The Little Mermaid holds a special place in the hearts of Disney fans. Releasing in 1989, the animated classic about a young mermaid with dreams of exploring a world beyond her own marked the beginning of a new era for the studio. The characters were fleshed out, the villain was perfectly maniacal and the songs were top-tier toe-tappers. So, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I approached the live-action adaptation. Sitting in the theater, reclined with a box of candy on my lap, I was consumed by a mixture of excitement and hesitation. While I was hopeful that the film would deliver a magical fantasy of whimsy and beauty, I only experienced glimpses of that; fleeting moments of greatness bogged down by a sea of mediocrity.
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Ariel (Halle Bailey) is a mermaid. She’s the daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), a powerful ruler of a kingdom deep beneath the sea. King Triton holds a firm stance on humans and the above ground world; They’re evil and never to be trusted. But Ariel has the heart of an explorer and longs to learn as much about the humans and their world as she can. It’s this longing that leads her to strike up a dangerous deal with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), an evil sea witch with ulterior motives.
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The film’s casting initially caused a wave of confusion as online readers mistook Halle Bailey for Halle Berry. The latter is an accomplished Academy Award winning actress, but being in her fifties would have made for a strange choice to play the role of the teenaged lead. Don’t let the confusion fool you, Bailey is Ariel. From the first moment we hear her rendition of Part of Your Word it’s clear why she was chosen for the role. She brings a bubbling exuberance and curiosity to the character that cements her performance in the Disney hall-of-fame. However, it’s the rest of the casting that feels questionable at best.
On paper, Mellissa McCarthy is pitch-perfect casting for the role of Ursula. They share a passing resemblance and McCarthy tends to devote a level of commitment to her roles that could have helped the iconic villain to shine. Yet, McCarthy never feels like she’s all in on The Little Mermaid. Her deliveries feel half-hearted and she never delves into the darkness befitting the sea witch. I desperately wanted her to show how vile and menacing she could be, and not exploring that element of the character feels like such a missed opportunity.
Halle Bailey shines as Ariel in Disney's #TheLittleMermaid, but her stellar performance isn't enough to save this adaptation from drowning in a sea of mediocrity. The CGI is a struggle and all of the magic is lost. Maybe its time to throw in the towel on live-action remakes? pic.twitter.com/WO3sk3hMdd
— Joshua Ryan (@MrMovieGuy86) May 17, 2023
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One of the most significant critiques the film faced following the release of its first trailer — besides being “too dark to see” — was the questionable use of CGI. While I’d remained hopeful that the finished product would be improved upon, I was left disappointed by an underwater world whose unrealistic imagery clashes against the live-action actors within them. It’s a mishmash of photorealism and pop art styles that work against one another like oil and water. The characters never feel like they exist within the the ocean landscape.
The entire film is littered with moments that feel ‘off.’ For example, Scuttle (a seagull) stands and speaks on the ocean floor without issue or assistance. Awkwafina brings her typical energy to the voice role. That could be seen as a positive or negative depending on your opinion of her as actress. Personally, I found her to be spectacular in The Farewell, passable in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and absolutely grating in nearly everything else. Her worst offense here is the unbearably obnoxious rap (yes… there’s a rap) titled Scuttlebutt. It’s the worst of three new songs, and it had me rolling my eyes so far in the back of my head that I sank into my chair.
This is one story that doesn’t quite translate from animation to live-action without sacrificing the magic that made the original a classic. Halle Bailey’s performance shines bright through the dark depths of the ocean, but not even she can save this becoming another forgettable adaptation. On the plus side, kids will likely have a blast, and the film stands a strong chance at the box office. It’s far from terrible; however, it’s equally as far from greatness.
The Little Mermaid releases in theaters May 25th.
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