Review: As far as the collection of Disney live action remakes goes, The Little Mermaid is better than The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, and others. But it still has the same problems entrenched in it as the latter movies. There is still little reason for its existence beyond making a few dollars.
I don’t think I would be covering any new ground when I say that Disney live action remakes haven’t been warmly received in the past. From The Lion King having animals unable to emote feelings to Mulan cutting out all music from their production, it’s been a tough hill to climb for an interconnected set of films still struggling to justify their own existence beyond turning a significant amount of profit for their parent company. And thus it makes sense that Disney is continuing this branch of digging up old IP to repackage for theaters despite being a one-for-one remake with The Little Mermaid.
Now I can’t say I’ve been the biggest fan of Disney’s renaissance films in the past. I understand the cultural and emotional connection many people have to the 2D animated films coming from Disney in the late 1980s to early 90s, but I’ve mostly just been an admirer from afar. To put it painstakingly simple, I didn’t grow up with Disney Channel or Disney DVDs, so I’ve come into these films with an outsiders perspective and a growing cynical feeling about why these movies are being recreated under different technology in the first place.
And yes, I did the homework beforehand and watched the 1989 The Little Mermaid and found enough fun in it to be curious about the new one. It has a simply gorgeous animated style and a handful of songs capable of carrying a movie along. Flounder and Sebastian are side characters that suck you into the movie even when Ariel loses her voice in the second half.
It’s generally just one of the better movies Disney produced during that era (at least that I’ve seen) and it had me worried that the studio would screw up the remake going in. After all, their track record hasn’t been great as of recently and the snippets shown of the film beforehand didn’t exactly have me hopeful for where the story was going to go.
And to be perfectly honest, I had an equal sense of filmmaking competence for The Little Mermaid, while also feeling like the movie industry is doomed if these are the projects we’re going to get moving forward from one the major players in the Hollywood system. It is a carbon copy of the original, stretched out forty minutes longer and featuring some less-than-stellar character designs for our underwater friends.
I want to start slightly positive because my first reaction coming out of the film (and I hope the first reaction for many others) is that at least I feel like we found a star in Halle Bailey. Cast aside any doubt or frankly obnoxious buzz about her being Ariel that I don’t feel like relitigating right now – Bailey is doing it all in this role. The screen presence is all there, even when her voice is taken from her by Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) about an hour into the film. The vocal range is on display and there’s an infectious quality to the scenes that she is in. She’s really the star of the show and I was shocked how easily she took over and controlled the quality floor of the film.
The supporting cast is surprisingly great, from Daveed Diggs voicing Sebastian to Jacob Tremblay as Flounder to even Awkwafina as Scuttle – who I’ve felt in the past doesn’t have the best comedic timing and overdoes it at points, she sinks right into the role early and doesn’t lose it. Javier Bardem feels odd and mostly mails it in as King Triton. I’ll make a small note that I didn’t mention Jonah Hauer-King above as Prince Eric because it felt like he filled the shoes of that character without trying anything distinct or different – I guess mostly like Bardem.
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The visual style is much better than I was afraid of it being; the sea is quite beautiful and lush and filled with deep blues and oceanic colors. The movie really pops as it switches from the shorelines to the ocean. Ariel’s character design works as the mermaids don’t look nearly as goofy as they could’ve been in the wrong hands.
Style points lost, though, because Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle lose all ability to emote due to being live action animals that fail to make facial expressions. One of the best elements of the original is just how kiddish Flounder is and just how hilariously self-knowing and cocky Sebastian is – this movie loses the ability to do that and faulters because of it.
Overall, I left wondering why anyone would choose to watch this over the original. After all, The Little Mermaid in 1989 is a crisp 83 minutes, while the 2023 rendition tells an identical story at over two hours in length. Hollywood studios don’t care enough about brevity anymore and so many movies feel bloated and wrongfully paced as a result.
The Little Mermaid isn’t bad. In fact, it’s actually one of the better live action remakes Disney has churned out – but I refuse to give them credit for it because it only took about a dozen of them to get it semi-correct. There are moments that shine in this, but they’re equally marred by a film that feels like it’s just going through the motions most of the time.
Watch The Little Mermaid on Disney+ and VOD here
The Little Mermaid (2023) Cast and Credits
Halle Bailey as Ariel
Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric
Daveed Diggs as Sebastian
Awkwafina as Scuttle
Jacob Tremblay as Flounder
Javier Bardem as King Triton
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Composer: Alan Menken