I can’t believe I have to start a review this way, but it needs to be said early: you can absolutely dislike the live action “The Little Mermaid” without the dog whistling of racism that has proliferated much of the conversation months before the film’s release. There are a lot of things that are fair to criticize. But “Ariel being white” is most certainly not one of them. The whole grandstanding about the skin tone of mermaids that, I know this is really hard to hear, AREN’T REAL and anything rooted in this ideology is objectively wrong and a very bad take.
Halle Bailey’s Ariel is the best part of “The Little Mermaid,” a film that without her performance would wear it’s misguided reimagining faults on its seashells. Though not as soulless as some previous attempts at live action remakes, “The Little Mermaid” does little warrant its purpose or necessity, bogged down by its abysmal underwater CGI and inescapable desperation to be newly relevant.
I also need to disclose my own personal connection to “The Little Mermaid.” No, it is not just for little girls looking for another princess to add to their doll collection. As a child raised on Disney VHS, musical theater and choir, the original 1989 animated film has held sway over my life all the way into adulthood. Not to get too personal, but there was once a home video recording of myself and my brothers competitively singing the signature Ariel vocalizations until the key changes became too much even for our young adolescent voices. So to say that as a heterosexual male “The Little Mermaid” isn’t made for me, and that I “just don’t get it” is a false assumption.
Like most Disney animated films, I was raised on them. All of them, regardless of “target audiences.” And though I went into this new one with reservations, the magic of its origins are still deeply resonate and personal to me and my childhood. So before we try to default to the “Well if you’re not racist, then you’re a straight man that doesn’t get it,” know that that couldn’t be further from the truth and on both accounts, I actually wanted “The Little Mermaid” to dazzle and prove my preconceived notions wrong. And not to put too fine a point on it, but this is all so that we can establish that any critiques are coming from a place of true film criticism and not rooted in whatever Twitter trolls are rambling on about.
Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods“) from a screenplay by David Magee (“Mary Poppins Returns,” “A Man Called Otto“) “The Little Mermaid” sticks closely to the original 1989 animated film with a few added songs and scenes to bloat the run time and add realism to a fairytale, something we will come back to later. There really isn’t a need to recap the synopsis here. If you know the story of Disney’s original film, then you know this one. Mermaid girl wishes to be human, saves a prince, father destroys her collection, she makes a deal with a sea witch and now has 3 days to get true loves kiss without her voice and siren’s song or everything she’s ever known will be destroyed. Like most live action remakes, the redundancies and unimaginative reimagining hinder any real justification for “The Little Mermaid” remake to exist in the first place. It exposes the pure cash grab as its sole purpose, which leaves viewers feeling hollow as the film carries on. Even when it’s good and gets things right, it is impossible not to recall its far superior counterpart and leaves you with an overwhelming feeling to fire up the one you love and cherish.
All of this is unfortunately, because Halle Bailey is a diamond in the rough, a bright shining star in a bland, run of the mill live action remake. “The Little Mermaid” is singlehandedly kept alive through Bailey’s dazzling performance, one that captures every facet of Ariel and overcomes the shoddy recreations around her. It is impossible not to be charmed by Bailey, who is so delightful and vibrant you get the sense that she was born for this role. Her song is marvelous, displaying her powerhouse vocals and mesmerizing control over every single note. If anything in “The Little Mermaid” remains in tact from its animated counterpart, it’s Bailey’s rendition of “Part of Your World,” which is powerful enough to bring even the most adamant of haters to tears with how beautiful it is. I want everything for this girl, who deserves most if not all of the praise for her work and one I want to see so much more of in the future.
Sadly, that’s about where the good ends. “The Little Mermaid” simply can’t escape its nightmare fueled sea creature renderings, from Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) who seems more like an afterthought added in post than an actual meaningful character, to Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) who’s terrific voice performances are behind emotionless CGI recreations. The underwater special effects never get better, and remain consistently assaulting with just how awful it all looks. It simply doesn’t matter how entertaining Diggs or even Melissa McCarthy as Ursella (who’s perfectly fine and definitely trying something new, but used so sparingly and shrouded in inexplicable darkness it’s hard to really know what to make of her) is trying to be. They are enshrined in a sea of Samsung TikTok level green screens, with no amount of vibrant color pallets able to distract you from how disturbingly bad it all looks under water. It is once again Disney’s misguided attempt to add a level of realism to an unrealistic fairytale that gets in the way of making “The Little Mermaid” watchable in some of its more memorable moments.
It is also a testament as to why animated films have the longevity they do. It’s not necessarily the story of “The Little Mermaid,” but more so that the characters themselves are unrealistic and therefore emotive and imaginative. There’s just no way to aptly anthropomorphize a CGI fish as simply that; a fish, void of emotive capabilities and trapped by a realistic logic that simply shouldn’t apply. “The Little Mermaid” isn’t as bad once we get to the surface, and that portion continues to give more opportunities for Bailey to absolutely shine in her speechless parts of her narrative. But even when the visual faults subside, “The Little Mermaid” is grossly overstuffed and bloated, with too many attempts to try and pad the runtime with character development and unnecessary original songs. “For the First Time” stands out as a decent addition, but again that has more to do with Bailey and her incredible performance than the song itself.
This is most notable in the shoehorned, can’t help himself Lin Manuel Miranda “Hamilton” style rap song that Scuttle and Sebastian perform towards the latter half of the film. Listen, I’m as big of a stan of “Hamilton” as anyone, but for the love of god not EVERYTHING needs to have the rap styling filter. “The Scuttlebutt” is all of Miranda’s worse tendencies laid bare, and I can’t remember the last time I eye rolled so hard in a theater. Even as a fan of his work and the original work that launched a whole new sub genre, the addition is so out of place and feels like a worse version of “The Gilmore Girls” Star Hollow rap, justification for its inclusion the same, too. Yes, I know what that is. No, I will not explain myself.
I know I’ve come down pretty harshly on “The Little Mermaid,” and while I don’t take back anything I can say that as far as live action remakes go, it lands on the better end of the spectrum. It’s fine, just fine and nothing more outside of Bailey’s performance. “The Little Mermaid” is clearly an attempt to hang on to its valuable IP, so it really doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be good enough to be made. And while some can’t even measure up to that very low bar (here’s looking at you “Pinocchio“) “The Little Mermaid” is another unnecessary live action remakes that doesn’t quite capture the magic of the original but isn’t as soulless as other attempts. I can’t say that this is good enough to turn me into an advocate for these god awful decisions to reimagine everything in the vault, but considering the low bar set for most of these ill advised outings, you could do a lot worse than this one.
I’m sure kids are gonna love “The Little Mermaid,” and despite my dislike for a lot of things here, I do hope people gravitate towards Bailey and she continues to be a beacon of representation and hope for young girls and boys filled with joy to see themselves as Ariel onscreen. If for nothing else, that’s enough to make it worth seeing. Just know that most of what you actually see is hard to forget in the worst of ways, and while it’s the best live action remake in a while, “The Little Mermaid” is still a live action remake that shouldn’t have been made to begin with.
Even at its best, “The Little Mermaid” is just okay, and while I know that’s enough for Disney to go back and dig out more of these egregious money laundering schemes, I don’t know that it’s enough to keep coming back to the theater to participate in the sham.
None of this matters when I end up writing the exact same review for the upcoming live action “Moana” and “Lilo & Stitch,” both of which are currently in development. It should all remain under the sea, but you can kiss the girl goodbye because these will forever be part of our world. I just kind of wish they weren’t.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“The Little Mermaid” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.