THE STORY – The youngest of King Triton’s daughters, Ariel is a beautiful and spirited young mermaid with a thirst for adventure. Longing to find out more about the world beyond the sea, Ariel visits the surface and falls for the dashing Prince Eric. Following her heart, she makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, to experience life on land.
THE CAST – Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem & Melissa McCarthy
THE TEAM – Rob Marshall (Director) & David Magee (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 135 Minutes
It’s no secret to say that Disney’s latest string of live-action remakes have been a bit… “hit-or-miss” for many. While they’re often staggeringly commercially successful (four – “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Alice in Wonderland” – have made more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office), critics are typically far less kind, with many often maligning the movies for failing to justify their existence or offer anything genuinely new with their “modern take” on such celebrated source material. Thus, naturally, “The Little Mermaid” hasn’t escaped criticism and controversy either, with some of it warranted (what’s with the seemingly subpar VFX in all the trailers and teases?) and some of it absolutely abhorrent (the racist backlash that Halle Bailey has endured since her casting in the role of Ariel all the way back in the summer of 2019). But after four years of nearly never-ending discourse, “The Little Mermaid” finally arrives to quiet all that noise this Friday. It does so swimmingly (sorry), becoming the rare live-action remake to not only retain the heart and soul of the story we know and love but also solidify itself as a new iteration worth watching with an even deeper exploration of the classic romance at this story’s center and Halle Bailey’s note-perfect, star-making performance.
I’ll assume we’re all familiar with “The Little Mermaid” by now – 34 years after the original film’s release – but a little refresher never hurt. Our story starts with the titular little mermaid Ariel (the youngest daughter of the domineering King Triton, after her six sisters), who, despite her father’s protestations, desires to live a life on land with humans, finding herself increasingly fascinated by all their experiences and inventions. And, to make matters worse, this interest increases rapidly after a chance encounter in which she saves the dashing Prince Eric after a shipwreck and sings him back to life before departing – but not before he’s begun to fall for her (and her voice), too. Ursula, the local sea witch (and Triton’s sister), subsequently takes advantage of this newfound attraction – and Triton’s raucous response to Ariel’s “transgression” – offering Ariel the opportunity to become human for three days in exchange for her voice. If she receives a “true love’s kiss” from Eric, she can remain so permanently. However, if she doesn’t, she’ll return to the ocean and belong to Ursula until the end of time. Hesitantly, Ariel agrees, but romancing Eric (especially without the assistance of the voice that would signal to him who she is) is much easier said than done. Ursula’s unending meddling is another obstacle. But with the help of her animal friends Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle, Ariel might find her “happily ever after,” after all.
How else do you start a review of 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” without heaping praise on our leading lady herself? As Ariel, Halle Bailey is a revelation plain and simple, honoring the character we’ve all come to cherish over the years while instantly offering her interpretation with an even more potent soul, spirit, and spunk. Of course, we all know she has one hell of a voice (her utterly ravishing rendition of “Part of Your World” elicited applause at my press screening – a rarity), and Bailey sells Ariel’s longing for a life above water – and simultaneous listlessness with existence under the sea – stupendously. But her performance truly pops in the film’s second half, in which Ariel famously can’t speak. It’s a challenge for almost any actor to convey their character’s personality silently, and one can imagine that task is even more intimidating for someone in their first lead role. But Bailey makes it look like child’s play, capturing Ariel’s childlike innocence, curiosity, and naïveté through masterful movement and deeply felt facial expressions alone, selling every emotion effortlessly and making us fall for her right alongside Prince Eric. Speaking of her heartthrob, one thing that sets this “The Little Mermaid” apart from its predecessor is an increased – and more intimate – focus on the central love story (an advantage of a runtime that’s expanded to 135 minutes from the original film’s 83). Here, we receive more time with Ariel and Eric as they relate to one another and develop their relationship, bonding over their shared love of exploration and the unknown and showing what draws them to one another beyond their initial impassioned meet-cute – and this is all while Ariel is mute, mind you. It feels like there’s more weight to this romance because of this supplemental time spent with the two (and additional development to each of their backstories and identities). It helps that Bailey and co-star Jonah Hauer-King – who is engrossingly earnest throughout – have incredibly infectious chemistry that simply lights the screen ablaze, especially every time Hauer-King’s Eric looks on at Bailey’s Ariel adoringly, as we all are.
Though Bailey and Hauer-King are the “stars of the show,” Melissa McCarthy – who was another “controversial” casting choice to some – more than holds her own as the eternally unnerving (and yet crowd-pleasingly campy) Ursula, and although she isn’t really straying far from how Pat Carroll performed as the character three decades ago, why fix what isn’t broke? (Though McCarthy does add enough of her own unique energy as an actress to make the role feel like hers as well). Conversely, Javier Bardem initially plays Triton pretty straight, which might not work for some in a film filled with so many other poignant and/or emotionally powerful performances. However, he still nails Triton’s commanding aura and is responsible for landing the film’s final dramatic beat, which will likely send many out in tears. But beyond all these new takes on the heroes and villains of this tumultuous fable, the other thing that makes this “The Little Mermaid” stand on its own is how effectively – yet subtly – it adds more social commentary to the story established by the original movie. It’s already been stated countless times before that Hans Christian Andersen wrote this fairy tale about his inability to be with his male lover at the time (the mid-1800s). Over the years, the trans community has identified strongly with Ariel, too, thanks to her bodily transformation into the person she believes she belongs to be to live a life she loves. And here, through the casting of Halle Bailey, this “The Little Mermaid” is not just an “interspecies” romance, but an ode to interracial love as well, and one that doesn’t feel the need to draw attention to itself but simply lets its love story speak for itself in showing two lost souls find themselves in one another, no matter who they are or how they identify. It’s a deftly realized delight to witness, and this thematic delicacy makes it all the more moving and meaningful. And so, while some might pick apart a few of the film’s subpar VFX shots here or there (“Avatar: The Way of Water” this is not, though the underwater setpieces are far less of an eyesore than some have claimed them to be from compressed and/or poorly cut clips on Twitter), in the long run, when a beloved story is retold this beautifully – with a pair of pure-hearted performances providing it with pompous passion – it’s hard not to be swept up in the sumptuous sentimentality all over again and give yourself over to that classic Disney magic.