When I heard that Disney was remaking The Little Mermaid, I felt a familiar mixture of dread and tepid hopefulness. The Little Mermaid isn’t my favorite Disney movie, but it’s an undisputed classic that saved the animation studio at a crucial juncture in its storied history. And I do love Ariel as a character and the colorful look of the film, as well as several of the iconic songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Some Disney remakes have been good or even excellent, but I don’t trust them at the outset. Even if remaking a movie seems like a good idea, it’s difficult to visualize the Mouse House going about it in a productive, artistic manner. After all, they can make billions off of a feature-length best hits playlist, so why exert effort into making something new? Let’s find out if The Little Mermaid is more like Cinderella (2015) or Beauty and the Beast (2017).
Like its animated counterpart, The Little Mermaid follows Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton. Ariel is fascinated by human culture and artifacts, creating tension, as her father hates and fears humans. Their relationship crumbles when Ariel saves a human prince from drowning in a shipwreck, falling in love and earning his love in return. Ariel seeks refuge with the sea witch Ursula in the wake of a fight with Triton and sells her soul for human legs and a chance at true love. Will familial bonds, love at first sight, or malignant witchery win out?
I’ll talk about what I liked first because it’s only fair to give credit where it’s due. Halle Bailey absolutely rocks it as Ariel. I know many people weren’t happy with her casting because of her ethnicity, but I don’t care about that. There are roles that I absolutely oppose race-bending, and I know it’s pretty subjective, but the Little Mermaid isn’t one of them. I just can’t get mad about them altering the humanoid aspects of a mythical creature; I have actual problems to worry about. Regardless of any controversy, she truly inhabits the character and makes it her own. Her rendition of “Part of Your World” is fantastic. Jodi Benson still has something special in her singing and line deliveries, but Halle hits the right emotions and creates her own version of the character. I’d take her over Emma Watson’s Belle or Liu Yifei as Mulan every day of the week. I’m surprised to say this, but I like Halle’s Ariel as much as Mia Wasikowska’s Alice or even Lily James’ Cinderella. I don’t like the movie as a whole as much, though. The most surprising element of this movie for me is Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric. He’s very good! He doesn’t shine quite as brightly as Halle, but Eric actually has a personality with goals and preferences here. In the animated version, despite its many merits, Prince Eric was never more than eye candy, part of Ariel’s prize when she became human. I really like the relationship between Eric and Grimsby (Art Malik) here. Grimsby is less of a stuffy old man and more of a father figure to Eric, offering advice and a warmth that caught me off guard. This reminds me of Kit and the King in Cinderella, although the effect isn’t quite as good here. That movie also fleshed out a bland, cardboard cut-out love interest, giving him an interesting dynamic with his father figure.
Eric and Ariel’s romance is naturally improved as a result of this focus on beefing up Eric’s character. There’s a genuine bond here as we learn more about him, and they truly get to know each other. Their kingdom adventures are charming, and you care if they end up together. I wanted things to work out in the animated movie, but it was out of appreciation for Ariel’s plucky curiosity. Animated Eric isn’t anything special except for his bond with his dog Max and the scene where he impales Ursula. I have a nitpick here; while they gave Eric a lot more personality and background here, they took away a big moment that hurts his character and the story, and they gave it to someone else who doesn’t have the know-how to do it. Overall, they got the two leads and the central relationship right, but mistakes were made.
However, the supporting cast doesn’t fare as well. It’s no secret that I don’t love Melissa McCarthy, and I was automatically skeptical of her casting as Ursula. Queen Latifah slayed this role in the live show a few years ago, and I think she was the right choice for the role. Melissa McCarthy isn’t as bad as I feared, and she nails some lines and scenes. There are a couple of McCarthy-isms that feel out of place in a period fairy tale, though. She just isn’t funny to me, and her snarky brand of comedy is ill-placed here. She also lacks the chops to deliver “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and definitely isn’t on the level of Pat Carroll in the original. This isn’t McCarthy’s fault, but her makeup is baaaaaaaad. She looks awful, especially the eyebrows. I’m aware that animated Ursula was based on drag queen Divine, and I’m sure an attempt was made to harken back to that. However, this ain’t it. I’ve seen good drag makeup, and that’s not what this is. Most of the makeup and costumes in the film are good, so this is a major disappointment. Ursula is a deal-breaker, and they ultimately eke out a “meh,” which doesn’t cut it. They also reveal Ursula as Triton’s estranged sister, a longstanding piece of head canon in the Disney fandom, and a cut plot point from the original. This doesn’t add anything to the movie. I think they assumed this would make Ursula’s relationship to Ariel more complex, but it doesn’t; she just calls herself “Auntie Ursula” once, and it’s never addressed again. Giving two characters a biological relationship doesn’t suddenly make them more interesting. This is just like the reveals regarding Belle and the Beast‘s parents or Jasmine’s bestie in those remakes. Adding a line of dialogue or a plot point to pad out the runtime is frustrating when it doesn’t benefit the story or characters.
I really like Jacob Tremblay. He’s a very talented, versatile performer to be so young, and I’ve enjoyed him in several unique roles. He’s okay as Flounder; I’d say he’s on par with the original work by Jason Marin. Awkwafina is terrible as Scuttle. I don’t understand why Hollywood keeps trying to make Awkwafina a thing, but she isn’t funny. Scuttle wasn’t my favorite character, to begin with, but this is still a massive downgrade. Finally, Daveed Diggs is about what we expected as Sebastian. He’s not terrible, but not really good either. He’s essentially just impersonating Samuel E. Wright from the animated one. I can’t fault him for it, but I’d rather just hear Wright. That’s the case with a lot of this film; even if it’s functional, it’s not special or transcendent like the original. I’ve heard a lot of pushback to Javier Bardem’s Triton, but I actually like him. He has good chemistry with Bailey’s Ariel and brings emotions. It’s definitely not a highlight of his career or anything, but I don’t think he deserves the criticism he’s getting online.
Now I want to discuss a couple of smaller elements that some may consider spoilers. I think it’s okay because they’ve both been spoiled already, but skip this passage if you’re worried about the movie being ruined. One concerns a fake-out death scene, and the other is a cameo. In the climactic battle between Triton and Ursula (which is pretty anticlimactic here), it appears that Triton is dead as he disintegrates upon being struck by Ursula’s magic blast. This is the only scene that genuinely shocked me; Triton is the most interesting character in the original, and the ending can’t happen without him. He needs to learn his lesson, give Ariel his blessing, and give her permanent legs. But this is ultimately pointless as he regains his trident, body, and apparent health once Ursula is defeated. What the heck is this? Big thumbs down from me here. If you want to kill off a major character, either do it or don’t. Stop playing games. Secondly, Ariel’s original voice actor Jodi Benson has a cameo in this. Thanks to Entertainment Weekly for spoiling this in a headline, not even the body text! I don’t understand how people were supposed to avoid this spoiler. The cameo itself is fine; I just would have liked to be surprised.
They stretch out scenes like Ariel losing her voice and regaining it. This is just like the fake-out death in the Beauty and the Beast remake; they want to do it slightly differently, so they make it longer, which throws off the pacing. This movie is almost an hour longer than the original. Some of that time is used to develop characters and romance, but much of it could have been cut. The original songs (except “Scuttlebutt”) are good but don’t mesh well with the existing songs and score. “Scuttlebutt” is terrible due to being performed by Awkwafina, and the sounds she makes are just cringe-inducing. I liked Prince Eric’s song quite a bit in the context of the movie, although I can’t imagine blasting it on my radio. Ariel’s internal monologue song (which is clever as it lets her express her thoughts despite being unable to speak) is okay but not as good as Eric’s song. Some of the original movie’s more whimsical elements translate poorly to live-action. This should not surprise anyone at this point. I don’t like the designs for the animal friends, and songs like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” lack the magic present in the animated movie.
These remakes are so misguided it’s not funny anymore. The Little Mermaid gets a lot right that they often miss. Despite some of my assumptions, Ariel and her relationship with Eric are handled very well. Eric is this movie’s biggest triumph and the weakest element of the animated original. However, I’m not sold on Ursula entirely, and the sidekicks are a mixed bag. The music is also uneven, with “Scuttlebutt” being an outright misstep. This song shouldn’t exist, and these studios must understand that Awkwafina isn’t funny. This movie is worth watching once for (some of) the acting and (some of) the music, but I’m not going to revisit it any time soon. This isn’t Aladdin, but it’s not Cinderella either, and the original is significantly better overall.