Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee
Starring: Halle Bailey, Johan Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik
Released: May 25, 2023
Grade: B

The Little Mermaid

One could look at this film cynically and see it as an unnecessary, cash-generating vehicle for Walt Disney Studios.  The 1989 animated feature, loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, was a short, unassuming, likeable flick with catchy tunes.  In addition to winning the Oscar for best original score, the memorable “Under the Sea” won best original song.  Do we really need a live action remake and if so, what could it offer which improves on the original?

The storyline remains simple.  A young, adventurous mermaid named Ariel (Bailey) is going stir-crazy in the ocean and yearns to explore the human world.  After rescuing the handsome Prince Eric (Hauer-King) who falls from a sinking ship, her auntie Ursula (McCarthy) gives her legs for 72-hours so she can interact with the prince on land and travel to his castle.  However, Ursula has villainous motivations (“squibbling rivalry”) and it falls upon Ariel’s animal friends – a bird (Awkwafina), a crab (Diggs), and a fish (Tremblay) – to intervene and help save the day.

One noticeable change between the two movies is the running time.  The 1989 version clocked in at 83 minutes whereas this fresh look runs for 135 minutes.  The extra time allows them to add three new songs, create a backstory for the prince, and introduce additional characters.  A few plot points and song lyrics were also tweaked to help modernise the messages (e.g. Ariel wants more from life than just a man).

Tony Award winning actor Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) is the MVP of the cast with his scene-stealing voice performance as Sebastian the sarcastic, frustrated crab.  Art Malik wins points Prince Eric’s sage butler and Halle Bailey (Grown-ish) will garner new fans for her lead performance.  The narrative is sluggish in places (particularly in the middle act) but the catchy songs, all beautifully sung, add doses of energy at necessary moments.

I wasn’t sold on the direction of Academy Award nominee Rob Marshall (Chicago) but it doesn’t help that James Cameron showed us 5 months ago what was possible with Avatar: The Way of Water.  The rich detail and bright colours which Cameron brought to his underwater scenes is absent here.  The stuff above ground isn’t too bad (costumes are great) but the CGI-created sea sets in The Little Mermaid are too dark and grainy. 

With Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights) adding helpful input as a producer and songwriter, and Alan Menken returning as composer, The Little Mermaid is good enough.  I don’t think it’s any better than the original but in trying to judge on its own merits, the film provides light entertainment for younger crowds.