen musicals such as 2002’s Chicago, Into the Woods (2014), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018). With hundreds of British period films and shows to draw from which he surely drew inspiration, Marshall made this story which takes place mostly on and in the ocean, work. I mention British films because, as a narrative, Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is a European period story, set in the mid-1800s – something that’s never changed in its many retellings…until now, a decision with which this writer takes issue with personally. But this isn’t the review to go into detail on said issues. One other thing that doesn’t quite work, is the VFX used for the underwater sequences.
Underwater, marine life is extremely brightly colored, much more so than it would appear when found in such depths of the ocean in real life. In a cartoon seeing animals so vibrantly coloured isn’t unexpected, but it does throw the viewer off a bit with the live-action because the visual contrast to the above and below are so different. Not to mention there’s a slightly plastic quality to the skin of the mermaids. Their skin and facial features don’t have a realistic quality, and unlike Flounder’s (Jacob Tremblay) slightly uncanny appearance which you grow accustomed to as the film goes on, the look of the Mermaids, unfortunately, doesn’t improve. In fact, it becomes more noticeable after seeing Ariel’s skin on land under the sun, then back in the GCI world of the ocean. This one aspect isn’t enough to take away from the film though.
Overall Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is thoroughly enjoyable, owing much of this to Bailey’s irrepressible charm and crystal clear vocals, and her chemistry with all of her castmates. Just like Ariel and Eric setting sail to find what new adventures life has in store for them, I can wait to see what’s in store for their real-life counterparts.