More so than many of Disney’s other recent live-action remakes, director Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid expresses its love and reverence for the animated classic it’s updating through expansion rather than through wholesale reinvention. Even with all of its new ideas, this Little Mermaid hews so closely to the beats of Disney’s 1989 film that you can’t deny that it was crafted with longtime fans in mind, and there’s a lot of here for them to like. But for all the care that clearly went into the movie, The Little Mermaid is also a prime example of how easily VFX-heavy features like this can feel decidedly unmagical when studios forget the importance of fine-tuning their fictional worlds to feel like something based in a consistent, thought-out reality.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairytale, The Little Mermaid tells the familiar story of Ariel (Halle Bailey), the youngest, most inquisitive, and — apparently — smallest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of Atlantica. Ariel cares deeply for her father; her friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and Scuttle (Awkwafina); and her six glamorous older sisters Tamika (Sienna King), Perla (Lorena Andrea), Indira (Simone Ashley), Mala (Karolina Conchet), Karina (Kajsa Mohammar), and Caspia (Nathalie Sorrell). But this Ariel, much like her 2D animated counterpart, is something of an adventurous rebel whose fascination with humans and the surface world they hail from puts her at constant odds with her family, all of whom wish she’d take her duties as a princess more seriously.
Unlike the 1989 Little Mermaid, which made little mention of Ariel’s mother, the new film uses her off-screen death at the hands of humans — a plot point from 2008’s direct-to-video The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning — as the basis for Triton’s fear and distrust of humans. The tragedy of Ariel’s past doesn’t dim her light in the present. But it’s one of The Little Mermaid’s more notable updates because of the gravity it adds to Ariel and Triton’s ideological differences about humanity and the merpeople’s decision to avoid them the way they avoid Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the sea witch and Triton’s sister.
Watching The Little Mermaid after having seen big-budget features like Aquaman, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Avatar: The Way of Water is an interesting experience. As different as all of these aquatic films are, each of them has worked toward the common goal of creating believable underwater worlds inhabited by people we’re meant to understand as living, breathing, organic creatures. Some of that realism tends to involve dropping live actors into actual bodies of water (be they contained sets or otherwise). But whenever we’re discussing Disney’s “live-action” remakes of animated films and how “realistic” they are, what we’re actually talking about is the degree to which they’re able to create places that feel alive and defined by a reliable set of rules the audience can understand.
The effort that went into Ariel’s hair is at odds with the inconsistent way light behaves underwater
Setting the white savior fantasy of it all aside, very little about The Way of Water’s Pandora would likely read as grounded as it does were it not for how much work (and time and money) went into nailing the fine details of how elements like light, water, and wind interact with one another and with things like characters’ skin and hair in various contexts. It’s when all of those seemingly small but actually very significant components of a fictional world are working in concert to support one another that things start to feel “real,” no matter how otherworldly they actually are.
The Little Mermaid’s creative team obviously understands this concept to a certain extent, as evidenced by Ariel’s underwater musical numbers, during which you can clearly see the hours that went into animating her bountiful red locs with a playful grace reminiscent of the 2D cartoon. But the effort that went into animating Ariel’s hair is at odds with things like the inconsistent way light behaves underwater and the far-too-clean sound design that makes Atlantica feel like a well-miced soundstage.
At multiple points throughout the movie, Ariel is so full of conflicting emotions that she’s moved to a subtle but still very visible state of near-tears that are moving and speak to Bailey’s skills as a performer but also break the fantasy of her being a mermaid living at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s really only down under the sea in the movie’s first third before she makes her fateful pact with Ursula that you get the strongest sense of just how studied a performance Bailey is delivering as Ariel. Though she’s definitely a bit sharper, more proactive, and ready to stick up for herself more than the 2D cartoon Ariel, there’s a pointed Disney Princess™ lilt to her speaking voice and magic to her singing voice that’s fitting that makes you appreciate just what all she’s giving up to journey to the surface in search of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) after a fateful encounter.
Compared to The Little Mermaid’s underwater scenes, the movie’s time on land works much, much better in the sense that it isn’t always making you wonder why things feel so off. But Bailey and Hauer-King’s so-so chemistry makes Prince Eric and Ariel’s budding romance with a magically muted Ariel — the crux of The Little Mermaid’s story — more difficult to buy than it should be. The way this Little Mermaid’s songs just start out of nowhere rather than guiding the movie through its acts also make it somewhat difficult to buy the movie as a proper musical, which will likely come as a disappointment to some theatergoers.
Where The Little Mermaid falls, ranking-wise, compared to Disney’s other live-action remakes is a matter of personal taste. But the movie feels very reflective of Disney’s plan to keep making these things with just enough of the essence of the originals to appeal to diehard adult fans and children for whom projects like these are the canon.
The Little Mermaid also stars Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs, and Jessica Alexander. The movie is in theaters now.