The Little Mermaid (2023) Review: As The Walt Disney Company has, for the last decade, dedicated itself to pop culture’s reboot phenomenon by adapting many of its beloved animated classics into big-budget, live-action feature films, it has elicited a sharply mixed perception from both sides of the aisle. One claims they are merely money grabs profiting off grown millennials’ nostalgic ennui, and the other represents diehard Disney moviegoers of all ages who are prepared to absorb every last minute of what we hope is new life the studio is breathing into the tale.
That was certainly the case with their first ventures into the live-action classic avenue with “Cinderella” (2015) and “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), both beloved fairy tales that existed long before Disney put them on the map. The former is more so than the latter, as any number of Cinderella iterations can be found with one simple scroll of a streaming service. Thus, with tales as beloved and widely known as “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” there was surprisingly more material Disney managed to conjure, and they did it well. The latter also had a previously large Broadway success to build off, but the live-action result spoke for itself.
Then came “Aladdin” (2019), which, despite the genius casting of Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, was awash in its own issues of translation: Will Smith as the Genie and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar were a farce, and the film was unable to establish a clear boundary between comedy and romance. But despite varying critical receptions, every live-action Disney adaptation has been a large box office success, no doubt due to the aforementioned nostalgia-mongering. But that kind of production can only take a studio so far.
Right up until its world premiere, Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” had been badgered by racial controversies surrounding the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. But what should have been more controversial all along was not the skin color of the main protagonist but rather the choice to pair legendary composer Alan Menken with Lin-Manuel Miranda to write new music for this adaptation.
“The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” had been the cherished brainchildren of lyricist Howard Ashman, who is often credited with singlehandedly saving Walt Disney Animation Studios from bankruptcy in the late 1980s and launching the period known as the Disney Renaissance. He left work incomplete on “Aladdin” when he died young of AIDS in 1991, where English lyricist Tim Rice stepped in to finish the project with Menken.
Rice’s success with “Aladdin” led him to write lyrics for 1994’s “The Lion King,” and he has deemed the logical successor to Ashman when it came time for the soundtrack to both the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” So it begs the question: if Menken and Rice were the next best thing to Menken and Ashman, why didn’t they write and compose the live-action “Little Mermaid”?
The new music by Miranda is abysmal and completely out of touch with the original animated film’s vision, and I cringe to think of what Ashman would have thought of him adding a rap to the live-action film’s soundtrack (“The Scuttlebut”). But sadly, music isn’t the only thing that drowns “The Little Mermaid” in mistakes.
Halle Bailey was a nice choice for Ariel, and the racist comparisons to Jodi Benson’s voice role as a Caucasian version of the mermaid in the animated film are completely unfounded. The impact of casting a Black actress as a Disney princess also has monumentally important implications in Disney consumer culture, allowing young girls from marginalized communities to see themselves onscreen. But aside from a few minor film appearances and a starring role on a television sitcom, Bailey hasn’t had that much acting experience, and it takes her a minute to find her footing as Ariel. She gets there by the end of the film, even though her voice is nowhere as distinct and remarkable as Benson’s.
Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric is decent but forgettable, lacking the same sort of screen presence as Bailey this early in his career to creating a union as well founded as Eric and Ariel. Javier Bardem delivers a strikingly boring portrayal of King Triton, his mind always seeming to be elsewhere, even when he’s giving his life for that of his disobedient daughter.
Daveed Diggs’ cartoonish Jamaican accent begs the question of why couldn’t an actual Jamaican have played Sebastian instead of letting Miranda employ his “Hamilton” family. But the film’s biggest casting blunder, most unfortunately, comes in the form of Melissa McCarthy as Ursula the Sea Witch. It’s nothing against McCarthy’s well-established skill and comedic timing. Still, her portrayal comes across as a character in an unfunny “Saturday Night Live” sketch gone wrong when she should have been the embodiment of one of Disney’s most bone-chilling villains.
Poor casting choices only make the film’s attempts at revitalizing certain plot elements all the more lackluster. For instance, from the moment the film opens on Eric’s crew of shipmen trying to harpoon a mermaid in the water below, we’re given to understand there’s a long history of animosity and hatred between humans and mer-folk.
Later we learn that Ariel’s mother was killed by humans, which supposedly makes her love for their world that much bigger a betrayal, but it’s a twist dropped mid-dialogue that is never fully faced. Something else not quite reckoned with is that Ursula and Triton are estranged siblings feuding over the underwater empire. These revelations could have been unspoken facts in the animated film, but the live-action adaptation’s screenplay treats it like old news.
While Disney has already begun promoting “The Little Mermaid” as its most ambitious live-action remake yet, it hardly lives up to such hype, especially when the running time comes in at 45 minutes longer than the original when nothing really new has been added to the plot, unless you count Prince Eric’s new solo musical number, which is Miranda’s only good contribution to the soundtrack.
It then seems to pass that the studio would have rather spent millions on engineering visual effects of live-action performers underwater than on a suitable creative vision to honor the original film, a landmark in American animation history. Bailey has gone to bat for her version of Ariel, arguing that the film changes the notion that the mermaid leaves the ocean to chase a boy.
While this is easily marketable media fodder for feminist promotion, it ultimately does a disservice to both the original film and the remake. As Howard Ashman would have gladly told you, Ariel never wanted to leave the ocean for just a man. She wanted to be part of that world, by whatever means necessary, a perception shared by any number of outsiders and underdogs across generations. The live-action adaptation makes the promise of an updated telling of the tale led bravely by a Black actress in the title role but makes no actual effort to revise the narrative in a lasting or effective way.