Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 24th, 2023
The Little Mermaid (Rob Marshall, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
As ever when the Walt Disney Company decides to update one of their earlier animated films with a newer, “live-action” version (that descriptor is in quotes given the vast amount of digital animation still present), I question the need. What was truly added to our understanding of Beauty and the Beast by its 2017 remake (other than unnecessary extra length), for example? How was 2019’s The Lion King—which had zero real-life material to speak of, born exclusively of CGI—an improvement on the original? Quick answer: it wasn’t.
Still, it’s best to keep an open mind, and the brand-new The Little Mermaid boasts some significant casting changes, among other revisions. In fact, it proves extremely watchable, if long. What is this mania that Disney has to increase the running time of films ostensibly geared towards children? Whereas the 1989 original lasted a brisk 83 minutes, the latest clocks in at 135. Subtracting for end credits, that’s still approximately 125 minutes, over 40 more than previously. Strange, and to no great purpose.
But let’s talk first about what works. Halle Bailey (of Chloe x Halle fame), as Ariel, is perfect, both in voice and performance. She brings the titular character’s profound yearning for growth and change to beautiful fruition, and we can only hope this further shames those involved in the racist backlash to her casting. Opposite her are many strong actors, both in voice roles and in the flesh. They include Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos) as King Triton, Ariel’s father; Jonah Hauer-King (This Is the Night) as Prince Eric, her love interest; Noma Dumezweni (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind) as the Queen, Eric’s mother; Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) as Sebastian the crab; Awkwafina (Renfield) as Scuttle the seagull; and a marvelous Melissa McCarthy (The Starling) as Ursula, Triton’s sister and the witch who sets the plot in motion.
That story, for those who don’t remember, follows young mermaid Ariel on her quest to join the human world, a journey made possible when she trades her magical siren-song voice and tail for land legs, courtesy of Ursula’s spell. The witch has ulterior motives, of course, though her plot to take over the sea kingdom is obstructed by the plucky actions of Sebastian and company. All Ariel need do to remain human forever is to have Prince Eric kiss her, something made harder given her sudden lack of speech. Will she nevertheless win the prize? Does the narrative padding thrown in here by Disney and director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) lead to a different outcome? Methinks not.
What we do get are some additional tunes (both for Eric and for Ariel, whose inner monologue when silenced is heard through song), none of which are particularly stunning, and some slower action. The visuals impress, however, and the movie makes attempts at redressing the thorny issues of race and colonialism by setting the tale on a Caribbean Island ruled by a Black queen with a multiracial/multiethnic staff (Eric, though still white, was adopted as a foundling). These alterations, along with the casting of the biracial Bailey, are not nothing, and can perhaps be seen as baby steps in Disney’s righting of some of its historical wrongs. But they could just as easily have been made within a shorter script.
Another fresh detail is that now Ariel plays a major role in her own liberation, no longer just a mer-damsel in distress. So maybe this The Little Mermaid has more to recommend it than I initially thought. If only it were cut down and sped up. Perhaps Ariel should sing, “I want to be where the editors are,” instead of her signature melody. As is, there is plenty to both recommend and lament.