Let’s get this out of the way – as far as Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features go, The Little Mermaid is actually one of its better ones. Heck, I’d even say it’s one of the top three, behind The Jungle Book, and arguably tying with Maleficent for second in terms of entertainment value.
Now, admittedly, most of the remakes have not exactly set the bar very high in the first place. Some were watchable (The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast, Cinderella, Cruella, Alice In Wonderland), others were meaningless rehashes (Aladdin, Peter Pan And Wendy, Dumbo, Mulan, Pinocchio). Most of them, however, were pretty forgettable and pale in comparison with their animated predecessors.
The Little Mermaid, however, manages to swim in that tiny trench that lies between pointless and meaningful, giving us a film that is faithful enough to the original to satisfy the purists, and also adds a few modern updates that makes it worth a watch even if you have probably seen the original a hundred times.
Story-wise, it doesn’t stray far from the animated version – Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of Triton, King of The Ocean (Javier Bardem), who longs to be part of the surface world and meet humans, despite her father’s explicit instructions not to.
Seeking to dissuade her from venturing to the surface, Triton sends his loyal majordomo Sebastian the crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs) to spy on her and convince her that life under the sea is better.
However, after she rescues the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a sinking ship, and falls in love with him, she makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to trade her voice for a pair of legs so that she can go and be with him.
If you’re looking for something different from the movie, you won’t get it from the plot. Barring a few omissions and minor adjustments, the story stays true to the animation.
Even all the songs are still there (with the exception of the Daughters of Triton and La Poisson) – and yes, Bailey’s rendition of Part Of That World is well worth the wait.
Bailey not only hits every note and every emotion of that already iconic classic tune, she also breathes new life into it with her expressions and actions in a way the animated Ariel never could. If there was a scene that encapsulates what a true brilliant live-action adaptation of an animated classic should be, that would be it, and it is also thanks to a star-making performance by the actress herself.
While that song was undoubtedly the high point of the film, it is to director Rob Marshall’s credit that he doesn’t let that high peak define or bring down the rest of the film. The colourful Under The Sea sequence doesn’t disappoint, while the pivotal Kiss The Girl is stripped down to reflect a more romantic and less cartoony atmosphere.
There are three new songs added as well, with mixed results – unlike the animation, Ariel gets to sing another song, while Awkwafina’s motormouth The Scuttlebutt is entertaining though a bit abrupt. Unfortunately, an attempt to give Eric his own song results in the totally forgettable Wild Uncharted Waters being awkwardly and unnecessarily shoehorned into the story.
Wait, we’re missing one song. Ah yes, how could we forget those Poor Unfortunate Souls, a song delivered with all the dripping malice and sinister intent you’d expect by Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula.
While I was initially afraid that McCarthy would be too over the top and crass for the role, she absolutely nails it, dishing out a surprisingly restrained performance, while delivering with each line with impeccable comic timing.
This Ursula surely ranks as one of the top live-action versions of the Disney villains so far, and heck, if Maleficent and Cruella can get their own movies, based on this performance, McCarthy surely deserves one as well.
Much of what makes The Little Mermaid so watchable is thanks to Bailey and McCarthy, so much so that the movie swells like a tidal wave when they are on screen, and fall away like a receding tide when they are not.
Javier Bardem tries his best, but is just not regal enough to be Triton, while the CGI-versions of Sebastian and Flounder take A LOT of getting used to. Hauer-King is also passable as Eric, but the character himself is just too one-dimensional to shine, despite efforts to beef up his backstory a little.
As for the underwater scenes, there can sometimes be so much going on that it gets a little overwhelming. It's as if Marshall decided that even though he already had gadgets and gizmos aplenty, the movie still needed whoits and whatsits galore to make it better.
It also doesn't help that Avatar: The Way Of The Water had just set the benchmark for underwater scenes, making The Little Mermaid's feel a little dated as a result.
Still, the best thing I can say about this is that if you're a fan of the original animated feature, you will actually still quite enjoy this. It may still have that lingering sense of 'what's the point' that hangs over most of Disney's live-action remakes, but hey, at least it is much better than many of the ones that are already out there.
Live-action is much better under the sea