On May 26th, 2023, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid (2023)” officially opened in theaters, giving audiences around the world the chance to rejoin the world of Ariel & her friends on the big screen for the first time in almost 35 years. This version of “The Little Mermaid” is a live-action remake of the award-winning 1989 classic “The Little Mermaid” – the beloved animated hit that racked up dozens of awards & millions of fans upon it’s release, & has become one of the most well-known animated films of all-time. The current version of the film tells the same story as the beloved classic, but brings the story to life in a completely new way, including new songs & lyrics, deeper back-stories for a multitude of characters, and – of course – an entirely live-action telling of the animated story.
ARE LIVE-ACTION REMAKES WORTH IT?
The very first factor that comes to mind for most when discussing “The Little Mermaid (2023)” is whether or not a live-action re-telling of such a well-received movie is even worth it in the first place (a question that has been stirring in the Disney & film fandoms for decades now, but has come to light more & more over recent years). That question is entirely fair, & I’m honestly not sure that there is a blanket answer. For some, these live-action remakes that Disney has churned out as of late (“Aladdin (2019)”, “Cinderella (2015)”, & “The Lion King (2019)”, to name a few) are fresh & energetic ways to dive back into worlds that engulfed them as children while introducing the next generation to their favorite characters in a new way at the same time. For others, they are simply soulless cash grabs who’s only purpose is to earn money & sell toys. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, I’m not sure anyone can tell you you’re wrong, & I’m also not sure this live-action remake is going to change how you feel, either. For myself, I probably fall somewhere in the middle – many of the live-action remakes do indeed feel soulless & greedy, but a majority of them add a fresh take on a beloved story & do a great job of bringing that story back into the eye of popular culture while still respecting the original. When most of them are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars on top of all that, can you really blame the company for giving them the greenlight, anyways?
Luckily, I can confidently say that “The Little Mermaid (2023)” easily falls into the latter, for me. Was it necessary? Maybe not. Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY. While the film was obviously produced in part to earn some big bucks for The Walt Disney Company (while adding synergy for their parks, movies, & cruise line, too), there’s no denying that the talent behind & in front of the camera here is nothing short of brilliant & easily justifies the film’s existence. It’s clear that the entire cast & crew of “The Little Mermaid (2023)” understands the importance of paying homage to & respecting the 1989 animated hit while still adding their own expertise & flare to the new movie – something I’m not sure we can say about most of the recent live-action re-telling’s from Disney.
Little commentary can be had on the film itself without first acknowledging the absolute mastery that is Halle Bailey (Ariel). For most audience members, this movie will be their grand introduction to Bailey, as Ariel is Bailey’s first titular role in any film. She did spend 4 seasons as Skylar Forester in “Grown-ish” on ABC from 2018-2022, as well as making her mark in the music scene with her sister via her R&B duo group “Chloe x Halle” – including winning numerous music awards & being a featured act in two separate Beyonce tours since 2016. After this, though, it’s safe to say that Halle Bailey will instantly become a household name, as her performance as one of the most beloved movie characters of all-time is nearly-flawless. When Bailey needs to let her voice take center stage, she delivers; when she needs to let her mannerisms & facial expressions take center stage without any voice, she delivers; when she needs to let her chemistry with her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) or with her beau, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) take center stage, once again, she delivers. Her vocal performance is spine-tingling & hair-raising, but her acting skills are just as well-rounded & well-delivered. The fact that she is able to deliver both so effortlessly is nothing short of amazing. From opening scene to end credits, Halle Bailey is the star of the show, & her performance alone is worth price of admission.
Apart from the mastery of Bailey, great performances fill the screen all around her, as well. As mentioned above, Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is a fantastic co-star to Bailey. Hauer-King has tremendous chemistry with Bailey’s Ariel that is palpable & emotional throughout. While his solo feature towards the middle of the film (a new addition to the traditional story) doesn’t quite hit the mark for me, his vocals & emotion throughout the song & the film as a whole are incredibly impressive. The casting of Hauer-King as Prince Eric was immaculate, & the film would not have been the same without it. Javier Bardem’s King Triton is another standout performance, although more screentime with the character would have been nice. Bardem delivers gravitas & power to King Triton, but the emotion isn’t always there, likely as a result of the relative lack of screen-time for an otherwise fantastic character. Of course, there has been ample discourse leading up to the film on how well Melissa McCarthy could fill the gigantic shoes (err..tentacles?) of the big-bad, Ursula, but McCarthy absolutely delivers. Not only does she make the character of Ursula her own, but she brings an entirely new dimension to the villain. I was pleasantly surprised by McCarthy’s vocals throughout the film, & she masters the menacing yet cunning nature of Ursula, as well.
As for our animal friends, the lovable bird Scuttle is voiced by Awkwafina, the sea-crab himself Sebastian is voiced by Daveed Diggs, & Jacob Tremblay lends his talents for the cute & timid Flounder. All three do a wonderful job, although Tremblay’s Flounder certainly takes a backseat to the standout performances of Diggs’ Sebastian & Awkwafina’s Scuttle. One of the (many) bright spots of the entire film was Diggs’ exquisite comedic timing as Sebastian, & his chemistry with both Bardem’s King Triton & Awkwafina’s Scuttle is especially impressive. Conversely, there is certainly much noise across the internet regarding Awkwafina’s performance of “Scuttlebutt” – a new song in the film written by Disney mainstay Lin-Manuel Miranda – but I personally didn’t have much of an issue with the addition. The song is a bit jarring & slightly out of context, sure, but it’s entertaining & comedic, & Awkwafina delivers with confidence, even if the vocals aren’t quite up to par. Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) & her trusty advisor Sir Grimsby (Art Malik) round out the lineup of impressive performances, & both make you leave the theater wanting more time with each character.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Behind the camera, director Rob Marshall (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, “Chicago”, & “Mary Poppins Returns”) was tasked with both directing AND producing the film, & he knocked it out of the park. This is Marshall’s third big-budget project with Disney, & all three happened to be sequels or remakes (or a bit of both). There’s no doubt he’ll be back for a fourth in the coming years after his impressive job behind the scenes; it’s no easy feat directing such a stacked cast of voice & live-action characters, but Rob Marshall handled it tremendously.
As with any live-action remake of an animated film, CGI is always a huge factor at play, & the VFX team on “The Little Mermaid (2023)” did a great job overall. There are certainly a few jarring scenes towards the beginning of the film, especially surrounding Ariel’s mermaid-sisters, but these mistakes feel more like a lack of time allowed to finish rendering the CGI rather than any slip up from the VFX team themselves. It’s not ideal, obviously, but the remaining three-quarters of the film look great from a CGI & affects standpoint, so it’s a minor issue, at least.
Overall, “The Little Mermaid (2023)” absolutely blew my expectations out of the water (you could even say they grew legs). The past few Disney live-action remakes have rightfully left myself – & most fans – skeptical (“Pinocchio (2022)” is truly one of the most embarrassing films ever put out by Walt Disney Pictures) about the future creative viability of re-making animated classics into live-action productions. Luckily, Rob Marshall, Halle Bailey, & the entire team behind this beautiful film have reversed that sentiment entirely (at least for now). From start to finish, the film was entertaining, surprising, impressive, & emotional, all while being incredibly respectful to the source material. Bailey (Ariel), Hauer-King (Prince Eric), & Diggs (Sebastian) are the three standouts for me, but there is no lack of amazing performances all throughout the film, & something for everyone in the family to enjoy. “The Little Mermaid (2023)” is an instant summer hit, & one of the best Disney live-action films of all-time.