You would think after 20-something live-action remakes, Disney would cut their losses and focus on more original projects. Some of these remakes have been great successes, like 2015’s Cinderella (widely regarded as the best), while others like last year’s Pinocchio on Disney+ have already been basically forgotten. Now, The Little Mermaid is next up on the chopping block. The classic 1989 film is known for saving Disney animation and reigniting interest in more animated projects in the studio. This story of The Little Mermaid, both behind the scenes and in the movie, has become something special to fans, setting up an incredibly high standard to live up to.
The 2023 remake immediately garnered buzz from the moment Walt Disney Pictures announced the cast. Online racism in the form of the hashtag #NotMyAriel started popping up at the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel for her not having red hair and pale skin. Other major criticisms have since come with using photo-realism on the sea creatures and how you can barely see anything with the dark lighting in the trailers. It goes without saying that the latter group of complaints about the film’s visual style does not fall into the same category as getting upset at skin color, this distinction already causing unnecessary and toxic discourse among moviegoers online. But when you put all of that aside, the question still remains, was this remake at all really worth it?
Directed by Rob Marshall – who is no stranger to Disney or musicals having helmed Mary Poppins Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Into the Woods, and Chicago – 2023’s The Little Mermaid integrates totally new songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda with reiterations of the classics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The remake begins much like the original in the depths of the ocean with our young mermaid heroine Ariel searching for human objects for her collection. She’s joined by her fish companion Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) whose character design is more gray than the bright yellow and blue of his cartoon counterpart.
Once again, similar to Jon Favreau’s The Lion King from 2019, the CGI talking animal characters in The Little Mermaid (2023) are photo-realistic and deep in the uncanny valley. It’s hard to get any sort of emotional performance from just a pair of eyes and a visible moving mouth. We then get a glimpse of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) on his ship for the first time. Ariel’s father (Javier Bardem) is King Triton of Atlantica, ruler of the seven seas with his seven daughters (Lorena Andrea, Simone Ashley, Emily Coates, Karolina Conchet, Sienna King, Kajsa Mohammar, and Nathalie Sorrell). They mainly aid the king in keeping tabs on Princess Ariel who is always rebelling against him. There’s a quick line King Triton mentions about them each ruling one of the seven seas for him, but besides that, they simply remain as background characters unfortunately.
Plot-wise, and sometimes even shot-wise, 2023’s The Little Mermaid plays just like the original. Rob Marshall and his team put a lot of care into (most of) the underwater world, lush coral reefs are what make up most of the kingdom. Ariel’s motivations remain the same but are slightly updated. She does still have the desire to be with Prince Eric, however, what she truly wants this time is freedom and a chance to explore the shore up above. Halle Bailey is Ariel through and through. She’s able to capture Ariel’s wonder, longing, and frustration 100%, especially when she sings “Part of Your World.” Bailey demands to be seen and heard, and you honestly can’t take your eyes off her. She enchants the screen and even brings scenes to life that otherwise look visually dull – that’s how much gravitas she brings to this remake.
Halle’s precedence goes back from her getting signed with Beyoncé’s record label with her sister Chloe Bailey to acting on Grown-ish. Bailey’s take on Ariel is a force to be reckoned with… if it wasn’t for the rest of the film. The same applies to her performance in “Under the Sea,” in which in this version she beautifully harmonizes with the crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs). Sebastian is the much-needed comic relief, but it’s hard to get over his blank, beady stare. Another big character change is the friendly bird Scuttle (Awkwafina), who was originally a seagull but is now a northern gannet to be able to interact with everyone both on land and underwater. To say the least, the natural cadence of her voice does work for the seabird character at all. Her humor is very in your face and some of the jokes are a little dated too.
As the story goes, Ariel saves Prince Eric from a shipwreck. She brings him back to shore, sings while he’s unconscious, and bolts when he’s discovered. Eric becomes enamored with her siren song and is desperate to find the girl who saved him. A much welcome update in this iteration is getting a better sense of who Eric is. We meet his mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) who wants to hold Eric back from traveling after the shipwreck. Much like Ariel, Eric is feeling trapped by his status and lack of freedom.
There is no Ariel without her sea witch aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). Many were skeptical of McCarthy’s casting since Ursula’s character design is inspired by the drag queen Divine. And yet, McCarthy proves she was indeed the right choice to tackle such an iconic Disney villain. It’s insane at times how much she sounds like the original voice of Ursula, Pat Carroll. However, you’re left wanting more screen time for her. The remake only uses Ursula when needed instead of expanding upon her like Ariel. One of the new songs written for Ariel is called “For the First Time” which plays when she first arrives on land as a human. The scene is quite effective, it’s the perfect chance to capture Ariel’s inner monologue and is shot in the most ingenious way. When this remake gets the chance to breathe without copying and pasting the source material, it’s a marvel.
As Sebastian best puts it, the human world is a mess. The next half of the film above water is not nearly as exciting. We’re taken to some nondescript part of the Caribbean coast and, judging by the costumes, this takes place in the 19th century. We see most of the island through Ariel’s eyes as Eric shows her around. Everything is so generic, it all acts as a random setting for Ariel to interact with. Another one of the new songs titled “The Scuttlebutt” has Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name written all over it – Scuttle and Sebastian painfully rap in it. Considering the setting, it’s really out of place for the film in general. It’s until Ursula disguised as Vanessa (Jessica Alexander) shows up, that things get interesting. Alexander couldn’t be more suited for the role, it’s a shame it’s so short-lived.
To add insult to injury, the third act is all rather rushed and the fairytale ending is neatly wrapped up in a bow – signaling to the audience that they got exactly what they came for with little to nothing else. This, of course, does not count out Halle Bailey’s powerhouse performance. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Bailey, this Disney live-action remake would be left to sink given its just acceptable direction and uncanny visuals. For nostalgia’s sake, Disney is sure to turn a profit here with its live-action adaptation model. At least, this is one of the better remakes fans have seen in recent years. Does The Little Mermaid (2023) have anything new to say? No. It’s more faithful to the source material if that’s what you’re after. Bailey gives it her all to breathe new life into this world and partly succeeds on her own.