I am not the biggest fan of the live action remake movement that Disney seems to have been indulging in recent years. The last live-action Disney movie I can honestly say I enjoyed was Pete’s Dragon, which shocked me. I notoriously hated the remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Lion King and Aladdin.
I went in to The Little Mermaid with low expectations, seeing it only to support Halle Bailey in the wake of the hatred she received in response to her casting. I walked into this film expecting it to fail. Color me shocked and surprised, because this was one of the best examples of Disney’s cinematic magic I have seen in a while.
The plot is largely the same as the 1989 animated classic, with teenage mermaid Ariel still obsessed with the forbidden human world and turning to a sea witch for help after being spurned by her father when she falls in love with a human prince. There are some changes, which make the murky character motivations of the original film clearer. These include King Triton and Ursula being siblings and Ariel’s mother being killed by humans, which offers a reasonable explanation for why Triton is worried about Ariel’s obsession with the surface world.
The biggest change of note involving the plot concerns the big kiss. There had been controversy leading up to this films’ release, regarding whether “wokeness” was responsible for changing how or why the kiss was needed. In truth, the way the kiss is handled here is more realistic (well, as real as things can be in a magical fantasy world, to be fair) and a new twist is introduced that I am surprised was not in the original film, with Ursula doing a lot more to rig the game in her favor, as a villain would.
Two songs have also been removed from the original film; Daughters of Triton and fan favorite Les Poisson. Honestly, I did not miss either song. In fact, not having Daughters of Triton before Part of Your World makes that song more emotionally impactful. It also allows Sebastian to have a more important role in this film, acting as Triton’s major domo rather than his court composer.
What really sells this adaptation, however, is the performances, particularly those of Halle Bailey as Ariel and Daveed Diggs as Sebastian. Halle is basically in what I call The Jennifer Hudson Seat with this film, delivering an incredible heart warming performance as Ariel. Daveed Diggs had the biggest shoes to fill as Sebastian, but I am glad to say he does well with the same humor we loved before, and some choice moments I imagine were improvised.
However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I cannot give it a perfect review. While it does more right than wrong, it does have its flaws and errors. Chief among these are the films’ lighting levels. Many complained that the underwater scenes in the early trailers looked too dark. Thankfully, this is not a constant problem, and we do get to see all the beautiful colors of the undersea world, particularly in a new show stopping version of Under The Sea. It is an issue at some points, however.
Another problem is Awkwafina as Scuttle. A little of her can only go so far for many, and while I know Scuttle is supposed to be annoying, her performance lacked the goofy charm that Buddy Hackett had. Honestly, you just wish she would just shut up every time she opens her mouth, even before she does a porn music sound effect. The low point, however, is when she raps The Scuttlebutt, sounding like a tobacco-throated aunt at Thanksgiving trying to be hip with the kids. It is the musical equivalent of pushing a toothpick under your fingernail.
The final problem is Lin Manuel Miranda. While I did like Ariel’s new inner monologue song after she turns human, For The First Time, the other two songs he wrote for the film fall flat. Prince Eric’s song, Wild Uncharted Waters, is okay, but just okay. And then there’s the record scratching horridness that is The Scuttlebutt, which stops the film dead due to it completely clashing with the rest of the film’s style, even ignoring Awkwafina’s delivery. I’m honestly nervous about the new songs he is writing for Snow White now.
On a nitpicky level, Ursula’s eyebrows are uneven, and it does get distracting since we see her put on her makeup at one point. With that being said, the positives do outweigh the negatives. The Little Mermaid did indeed win me over. I still prefer the animated classic to this film, but I hope this opens bigger doors for Halle Bailey, because she deserves to be a super star.