Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
From 1989 until 2000, Disney was reaching creative heights it had not achieved since the company’s golden age. That creativity was rewarded with unprecedented box office success, critical praise, awards recognition and of course devotion from millions of viewers. Not only did the likes of Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994) and many others become beloved in their own right, but their very existence prompted renewed interest in the company’s classics, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Cinderella (1950). In hindsight, that successful run may have been too grand, as Disney has become hopelessly obsessed with recapturing that magical era, opting to produce live-action remakes of all of them. The latest delivery being a re-imagining of the film which started the entire Disney renaissance, The Little Mermaid (2023).
Directed by Rob Marshall of Chicago (2002) fame, this remake follows the same plot as the 1989 original, introducing us to the young mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey), who longs to break free from the complacency of her life under the sea and explore the surface world. After she rescues the land dwelling Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck, her longing for a life above the water hits fever pitch, resulting in her father King Triton (Javier Bardem) tightening his grip on her. At this moment, the evil sea witch and King Triton’s sister, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), offers to give Ariel legs so she may venture to land. However, in doing so she loses all her mermaid abilities, including her voice (in this version called her “siren”, as mermaids were known to sing hypnotic tunes to sailors). If Ariel wishes to keep her legs and stay on land with Eric, she needs to kiss him before the sun sets in three days time, lest she belong to Ursula forever.
Like all of the Disney remakes, this film really has no reason to exist considering the 1989 classic is still incredibly culturally relevant. This has been the main issue plaguing all of these remakes, as they only work as comparison pieces to superior films. The supposed ‘fun’ for most viewers when watching them is going through with a notepad and spotting all the differences which have been littered throughout. Unfortunately, this means these re-imaginings can rarely be enjoyed on their own terms. Out of the 20 or so remakes, the select few that do have merits of their own are Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Cruella (2021). Thankfully, The Little Mermaid does manage to enter that exclusive club.
The reasons for The Little Mermaid’s success are very easy to pinpoint, with the most notable element being Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel. There was a disgusting amount of vitriol thrown at the young actress upon her casting, but if it wasn’t clear that the ‘controversy’ was just silly racial bias, it certainly is clear now. Bailey is a revelation as Ariel, delivering the character’s charm, wonderment, longing and sweetness wonderfully. Bailey is perfectly suited to the role in live-action form, not to mention her absolutely magnificent singing voice, which gives you chills whenever she belts it out. Happily, she’s not the only strong casting choice, as Melissa McCarthy does fine work recapturing the flamboyance of Pat Carroll’s original voice work. There are sadly moments where McCarthy falls into her standard performance tropes, but that is more to do with the direction and scripting given to her. Jonah Hauer-King is supremely likeable as Prince Eric, and Javier Bardem fills the requirements of King Triton, despite occasionally seeming like he’s on autopilot.
With that in mind, Director Rob Marshall’s sure-handed storytelling also contributes to The Little Mermaid’s staying power. Where previous remakes such as Beauty and The Beast (2017) made no attempt to transcend the original, Marshall directs as if there never was a previous version, which strengthens the overall experience. Just because the audience has seen the big moments before, doesn’t mean the storyteller should rush over them, as that will sap the journey of its impact. Marshall understands the importance of the major narrative beats, opting to give them more attention than any of the new elements. This creates some legitimate areas of improvement, namely the fleshed out, parallel character arcs given to Ariel and Prince Eric. This enhanced thread addresses the most common complaint of the original film, without losing sight of the story’s core.
That being said, there’s still plenty of moments which prevent The Little Mermaid from receiving full marks. Majority of the newly added plot threads either contribute nothing to the overall structure, or they rob the central characters of their uniqueness. This is a systemic issue among these films, as it’s clear that someone at the executive level isn’t unpacking what made the original stories work as well as they did. Additionally, the new musical numbers don’t hold a candle to the original songs, as they are inappropriately placed, narratively superfluous, poorly staged and at worst, completely unmemorable. These kinks would still be noticed even if there hadn’t been a 1989 original, as they do mildly break the story structure of this film. In a way, the fact these issues stand out like a sore thumb improves the stronger elements by comparison. Regardless, transitioning from the positives to the negatives is hardly seamless.
Lastly, the visual construction of the film is a decidedly mixed bag, as it is both held aloft by Marshall’s brilliant direction, and held back by the live-action format. Animation is a medium that can deliver emotions, motivations and engagement in a way that live-action sometimes can’t. With live-action, there’s a sense you need to think about the functionality, utility and realism, even if it’s a fantasy tale. Therefore, some of the visual designs lack a certain spark, which in turn robs the story of some of its magic. To be clear, the computer generated effects and production design are all well thought out and handsomely crafted, but (for example) there’s an inherent strangeness in seeing a Princess of an undersea Kingdom without gaining a feel for the Kingdom. It was likely decided that a giant, golden, underwater castle wouldn’t be realistic in live-action, but we’re already telling a story about mermaids and magic, so why do we need to maintain realism?
Even with the usual crop of issues inherent with these films, the strength of the performances, direction, and central thematic character arcs do more than enough to elevate The Little Mermaid above its contemporaries. While it’s definitely flawed, is certainly no classic, isn’t a redeemer for the and doesn’t beat the original, this may (at the very least) be the first of these remakes which has a chance at inspiring new generations of children.
Best way to watch it: With a bunch of nostalgic 30 year olds.