Movie review: Disney brings ‘The Little Mermaid’ to live action

I love Disney. The very first movie I saw in theaters was the animated Aladdin. My daughter and I regularly listen to (and dance along with) a Disney playlist on Spotify. I carry a Moana backpack/purse with me everywhere I go. And yes, I’m the type of person who gets misty-eyed when they walk into Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and catch my first sight of the castle. 

Needless to say, all that is probably why I’m a little more lenient of Disney’s recent trend of live action remakes than some other fans. Most of these beloved animated classics did not need a remake, but I gotta admit, I enjoy watching them anyway. As a millennial with a strong sense of Disney nostalgia (particularly for the Renaissance era), I’m pretty much the target audience these movies are being made for. 

My absolute favorite of these live action remakes is Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, which is such a sweet and thoroughly charming movie that I watch it at least once a year and fall in love with it all over again. Despite my initial skepticism, I also greatly enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, which is my No. 2. 

The brand-new live action remake The Little Mermaid falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. There are things I really liked about it, and I left the theater feeling better than when I walked in (Thursday was not a great day, and I needed a trip to the movies to lift my spirits). Yet there were definitely moments where I felt like that spark of Disney magic was missing. As with a number of these remakes, it’s hard to top the original. 

What I loved:

  • I was looking for the perfect word to describe Halle Bailey as Ariel, and I’m going to have to go with “luminous.” Bailey’s voice is simply incredible, and her powerful voice — filled with genuine emotion — is a perfect fit for these classic songs. She absolutely nails “Part of Your World” and I didn’t want the song to end. Hollywood, please get Bailey in some more big-budget movie musicals ASAP.
  • The love story between Ariel and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) was sweet and gets more fleshed out than the animated version. While I think there’s more nuance in the animated version than it sometimes gets credit for (I don’t think Ariel is just giving up her voice and changing herself to be with a man who wouldn’t love her otherwise), this movie gave their relationship more time to develop. Even though Ariel doesn’t have a voice for a chunk of this film, thanks to her bargain with the sea witch Ursula, this movie makes sure she still has agency. I bought Ariel and Eric as a relationship of equals, who bonded over their feelings of loneliness and their love for adventure.
  • I liked the live action handling of the song “Under the Sea,” which is probably my favorite tune from the animated original. I loved seeing all the colorful sea creatures dancing in the water. 

What was OK:

  • Melissa McCarthy as Ursula was fine, but I found myself wanting a little more. If you’re going to remake an animated classic with a relatively slim (at least by today’s standards!) runtime of 83 minutes, you might as well add some more background. I wanted more detail on Ursula’s beef with King Triton and just more Ursula scenes in general.
  • I didn’t mind the new songs (I actually quite liked “Wild Uncharted Waters”) but otherwise they didn’t really stand out in comparison to the originals. They felt a little like padding, although I was glad Halle got more chances to sing. 
  • I wasn’t sure how to feel about Awkwafina being cast as the voice of Scuttle, but (for the most part) it worked OK. Daveed Diggs also did a good job voicing the long-suffering crab Sebastian. 

What I didn’t like:

  • I feel like the special effects were somewhat uneven. Like some of the underwater animation is absolutely beautiful and lifelike, while at other times it looks washed out, dim, and murky. Say what you will about the Avatar franchise, but The Way of Water was visually breathtaking. 
  • Some of the creature designs really threw me. Like I never got fully comfortable with live action Sebastian or Flounder. Having a realistic talking sea creature was sometimes unsettling. I don’t know how else they could have done it (the more stylized versions that worked so well in animation probably wouldn’t have worked in live action). Yet sometimes, it was off-putting. 
  • As mentioned previously, the movie felt a little too reliant on the animated original, and some of the new stuff felt forced in. 

Bottom line? If you love Disney and overall enjoy the live action remakes, you’ll probably have a decent time watching this movie. If you’re not a fan of the live action remakes in general, this one might not be for you.

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