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 updates through expansion rather than through wholesale reinvention. Even with all its new ideas, this Little Mermaid sticks so closely to the beats of Disney’s 1989 film that you can’t deny that it was made with longtime fans in mind, and there’s a lot here for them to enjoy. But for all the care that clearly went into the film, 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 grounded in a consistent, thoughtful reality.
Based on HC Andersen’s fairy tale from 1837, The Little Mermaid tells the familiar story of Ariel (Halle Bailey), the youngest, most curious 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 come from puts her at constant odds with her family, all of whom wish she would take her duties as a princess more seriously.
Unlike 1989 Little Mermaidwhich barely mentioned 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 Beginnings — as the basis for Triton’s fear and distrust of humans. The tragedy of Ariel’s past does not dim her light in the present. But it is one of The Little Mermaidmore notable updates because of the seriousness it adds to Ariel and Triton’s ideological differences about humanity and the merpeople’s decision to shun them as they shun Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the sea witch and Triton’s sister.
Look at The Little Mermaid after seeing big budget features like Aquaman, Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverand Avatar: The Way of the Water is an interesting experience. As different as all these water films are, each of them has worked towards the common goal of creating believable underwater worlds inhabited by people we are meant to understand as living, breathing, organic creatures. Some of that realism tends to involve dropping live actors into actual bodies of water (whether they contained sets or otherwise). But whenever we discuss Disney’s “live-action” remakes of animated films and how “realistic” they are, what we’re really talking about is the extent 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
Putting the white savior fantasy about it all aside, very little about The way of the water‘s Pandora would probably read as grounded as it does if it weren’t for how much work (and time and money) went into finding the fine details of how elements like light, water, and wind interact with each other and with things as characters. skin and hair in various contexts. It’s when all the seemingly small but actually very significant components of a fictional world work together to support each other that things start to feel “real”, no matter how otherworldly they actually are.
The Little Mermaidits creative team obviously understands this concept to some extent, as evidenced by Ariel’s underwater musical numbers, where you can clearly see the hours that went into animating her abundant red locks with a playful grace reminiscent of the 2D cartoon. But the effort put into animating Ariel’s hair is at odds with things like the inconsistent way the light behaves underwater and the overly clean sound design that makes Atlantica feel like a well-mused soundscape.
At several points throughout the film, Ariel is so full of conflicting emotions that she has moved into a subtle but still very visible state of near-tears that moves and speaks to Bailey’s skills as a performer, but also breaks the fantasy that she is a mermaid lives at the bottom of the sea.
It’s really only down under the sea in the first third of the film before she makes her fateful pact with Ursula that you get the strongest sense of how studied a performance Bailey delivers as Ariel. While she’s definitely a bit sharper, more proactive and ready to stand up for herself more than 2D cartoon Ariel, there’s a pointed Disney Princess™ lilt to her speaking voice and magic to her singing voice that’s apt to get you to appreciate just that all together she gives up traveling to the surface in search of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) after a fateful encounter.
Compared with The Little Mermaidits underwater scenes, the film’s time on land works much, much better in the sense that it doesn’t always leave you wondering why things feel so bad. But Bailey and the Hauer-Kings’ so-so chemistry makes Prince Eric and Ariel’s budding romance with a magically muted Ariel—the core of The Little Mermaidits history – harder to buy than it should be. The way this Little Mermaidthe songs just starting out of nowhere instead of leading the film through the actions also makes it a little difficult to buy the film as a proper musical, which will probably come as a disappointment to some theatergoers.
Where The Little Mermaid falling, 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 die-hard adult fans and kids for whom projects like these are the cannon.
The Little Mermaid also stars Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs and Jessica Alexander. The film is in theaters now.