Movie Review: “The Little Mermaid”


Halle Bailey in "The Little Mermaid"

What is the point of 2023’s live-action version of “The Little Mermaid”? Like all the Disney adaptations from the past decade, it slavishly recreates scenes and story beats with minor changes that don’t add much of anything. There’s such an overreliance on CG that these new versions barely count as live-action anyway, while the effects themselves are never as good at rendering the kind of wonder and spectacle of their animated counterparts. It’s clear that the Disney machine is cashing in on nostalgia to squeeze more money out of these properties with little creative effort, and while there are some positives to be found in Disney’s latest live-action remake, you mostly just walk away thinking 1) Halle Bailey is extremely talented, and 2) who is this movie for?

Ariel (Bailey) is a mermaid princess, daughter of the king of the ocean (Javier Bardem), but she pines to explore the surface world of humans. However, this is forbidden, as the king sees mankind as a destructive force that only offers suffering and pain. When Ariel falls for an adventuresome prince (Jonah Hauer-King), she turns to the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to grant her wish to walk on land. The price for such a spell is Ariel’s incredible voice, so the princess must rely on her animal friends Scuttle, Flounder and Sebastian (voiced by Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay and Daveed Diggs, respectively) to help her woo the prince and avoid paying a costly price.

Here’s a quick question: Why the hell is this movie so dark? And I don’t mean thematically. “The Little Mermaid” is literally too dark to see what’s going on at times, with a lack of lighting leading to murky underwater scenes hiding whole swaths of oceanic settings and backgrounds. It’s not just for the briny depths, either, as the “Kiss the Girl” sequence takes place at night and is also incredibly low-lit. One could argue that it’s meant to make the movie look more realistic, but realism is hardly at the top of anyone’s mind in a film about a half-octopus witch who grows to gargantuan size after gaining possession of a magic oversized fork. Also, “Avatar: The Way of Water” renders the whole “realistic CG” argument moot, as the underwater acting in “The Little Mermaid” is nowhere near the exact recreation of Cameron’s film, leaving it an underwhelming attempt, especially by comparison.

The rest of the CG is competently done, but the real uncanny valley where “The Little Mermaid” exists is between the fantastical and the grounded. “Under the Sea” has a bevy of marine animals moving about in sequenced processions, but they are rendered so much like the real creatures that the physical poetry and fluidity are robbed from the motion. And so that tension once again points to the intended audience: It must be “real” enough to warrant a live-action version but maintain the wonder of its original form. This pursuit of aping what came before can be found in literally recreating specific shots from the 1989 animated film. References are fun, but it’s better to try to create something impressive that others will want to reference in the future. That seems to have been forgotten by director Rob Marshall when making “The Little Mermaid.”

While the film stumbles about constantly, it shines through the casting of Halle Bailey. The rest of the casting choices are fine at best and uninspired at worst (McCarthy feels like an obvious and boring choice), but Bailey’s incredible singing is matched only by her ability to broadcast sincerity as Ariel; viewers are invested solely through her plaintive wish to explore another world or her seemingly genuine delight at experiencing new things on dry land. It’s not that the other cast members are phoning it in, but they simply don’t radiate the same passion as Bailey and wilt in comparison to her shining star.

Bailey tries her best to navigate this weird mish-mash of realism and fantasy along with the familiar and novel. With that said, David Magee’s script doesn’t add many new layers or plot points that stray far from the 1989 film. There are attempts at giving the Eric character more depth and making the love story between him and Ariel have more concrete interaction outside of a good-looking stranger that doesn’t speak, but these are feeble parries that suggest more could have been done and explored if the filmmakers weren’t terrified of trying anything different. Maybe that’s for the best, as the most noteworthy additions come in the form of original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda that are tediously safe and fail to emulate the tremendous work of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

When “The Little Mermaid” came out in 1989, I distinctly remember Siskel & Ebert’s review of the film; they dedicated so many minutes to talking solely about the bubbles created by the movements of characters underwater. It was oddly weird and trivial to seven-year-old me at the time, but now I can see how much it was about craftsmanship — not necessarily creating a realistic world but a wholly realized one that immerses viewers through its own rules and aesthetics. That 1989 movie kicked off the Disney renaissance that inspired millions of new fans and leaps in visual storytelling. 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” is completely lacking in anything approaching that level of detail or dedication, and it will inspire very little, if anything. Bailey is an amazing force to behold, and I cannot wait to see what she does next, but everything else lacks her passion and innovation, foregoing any sort of compelling reason to watch.


Starring: Hailey Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina
Director: Rob Marshall

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