Let’s make something clear: The Little Mermaid (1989) isn’t an untouchable odyssey of the sea. It’s a good Disney movie made during a really bright time for the House of the Mouse. What’s so good about it, as an addendum to the very darkly told Hans Christian Anderson story, is the whimsical, songful nature. Ariel’s songs enliven the text. The Sea Witch doesn’t cut out her tongue in that version or this one but they follow the broad overall beats of the story. This is that same rendition of the story with a few new songs and some backgrounding for a few of the characters to give them greater motivation and agency within the story.
We can finally disregard those bleak early trailers which foretold of a grim-dark Disney movie drained of color. The Little Mermaid does have darker segments when the movie calls for darkness. When it calls for lightness it pops with color and vitality. Perhaps the pieces come across as randomly designed, assorted by some computer long after any of the direction and acting has been done, but the colors exist, and they are prominent in the aesthetic. Unfortunately, it’s just not better down where it’s wetter, where there is an artificiality to the look of the sea: bubble artifacts and distracting floating hair do not do make us feel like anyone is underwater.
Halle Bailey is The Little Mermaid. Bailey is not going to become a star. She is a star. There are certain actors who command the presence of a big screen. She adequately does that. Then her voice commands the space of the entire theater, her sonorous tones adding new textures and meanings to the same old songs. If the original film is defined by its music, Bailey greatly improves the material, while contributing a few new songs. It’s all top-tier work and likewise, her performance as Ariel is so immediately charming and resonant. The world is hers. Put Halle Bailey in anything and everything.
The same instant success is not granted to Ariel’s ancillary companions. Flounder and Sebastian are drawn without much character at all. A plain fish and some old crab. Jacob Tremblay voices Flounder and that’s all there is to say about that. Daveed Diggs, meanwhile, has some fun as Sebastian and is granted a fun little rap piece, that is the most fun of the new songs. Not quite a sing-a-long type of beat but a good addition. I also like Awkwafina’s Scuttle, even more, eccentric than in the animation, and that design is fine. Any artful design inspiration is saved for Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula who gets magnificently magnified. She proves a stellar choice for the material and we have just as much fun as she is having, and she is having a lot of fun. Naturally, the section where Melissa McCarthy turns into a Kaiju is the highlight.
It’s been said director Rob Marshall is coasting off of the critical love for Chicago (2022). Sure, his Mary Poppins came and went, but came and went without incident when compared to an unforgettable classic. He’s done messy nautical work for Disney before. His Pirates of the Caribbean is the third most expensive movie ever made and you absolutely cannot tell. The director’s musical roots have perhaps revived the conversation about his career and how we see these movies. His Mermaid story feels like a musical, the parts between the songs feel like interludes to the songs themselves. The film is an hour longer than the original and does not feel painfully stretched out, a credit both to the direction and the editing here.
What’s new? Characters are given motivations and minor details about their backstories. Don’t worry about it overloading us with original story material. It doesn’t do that: Ursula is just really sad she’s always taken a backseat to her brother, King Triton. Fair. There is, most crucially, added time for Ariel’s arrival out of the sea. It gives her more situational dilemmas, and uses parts and pieces already existent in the original, to further her character’s context in the fish-out-of-water story. There are odd moments. When Ariel loses her voice, the movie still needs her to sing. It feels dissonant at first, until the scene builds it as the repressed voice inside her head, and she bursts out singing in a piece of musical soliloquy. The thing is that Halle Bailey gets a lot more to do silently than the cartoon does, and she is so good even when she is not singing, so we wish the film trusted its correct instincts and kept her voice from us, and let her dynamic performance made of really fine-tuned expressions speak for her.
Throughout the movie, my daughter squeezed my hand and looked up at me with the purest kind of joy. She loves The Little Mermaid and loves this The Little Mermaid even more. It’s moments like this where you find out how these movies for children and families matter. They matter like my daughter’s hand wrapped tightly around mine during scary moments, of which there are a good few. All I can do is squeeze her hand back and return her smile. I’m just proud to be a part of her world.