The Little Mermaid Movie Review
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Setting aside the nontroversy of a fictional character being a different race than her fictional predecessor, Disney’s live-action reimagining of its 2004 animated hit, The Little Mermaid (2023) won’t go down in history as groundbreaking cinema.
Ariel (Halle Bailey) is King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) youngest daughter. King Triton is king of the seven seas, and his seven daughters reflect his – uh – reach across the oceans. Ariel is fascinated by humans, spending her time among the detritus of shipwrecks off the coast of an unnamed seaside kingdom. She amasses quite the collection of dishes, mirrors, vases, music boxes, and flatware. She examines all of her treasures with her best friend Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina), a large and awkward seabird who knows just enough about nothing to be mildly dangerous. Disney says Scuttle is a northern gannet, and while I’m not saying they’re wrong, it’s just oddly specific. There’s an included running gag from the original film about a fork, which Scuttle (Awkwafina), has told Ariel is a “dinglehopper”, an instrument to comb hair. As Ariel has mermaid locs and the tines would neither comb nor curl her hair, it’s a joke someone could have been reworked.
Ariel develops a crush on a human in a passing ship, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who is soon to turn 21 with little desire to run his kingdom. He yearns for the adventure of the sea, while his mother, The Queen (Noma Dumezweni) would rather he settle down, lest her son suffer the same fate as her late father. After a violent storm, Ariel rescues Prince Eric, saving him from the depths of the ocean and reviving him with her voice. Other than the obvious cultural differences, King Triton forbids his daughter from the surface because the untrustworthy humans killed her mother. There is actually a scene where the sailors aboard Prince Eric’s ship are throwing harpoons and hooks at passing dolphins and manatees, so his reasons are valid. The heart wants what the heart wants and soon Ariel, wounded over being scolded by her father, finds herself in the audience of Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy). Ursula bargains with Ariel that if Ariel can draw a true love’s kiss from Prince Eric in three days, she can stay in that world forever. The tradeoff for legs and a shot of romantic destiny is the loss of her voice, kept by Ursula in an enchanted seashell. Sebastian is tasked with keeping an eye on her, knowing the bargain with Ursula is rigged, but also wanting to see Ariel happy. Together with Flounder and Scuttle, they scheme to help Arioel land the prince, avoid the wrath of King Triton, and foil the evil witch.
All of that only takes three songs and some very pretty exposition. Halle Bailey projects the innocent ethereal beauty of a mermaid. Considering that most of her set was probably greenscreen, the acting was solid. Impulsive curiosity – check. Petulant teen angst – check. Glorious blush of first love – check. There isn’t a thing about her performance to find objectionable, and I can see mermaid locs being the culturally appropriated phenomenon of 2023.
Jonah Hauer-King is perfectly serviceable as Prince Eric. He’s handsome, with the right amount of adult immaturity that girls find rakish and endearing, and there’s nothing about his performance to find objectionable.
It’s the same with Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and all of the other minor characters. There isn’t anything objectionable about their storylines of performances at all, and that’s kind of an issue. While this version of The Little Mermaid (part updating the story, part clawing for copyright renewal) puts warm flesh on a nearly 200-year-old story, there isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking about it – and maybe that was the point. This is a story to be watched with kids who have been raised on screens since birth and may even be too sophisticated for the 1989 animated version. With original songs like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, “Poor Unfortunate Soul”, and “Kiss the Girl” (reworked to be a trio of her friends singing and it’s very sweet), even fogies like me can sing along providing that tangible bridge to Long Ago. But in what felt like a shot-for-shot remake with some scenes, it also wasn’t breaking any new ground. It’s certainly no Coco (2017) or Encanto (2021), and even compared to other live-action remakes like the ill-fated Mulan (2020) and Pinocchio (2022), The Little Mermaid manages to fall slightly short of the directionless Peter and Wendy (2023).
Despite the tentacles and rock slithering, Melissa McCarthy managed to find a role tailor-made for her snarl, and there is very little camp in her performance, making it all the more menacing. If there was one thing Disney nailed, it was the fury of Ursula in the climactic scene. It was freaking terrifying, bringing to mind the animated fight scene between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in the original animated Sleeping Beauty (1959). It might disturb some littles.
Finally, may I say this about Awkwafina – I like her. She’s funny and she nearly elevates the Sassy Asian Friend trope to 21st Century levels. That said, I really wish we could see her as a character actor in character, not just an inset of herself as a shady co-worker, ride-or-die ally, or seagull suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. I’d like to see a little range in future characters. And before anyone says I’m being too hard on an animated character, Diggs managed to nail the voice and overall attitude of the Islands with Sebastian. He was my favorite character 35 years ago, and his title still holds. I like my voice actors to disappear into the characters, not have actors play animated versions of themselves.
While not earth-shattering, The Little Mermaid is a movie to take the whole family to, and my quibbles really are minor. I’m thrilled to see someone who looks like Halle and millions of wee ones as a magical creature that isn’t subjected to a moral or blood sacrifice to attain a greater good, swim and sing and be beautiful and live happily ever after. I think for now, that gets to be enough.
The Little Mermaid (2023) is rated PG for shipwrecks, near drownings, implied violence against dolphins, and Ursula being big mad.