There is a school of thought, clearly the one taken by the leaders of the Disney corporation, that any IP they own is ripe for an update whether it’s Cruella DeVille, the Fantastic Four, or Han Solo. Then there are those who believe classic movies like THE LITTLE MERMAID should not be meddled with, and yet the cartoon musical has already been adapted for numerous VOD sequels, not to mention a Broadway show. (I saw it – – fair to middling.) Thus, purists in the second camp will never approve of what director Rob Marshall, et al. have done with their new version opening this holiday weekend any more than those other versions, but there is much to admire in this new adaptation.
The new ‘Mermaid’ has strong leads, sumptuous underwater CGI visuals, and professionalism, particularly in the song and dance numbers, that has been missing from some of Disney’s animated-to-live adaptations. (Ahem, DUMBO.) Plus, this update doesn’t interfere too much with everything beloved from the original. Take it from a guy whose all-time favorite Disney movie is the 1989 classic – – this one is good, although a long way from usurping the landmark.
For those unfamiliar with the basics of the story, Ariel is a young mermaid in the mid-1800s who is curious about the world beyond the sea, but her father King Triton loathes mankind since they pollute the waters. When Ariel ends up saving a handsome prince named Eric after he’s thrown overboard from his ship, she falls in love with him and wants to join his world. But in order to do so, she must conspire with Ursula the sea witch who can cast spells to turn merfolk into humans.
That’s the crux of the story, and in order to care about Ariel, we have to be wholly invested in her innocence and naïve fantasy of happiness. Thankfully, Marshall has cast Halle Bailey here, and she’s easily the best part of the film. Bailey brings the requisite purity to the character, not to mention she sings like an angel. She’s also very good at light comedy and even generates an innate sex appeal that sparkles well beyond the luminescence of the costumed tail. Her big number, the iconic “Part of Your World” is the first big song out of the gate in this adaptation and Bailey soars with it. Granted, Bailey can’t possibly duplicate the cartoon Ariel’s larger-than-life expressions and giant, soulful eyes but then, who could? Such are the trade-offs in adapting cartoon characters to live action.
Additionally, one of the downsides of adapting a cartoon is that lifelike animals or fish can’t hold the anthropomorphic qualities given to them in cel form. Thus, the fish Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) look real here and lose considerable charm and character. Scuttle the Seagull comes off best because a bird’s beak can animate to talk on camera better, not to mention that actress Awkwafina gives an excellent vocal performance throughout.
Marshall is also handicapped by not being able to show realistic fish playing instruments in “Under the Sea,” the legendary musical number, as they were presented in the original 1989 film. He’s clever enough though to figure out what choreography the creatures can do and manages to make an energetic number that still rouses even with the severe limitations. The gorgeous cinematography by Dion Beebe and crisp editing by Wyatt Smith helps immeasurably. It’s a different take in many ways but given the same fun and affection as in the original number. Here, Bailey’s Ariel sings along with Sebastian and that gives it some fun, new flavor too.
Where Marshall succeeds best is in directing his human cast. In addition to the charmed performance from Bailey, the filmmaker gets excellent work out of Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric as well. The two have good chemistry together and wisely this new film gives Eric a much-needed solo number. Javier Bardem brings quiet authority to the part of Triton, even though he looks a tad silly in his long, white hair and beard. The major domo Grimsby has been turned into a prime minister here, and it’s a great improvement. Art Malik plays the character with wry wisdom and diverse casting helps the rest of the casting throughout to get over some of the unsavory colonialism aspects present in the cartoon. Additionally, Noma Dumezweni adds gravitas in a new part as the queen of Eric’s homeland, a Caribbean Island where he was adopted. Revisionism, sure? But then again Disney’s take on the original Hans Christian Anderson source material was worlds away too.
Melissa McCarthy is equally funny and menacing as Ursula but could have afforded to cut loose a little more. She sticks close to the script and character conceit and sings pretty well too, but the comic actress doesn’t quite turn “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” into the showstopper it should be. I’m not sure anyone could compete with what the animators and voice actress Pat Carroll did with the character in the original; easily one of Disney’s best villains ever. Still, I give McCarthy an A for effort.
It’s hard to watch the film without making such comparisons and mental checklists the entire time. But for new audiences unfamiliar with the classic cartoon, I think this will dazzle them. Indeed, this production may be the best adaptation of its kind since Kenneth Branagh took on the live-action version of Disney’s animated CINDERELLA classic back in 2015. Here, Marshall, screenwriter David Magee, and company, all show the utmost reverence for Ron Clements and John Musker’s original film while giving certain parts that require it their own spin. Lin-Manuel Miranda even wrote new lyrics for three new songs by original composer Alan Menken. While none of them match original lyricist Howard Ashman’s wit or heart, the new songs do move the story along and further the characters’ motives and arcs. (But why was the “Les Poissons” number scrubbed from this production? I really missed it.)
So, if you can get past the fact that they’ve remade the beloved cartoon classic and view this new take on THE LITTLE MERMAID with clear-eyed objectivity, I believe you’ll see its many charms. This is a beautiful and buoyant interpretation. And in Bailey, a major discovery brings oodles of heart and star-making talent to every frame.