Disney may just want the cash, but astoundingly, amazingly… thankfully… Rob Marshall’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is a colorful, energetic, and entertaining dive into the deep blue and is sure to enthrall another generation of impressionable youngsters–most notably little girls–with its tale of giving up your tail to land the land-man of your dreams.
I’m as cynical about Disney’s remakes as the next critic–I enjoyed The Jungle Book well enough, but largely loathe the cash grab that is Jon Favreau’s The Lion King–and frankly wasn’t sure what to expect from this update to the 1989 animated classic. But thanks to its largely human/humanoid cast, at least there’s an argument to be made that a live-action remake is warranted.
There’s nothing explosively amazing about this new version of The Little Mermaid–it’s a Disney film, after all, and plays things relatively safe across the board. You won’t find a deep emotional exploration of mermaid-human relations, nor does it set a new barnacle bar in any way or form.
But it’s also full of life and vigor, and has enthusiasm for the subject matter that bleeds through every frame of film. It hits all the needed notes to resonate with its target audience. While my 4.5-year-old daughter was scared by parts (“I want to watch that movie again but not until I’m older”), she was enthralled by what appeared on screen before her, and I can only imagine how The Little Mermaid will land with 7 – 10-year-old girls who get to see this story on the big screen for the first time.
Halle Bailey is terrific as Ariel; she’s beautiful, has a terrific voice, and injects electric-eel energy into every moment she can. She’s a star in every way and form.
Melissa McCarthy is also excellent as Ursula. Perfectly cast, she’s both wicked and funny and relishes the role handed to her. She hasn’t been in a good movie in years, so it’s nice to see her back in form.
The rest of the cast is more hit or miss. While Daveed Diggs is a lot of fun as the voice of Sebastian–an animal character that translates well to this live-action adventure, unlike poor emaciated Flounder–Javier Bardem struggles in the largely thankless role of King Triton. Worse, Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Prince Eric (my daughter leaned over to me and excitedly declared, “That’s your name!”) comes across as the weak link, despite the movie devoting significantly more air time to developing his character. He’s harmless and likable, but compared to Bailey he simply isn’t in the same league.
Of course, most of the musical numbers you know and love are back and delivered in top form; the three new songs added solely to compete for Oscar nominations later in the year, on the other hand, are largely ho-hum and doomed to be forgotten.
This new The Little Mermaid is nearly an hour longer than its animated predecessor; while the extra time feels more earned than some other Disney remakes (The Lion King added 30 minutes of pure bloat), the movie certainly drags at times.
Nonetheless, Marshall has done a fine job here. The Little Mermaid is fun, is properly nostalgic, and brings Ariel largely into the 21st century. This isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it doesn’t need to be.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.