With their recent run of live-action adaptations of classic animated films, Disney is well aware of how difficult it is to reclaim that magic. For one, these new films compete with the pillars of many fans' childhoods, and animation has a particular type of storytelling that never seems to age – regardless of the generation. Thus, the challenges director Rob Marshall was up against when doing The Little Mermaid. The ocean is dark the deeper you go; a medium where you want to strike a balance between realism and fantasy has to walk a fine line (another advantage of animation).
It takes a second for eyes to adjust to much of this film's CGI-generated landscape. There’s a sequence with Ariel (Halle Bailey), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and a shark that doesn’t quite feel right. After a while, the schools of fish, the ocean floor, and the mermaids become clearer and feel as natural as possible. Another element that also helps is much of The Little Mermaid’s second and third acts take place on land – such characters like Scuttle (Akwafina) and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) don’t feel as foreign. There is also a considerable effort to get characters like Ariel, her mermaid sisters, and King Triton (Javier Bardem) in beams of sunlight, where the theatrical experience enhances the quality.
As for the story, writer David Magee sticks to the same script as the 1989 version with slight, modern-style tweaks. Ariel is enamored with the surface and the human world, so she keeps a cave full of treasures (yes, the fork is still called a dinglehopper). However, she is forbidden to go there because there’s hatred between the two worlds. In particular, Triton informs us that Ariel’s mother died because of humans. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to break out on a path of independence. While looking at a ship, Ariel sees Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), an adopted prince who wants to break his royal monotony for adventure.
When a shipwreck happens, Ariel saves Eric, and their love story begins. Much of the Little Mermaid faithful will recognize where this story is going, and it’s precisely what you would expect. What works are the great performances from Bailey and Hauer-King – when they are together as their characters, you get invested in how their stories unfold (and even root for them to get together). Bailey’s charm in this role and her marvelous singing voice brings another element to the sections when “Part of Your World” happens. More of an effort it places on making these characters entrenched in their settings – even if it feels like the love story holds more narrative weight than “we have to bring our worlds not to hate each other.”
The standout concerning Ariel’s friends comes from Daveed’s portrayal of Sebastian – he’s fun and gives considerable life to it. He and Awkwafina’s Scuttle have more to do in trying to help Ariel, whereas Flounder has considerably less screen time because fish can’t live on land. The Little Mermaid is known for its classic villain, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), and McCarthy has a good time with the character when you see her misdeeds trying to trick Ariel. Many of the notable scenes from the animated film are still present – along with tunes like “Under The Sea” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
A criticism that has stayed with these adaptations is that they seem like carbon copy ports that hinge on tugging at your nostalgic heartstrings. At best, these films are an entry point for new generations to discover these tales with new technology and diversity. Not all the newer elements work, but it’s far more satisfying seeing Ariel learn about the world through the eyes of town markets and Trinidad-based musicians than sitting at a royal “guess whose coming to dinner” trope. Just enough elements come together to justify why the retelling of this story is needed.