‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: The Otherwise Controversial Live-Action Remake Gets a Mostly Better-than-Expected Boost from a Stellar Cast

the little mermaid review

Disney’s live-action remake of ‘The Little Mermaid’ has been plagued with controversy ever since singer Halle Bailey of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle was cast as Ariel. The problem? Many fans were unhappy with the studio casting a Black actress playing the titular character, originally depicted as a fair-skinned mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale classic and, of course, the beloved 1989 Disney animation of the same name.

Frankly, it’s easy to see why the controversy happened since the animated version is so iconic that it has become an integral part of most childhood memories for those who grew up watching it in the first place. Even I had a tough time accepting the fact the live-action remake features the titular mermaid, which isn’t what I expected at all.

It doesn’t help either when the trailers look strangely dark and murky, and the same can be said with all the promotional posters – a result that has been constantly ridiculed on social media. Not to mention having seen the extended sneak peek of ‘The Little Mermaid’ attached to the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ screening earlier this month lasted around 20 minutes or so, gave me a mixed feelings.

And by the time I finally got to watch the movie in its entirety, I kept my expectation low and with an open mind too to avoid being biased or overly attached to the animated version. Given the controversial casting of Halle Bailey, I figure the live-action remake would be more progressive in terms of its storytelling, but director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee chose to play it safe for most parts of the movie.

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The story is pretty much the same as the animated version except for a few tweaks here and there: Ariel (Bailey) is a mermaid who is always curious about the human world above the ground. But her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids her and even other mermaids to visit the human world under any circumstances.

However, Ariel remains persistent, and the first time she subsequently swims to the surface resulting in her falling for the handsome Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from the moment she sees him on a ship. Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), a sea witch with an octopus-like body, sees this as her golden opportunity to lure Ariel into making a deal she can’t refuse.

And that is, granting her human legs so Ariel can meet the man of her dreams. But there’s a catch: Ariel must literally give up her voice, and she has only three days to get her true love’s kiss from Prince Eric so she can become human permanently. But if she fails, she will return to her original form as a mermaid and belong to Ursula for eternity.

I have to admit it takes some time to get used to seeing a non-white actress playing Ariel. But Halle Bailey proves she has what it takes to make the role uniquely her own. Not only she impresses with her amazing vocal range whenever she sings, particularly ‘Part of Your World’ earlier in the movie, but she also exudes enough likable charm to her character. Even when the movie’s second half sees her acting largely mute due to the subsequent loss of her voice, Bailey still manages to convey her varied expressions effectively.

She also shared wonderful chemistry with Jonah Hauer-King while her interactions with her CGI co-stars, notably Sebastian the Crab and Scuttle the northern gannet (both of which are respectively voiced by Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina) bring in a few delightful and hilarious moments (the scene where these two anthropomorphic animals working together to make sure Ariel and Prince Eric shared the crucial kiss comes to mind).

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As for the rest of the cast, Jacob Tremblay is a spot-on voice actor as the anxiety-prone Flounder, except for the movie’s questionable decision to render the CGI tropical-fish character starkly realistic to the point it looks curiously dull and haggard.

The otherwise inspired casting of Javier Bardem as the strict and conservative King Triton is disappointingly underutilized while Melissa McCarthy steals the show as the evil Ursula and clearly has a field day playing the movie’s main antagonist with gleeful abandon. She even looks the part that is identical to the animated counterpart seen in the 1989 version.

‘The Little Mermaid’ runs almost an hour longer than the economically-paced 1989 animation as the live-action remake spends more time on the human world exploring the plight and relationship between Ariel and Prince Eric. Their love story may have been charming, but it tends to linger so long that it would benefit from a tighter pace.

It’s nice to hear the recurring songs from the soaring ‘Part of Your World’ to the joyously catchy ‘Under the Sea’ on the big screen again. Lin-Manuel Miranda and original composer Alan Menken are also responsible for writing a few new songs but frankly, there’s only one that stuck in my head the most – the unexpected but infectiously fun rap song of ‘The Scuttlebutt’ performed by Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs.

The live-action remake reportedly cost around $200 million. Despite Marshall being granted a huge budget, the CGI is rather inconsistent with some of the underwater scenes between the characters, and the aquatic background look disjointed. Besides, in an era where James Cameron did such a tremendous job breaking the boundaries of how a realistic underwater sequence should look by combining a seamless blend of practical and CGI shots, as seen in last year’s ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ the special effects in ‘The Little Mermaid’ is undoubtedly a step-down effort by comparison.

Still, Marshall deserves credit for showcasing his flair for vibrant moments (the colorful ‘Under the Sea’ montage is one of them) and does a better-than-expected job in staging some of the movie’s thrilling set pieces elevated by Alan Menken’s riveting score.

Well, the good news is, the live-action remake of ‘The Little Mermaid’ didn’t turn out as bad as I thought it would be, even though it was no match for the still-undisputed 1989 animated classic. It was also thankfully a mile better than the awfully bland ‘Peter Pan & Wendy’ released on Disney+ last month.

SCORE: 6.5/10