To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, The Little Mermaid (2023) is a musical fantasy romance film directed by Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) from a screenplay written by David Magee (Finding Neverland). Featuring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Javier Bardem, and Melissa McCarthy; it’s a live-action remake of Disney’s 1989 animated film of the same name, which is loosely based on the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The story follows Princess Ariel, a teenage mermaid who makes a deal with the treacherous sea witch Ursula to become a human.
In an unspecified ocean, King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of the merpeople summons his seven daughters Perla (Lorena Andrea), Indira (Simone Ashley), Mala (Karolina Conchet), Tamika (Sienna King), Karina (Kajsa Mohammar), and Caspia (Nathalie Sorrell) for the Coral Moon meeting. When he notices that his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is not present, he sends his loyal and trusted advisor Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to find her.
Elsewhere, Ariel is spending time with her best friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and Scuttle (Awkwafina). Ariel shows Scuttle a fork and is wrongly told that it is for styling hair. Sebastian arrives and Ariel realizes that she missed the meeting. She is scolded by her father for her obsession with the surface world and he reminds her that her mother was killed by humans. She tells him all humans aren’t bad and swims away. Later, Ariel notices fireworks above the water and surfaces to see them up close. She finds the fireworks are coming from a nearby ship filled with sailors and swims closer to investigate. As a storm arrives the ship crashes against the rocks, forcing all the humans into the lifeboats. A young prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) falls into the water and Ariel decides to rescue him and carry him to shore. While he is unconscious she sings to him with her siren voice waking him up. As others arrive Ariel flees into the ocean before she is spotted.
I am a big fan of The Little Mermaid (1989) mainly because I remember watching it with my mom on VHS when I was around four or five years old. It wasn’t the story that had me hooked as much as it was the animation. I remember asking my mom if it was a sequel to Aladdin (1992). That experience has always stuck with me and when I has the chance to go to an advanced screening I decided to take my four-year-old daughter. She had already seen the animated version and I wanted to see how she would connect to the live-action one. Needless to say, she loved it though she was clear to point out the differences. I on the other hand thought it was fine.
This film’s casting is pretty great but was not without controversy. Many online fans were upset with the casting of Halle Bailey, who is Black, as Ariel seeing as she is depicted as White in the animated version. This never made sense to me as Ariel’s skin color is not important to her story. What is important is her stunning red hair and her beautiful singing voice which is on stunning display in the feature. As a professional singer, Bailey crushes every song she sings displaying more vocal talent than anyone else in the film. Diggs is pretty great as Sebastian. His Jamaican accent is similar to Samuel E. Wright’s but not close enough to be considered an impression. Hauer-King looks exactly like the animated Prince Eric. His character is given a little more backstory this time around being changed to a shipwrecked orphan taken in by the royal family. The same can be said for Melissa McCarthy as Ursula. Her backstory is also expanded upon to detail her relation to Ariel and Triton. Awkwafina and Tremblay are serviceable as Scuttle and Flounder, but the photorealism of their characters makes them less adorable. The rest of the cast also turns in solid performances.
The new additions to the lore are where this film shines. Some of it is brand new while other information is taken from expanded Disney media. It has been alluded to that Ursula and Triton are related, but it is confirmed in this movie to be true. The female mermaids no longer wear seashell bralettes to cover their breasts. Instead, that area is covered in scales that match their tails and fins. This is a nice touch that makes them look a little more like sea creatures than half-humans albeit barely. The mermaids are also shown to have siren-like abilities. Their song is apparently majestic enough to make sailors fall in love with them. This is another reason why Ursula decides to take Ariel’s voice.
In terms of negatives, the movie does feel a bit too long. I believe some time could have been shaved off by limiting the music. The new songs that I felt were unnecessary were “Fathoms Below” sung by Prince Eric and “The Scuttlebutt” performed by Awkwafina and Diggs. The underwater scenes do look a bit wonky which is strange considering how beautiful the underwater scenes looked in Avatar: The Way of Water which was made by the same studio. Also, Atlantica looks barren in this movie. We probably see 30 mermaids tops in the entire film. It would have been great to see a thriving ocean society scattered across the seven seas, but instead, we just see what I’d consider a small village.
While a fun adaptation of the source material this film is better when it dares to be different. The cast is great and Halle Bailey delivers a stunning vocal performance as Ariel. I give The Little Mermaid (2023) a Solid 6/10. It will be interesting to see what direction they would take in a potential sequel. Going the same way of the animated route would necessitate a recast as Bailey would still be way too young to be believable as the mother of a teenage child.