Applause rang out through the theater as Halle Bailey finished Ariel’s siren song, Part of Your World. Elder millennials clutched their hands to their chests reminiscing on childhood days gone by and watching in awe as a classic gets updated for a new generation.
Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid may be the first time the live-action concept has worked. Previous entries included The Lion King, Dumbo and Aladdin, both ’90s Disney animated hits that many felt should have stayed that way. The emotional depth was nonexistent in The Lion King and the technology still had some advancing to do, but in The Little Mermaid, it’s a true case of Disney perhaps learning from its mistakes.
If you’re not familiar with the earlier Disney animated feature of the same title that starred Jodie Benson, then you’re in luck because the live-action version is a faithful and forward homage. The story of King Triton’s youngest and most free-spirited daughter Ariel is one that many carry in their hearts. Her love for humanity and desire to fall in love with a dashing prince is truly the fodder that fairy tales are made of.
The live-action adaptation stays true to the 1989 classic, with some scenes shot for shot are breathtaking in both skill and beauty. Unlike later Disney features like Aladdin, Pocahontas, or The Lion King, the original Little Mermaid didn’t promote itself using big name talent. In fact, that push would only start in 1992 with the release of Aladdin starring the late Robin Williams.
This live action version does have some names, but you’ll soon find it’s not about the names at all — it’s about the voice: “Thee” voice of our dear Ariel, projected to the absolute rafters by Halle Bailey. Bailey is a remarkable singer/songwriter on her own, but there’s a depth and an air of drama she gives to Ariel that just works. She sings like she’s on stage, and with the visual wonder the film offers, she’s not far off. Even the soft moments are filled with such longing and gravitas, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.
And yet Bailey doesn’t steal scenes, she doesn’t force her talents, instead choosing to simply lay them bare for the audience to decide. Any past controversy is quickly forgotten as she handles the reins with care.
Now that I have said what enjoyed about the film, here are some of my gripes. My first complaint was her hair. I was expecting red dreads. While we get a version of that, when she goes on land suddenly there’s this blonde weave in there? It felt a bit out of place. I think the red on its own would have sufficed, but I wasn’t taken out of the film and I only remembered because I took note of it.
King Triton is played by Javier Bardem, who does a nice job — though there’s little to do except look fabulous, and he already does that so well. Then there’s Melissa McCarthy who understood the assignment and didn’t rely on special effects to make her character soar. That woman is a powerhouse and she knew exactly what the role called for. The trailer doesn’t do her justice; she’s truly magnetic on screen. I know Lizzo wanted the part badly, and I would have liked to see the effort, but McCarthy made sure the opportunity was not wasted. She was just fabulous. We also have Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Noma Dumezweni as Queen Selina (Eric’s adoptive mother), and Daveed Diggs as Sebastian.
While Disney fixed a lot of things from its previous two attempts at converting animation to live action, there are still a few things worth noting for next time. First off, though this is live action, there’s no need to be overly verite. Under the sea is dark and dank and gray with shimmering silvers that still read as muted. Ariel looks washed out; I get it, she’s under the sea, but because this is live action, I think the use of more color that was consistent would not have hurt the film. When it’s successful we get Sebastian, a Jamaican crustacean with two misshapen claws and reddish skin. His eyes are clearly animated and thank goodness for it. Otherwise you get the least successful result, which we saw in Flounder (Jacob Tremblay). Tremblay does a fine job voicing him, but he’s unappealing to look at, seems to change sizes, and goes for swaths of time saying nothing. It’s oddly disconcerting.
Speaking of disconcerting, as long as Cree Summer is alive and available, there is no reason to cast Awkwafina as a voice actor. The character was hardly Scuttle but rather Awkwafina as a bird. Scuttle is supposed to be lovingly obtuse, and it takes Awkwafina way too long to find her stride. I find she runs into the same issue as some other actors who can’t understand how to form their voices for animated projects. Scuttle is a character who is already known, and while it’s fine to make it your own, it feels lazy to make it you. I know she’s done other voice roles, but everytime (after I sadly realize it’s not Cree Summer) I stop picturing the character and all I can see is Awkwafina. And she’s fine, but this didn’t work for me. I will say, however, as much as I didn’t like her in that role, the “Scuttlebutt” song was fantastic! In fact, all of the songs were great.
From the instantly recognizable Part of Your World to the upbeat and audacious Under the Sea, the movie felt like a bit of a sing-along with a few new additions to keep it interesting. There are several new songs, including a surprising ballad by Prince Eric. It’s a bit wild and feels like it starts in the middle, but Hauer-King performs the song beautifully. His version of Eric is privileged but also curious and in awe of the beauty and mysteries of the sea. When we see him fall for Ariel, you can tell it’s what’s inside and not what’s outside that counts to him.
At a hefty 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Little Mermaid delivers more than enough content to fill it wisely, using just enough nostalgia to hook the adults and adding just enough new to entertain the kids. The themes are there — believing in yourself, finding your voice, etc., but in the live action version they are stronger, bolder, and said with more confidence, which is befitting of the time.
Overall the film is lush, larger than life, and a true adventure. It’s easy to get swept away in the story, scenery, and characters, and you won’t be out of place if you sing along or engage in some mild chair dancing. I highly recommend this film and encourage you to watch both versions.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid will swim into theaters on May 26, 2023.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com