I know, I know, yet another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic. These films can easily seem like nostalgic cash grabs. And to a large degree, they are. That doesn’t mean they can’t be good, though. After all, the animated versions were classic for a reason. The Little Mermaid captures the magic of the animated film in many ways and introduces the world to a new star in the making.
Any reader of fairy tales likely knows that Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid” does not have a traditional happy ending. Andersen focused more on his heroine’s desire for a human soul than her desire for the prince she saves. They do not end up together. Of course, Disney was not going to produce an ending like that. The 1989 film fit into the studio’s trademark happy resolutions. But it did more than that. Disney already had a long history of feature-length animation art but the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid kickstarted a renewal of the brand that would last for years. The live-action versions of Disney’s output have varied widely in quality but this one had strong advantages from the start.
The music and story of The Little Mermaid are as captivating as they always were in this new film, with the added enjoyment of a talented cast, including appealing new performers to discover.
“Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?”
Ariel, the youngest daughter of the ruler of the seas, King Triton (Javier Bardem), is played by newcomer Halle Bailey. She is still fascinated by the human world, still saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck, and still makes a deal with sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human. Bailey also makes her adorable. And, more importantly, the girl can SING.
The music of the animated film, created by the sublime pairing of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, was a significant reason for its quality. Director Rob Marshall took an “If it works, keep it” approach, so the songs are tweaked but still quite familiar. When you hear Bailey’s voice soar during “Part of Your World,” the goosebumps are real.
Though Ashman sadly passed away in 1991, Menken returns to score this film. He’s joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda to create a couple of new songs. Daveed Diggs as the voice of Sebastian and Awkwafina as the voice of Scuttle rap on “The Scuttlebutt” and it’s fun. But the real treat comes with “Wild Uncharted Waters,” the new song for Prince Eric. It’s a strong moment for fleshing out his character.
“In my mind, your melody goes on.”
Speaking of which, most live-action Disney remakes have wisely made an effort to add interactions between the lead couple. Modern sensibilities need more than the old fairy tales usually offer, and this film is no different. We get to see that Eric is just as interested in the world under the sea as Ariel is in life on land, for example. Bailey and Hauer-King have a sweet chemistry.
I remember negative reactions to the way the underwater visuals looked in the trailers for this film, and the finished product is hit and miss in this area. Some shots are murky, particularly during the final CGI fight with Ursula. But some of the others, such as during “Under the Sea,” are bright and delightful. Marshall also creates a lot of shots that are similar to the animated film, which I mostly like.
However, he also crafts a completely new shot here and there that stands out, like the striking composition as Ariel pulls Eric from the shipwreck through the high waves. Because of things like that, music that still holds up after so many years, and the presence of new star Bailey, The Little Mermaid is one of the better live-action Disney remakes. I was 8 years old when the animated film was released and this version gave me the same joy to watch.
The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.