The Little Mermaid Review: Rob Marshall’s Remake Drowns in Fealty to the Original

For all of its talk about pushing boundaries, the film seems content to remain in the past.

The Little Mermaid
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

For all of the spurious arguments over authenticity or criticisms about Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel, Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is a remarkably safe—and remarkably bland—live-action adaptation of Ron Clements and John Musker’s 1989 animated original. Beyond Lin-Manuel Miranda’s newly written music, including a cringe-worthy rap song performed by Scuttle (Awkwafina) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), this Little Mermaid feels more or less like two-hour-plus cosplay with the texture and gravitas of a Disneyland sideshow.

The story itself largely remains unchanged. Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest of five daughters of the widowed King Triton (Javier Bardem). As the king desperately tries to keep Ariel obedient and away from the humans whom he blames for his beloved wife’s death, the precocious mermaid only grows more enamored and intrigued by human behavior and their affects.

One night, Ariel’s curiosity gets the best of her and she witnesses a nighttime celebration among the dashing Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and his men that turns deadly when a storm knocks their boat into a rock cliff. After saving Eric and his Old English sheepdog Max, Ariel swims back home before the royal guard notices her, but not before also singing him back to consciousness. It’s then that the prince becomes obsessed with finding his singing savior, while Triton enlists the help of the crab Sebastian to stop his daughter from pursuing her interest further.

Advertisement

In swoops Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), clad in the sparkling black gown and garish makeup familiar from the animated film, and soon the sea witch convinces Ariel to give up her voice in exchange for human legs. Of course, Ariel and the prince still fall in love, but in a concession to the times, David Magee’s script, in more obligatory than illuminating fashion, has Ariel become the agent of her own survival by being the one to ward off Ursula and free her own voice.

YouTube video

Most of the cast struggles to stay afloat throughout the film. Bardem looks positively asleep as Triton, while McCarthy mostly settles for impersonating the late Pat Carroll, who voiced the role of Divine-inspired Ursula in the original animated film, and in makeup that would get most queens eliminated in the first episode of a Drag Race season. Hauer-King looks every bit the prototypical Disney prince, but his performance is soporific and joyless, unaided by a new, Josh Groban-style solo that feels jarring and out of place among Alan Menken’s original music.

Advertisement

Early on, Ariel overhears Eric pleading about the need for the royal crown to be more involved with everyday people, suggesting that their passion for one another will be birthed, in part, out of their shared resentment of how their royal families are out of touch. But Bailey and Hauer-King do not have the chemistry to make that passion indelible. Neither seems to be acting in the same film as the other, their blank stares a weak approximation of budding love.

On the bright side, which is something that can’t be said about the film’s cinematography, Diggs provides a memorably silky rendition of “Kiss the Girl” across a sequence that’s marked by cute and funny editing choices. As for Bailey, she brings Ariel to life again with a singing voice that matches her mesmeric, wide-eyed sense of wonder. She’s at her most expressive when performing “Part of Your World,” her voice ringing like a magical siren who’s strong enough to, however briefly, pierce the underwater bubble within which most of the film plays out.

Advertisement

This Little Mermaid’s animation looks fine enough when dramatizing fish and sea creatures, but the humans look unnervingly plasticized. The film is also 45 minutes longer than the original, in large part due to a handful of unnecessary musical additions and the languid, leaden movement of the underwater scenes. Marshall and company’s two major innovations—to give Ariel her own agency and to set the whole thing in a multicultural, post-colonial fantasy—is hardly enough to justify the film’s existence. For all the script’s talk about pushing boundaries and making changes in the world, it seems awfully content to remain in the past.

Score: 
 Cast: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Jude Akuwudike, Noma Dumezweni, Jessica Alexander, Lorena Andrea, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina  Director: Rob Marshall  Screenwriter: David Magee  Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures  Running Time: 135 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2023  Buy: Video

Greg Nussen

Greg Nussen is a Los Angeles-based critic and programmer, with words in Salon, Bright Lights Film Journal, Vague Visages, Knock-LA, and elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.