The Little Mermaid Review: Disney's Most Radiant and Romantic Live-Action Retelling in Years

1989's The Little Mermaid has become iconic for a number of reasons, as its determined titular princess, its impossibly catchy musical numbers, and its cartoony cast of characters have all resonated with audiences in one way or another over the years. But in the tapestry of Disney itself, The Little Mermaid will always be seen as a pivotal turning point, with its monumental performance at the box office kicking off the "Disney Renaissance." Over three decades later, Disney's live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid is on the precipice of a renaissance, too, debuting at a time when audiences are enthusiastically beginning to return to the post-COVID box office, and when films with bombastic action or crowd-pleasing characters have experienced genuine success. The Little Mermaid could (and should) join those ranks of smash hits — in part because its sincere, talent-driven spectacle feels like more of a revelation than ever. The Little Mermaid not only holds the 1989 original in high regard, but it captures the epic and soul-healing nature of fairy tales for a new generation, delivering a satisfying blockbuster with enough heart and romance to vastly outweigh any of its shortcomings. 

The Little Mermaid recounts the tale of Ariel (Halle Bailey), a mermaid whose longing for adventure has been dwarfed in the undersea kingdom ruled by her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). After a fiery shipwreck leads to Ariel crossing paths with — and saving the life of — Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she grows determined to join the world of man… but can only do so through a dark deal with her aunt, Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). Ariel trades her voice for the opportunity to live amongst the humans, which sets off a chain of events that will change her, Eric, and their kingdoms forever.

Admittedly, it feels odd trying to encapsulate The Little Mermaid's plot, in part because both Disney's animated film and the original Hans Christian Andersen fable have become so heavily ingrained in our popular culture. That sense of iconography has been an interesting dilemma with Disney's other live-action remakes, which have each taken a different approach to the fine line between making small changes and simply regurgitating the existing source material in a new package. Thankfully, The Little Mermaid is strong enough in its convictions to largely take the former option, pursuing a reverential, but inventive approach to the recognizable story. Sure, the film's first act has several sequences that are beat-for-beat recreations from the animated film — but they come across like intentional acknowledgments of how strong those scenes were to begin with.

Those strong scenes are accompanied by a lot of new additions, resulting in a run time nearly an hour longer than the animated The Little Mermaid, but also crafting a more complete and complex telling of the story. Not every new element will land perfectly — your personal mileage on the well-crafted, but anachronistic "Scuttlebutt" rap will vary wildly, depending on your pre-existing penchant for Lin-Manuel Miranda's music. But thankfully, a lot of the additional content seems destined to resonate with audiences.

A vast majority of the new real estate is given to the dynamic between Ariel and Eric: the baked-in conflict between the land and sea, Eric's own backstory as an outsider, and eventually, their shared romance. Without getting into spoilers, these elements might be the most pleasant surprise of The Little Mermaid, in part because they are handled in such a thoughtful and curious context. Eric is able to be more than the blandly charming, two-dimensional character that he is in the animated film, and it's easy to see that Ariel is genuinely falling in love with him, and not just the manifestation of her hopes and dreams that he represents. As a result, watching the two of them fall in love across The Little Mermaid's second and third acts is a balanced and captivating experience (one that they're both equal players in, even when Ariel isn't able to speak for a good portion of the movie). 

The risks The Little Mermaid takes would not work if not for the film's leads, as Bailey and Hauer-King deliver career-defining performances. After literal years of anticipation surrounding Bailey taking on the titular role, the end result proves to have been more than worth the wait, as she not only effortlessly embodies Ariel's earnestness and enthusiasm, but adds even more layers of depth to it. Her mesmerizing performance becomes the true spectacle of the film, to the point where the technical prowess and story beats surrounding her at any particular moment fade into the background. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her rendition of "Part of Your World" and its reprise, which could easily go down in history as our modern-day version of Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Hauer-King's performance works in perfect harmony with Bailey's, especially once Ariel loses her voice and navigates through scenes nonverbally. As Eric is afforded that aforementioned much-needed depth, he evolves into an equal (but never overshadowing) secondary protagonist of the film — even getting his own solo musical number, "Wild Uncharted Waters," which hits like a charmingly sincere version of Into the Woods' infamous "Agony." Once Ariel and Eric begin to share more scenes together, Bailey and Hauer-King's chemistry makes their journey toward love (and their journey to keep that love in the face of increasingly bizarre odds) the selling point of the movie. As you branch out into The Little Mermaid's supporting cast, the performances range from complementary to borderline-distracting. McCarthy captures a good portion of Urusla's legendary scenery-chewing — at times, she reads like more of a fun, goth aunt than a painfully obvious villain, which makes her early, pre-betrayal rapport with Ariel a bit more believable. Bardem's Triton is so stoic, it regularly seems like he's in a different movie from the rest of his costars, but his emotional approach works in a few key moments.

The trio of Ariel's talking animal friends — Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Scuttle (Awkwafina), and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) — fulfill their roles admirably, but don't particularly reinvent the wheel. The technical approach to The Little Mermaid, which is filled with a lot of good and a smidge of uncanny valley, doesn't help that component. The photorealistic, true-to-life designs of the film's animals have some visual setbacks, and come nowhere close to the whimsical display of the animated film. This becomes obvious once The Little Mermaid gets to its rendition of "Under the Sea", which not only seems to shoot around Sebastian to minimize how many times they have to animate his mouth moving, but choreographs many of its dancing fish with the liveliness of a PBS nature special.

If the rest of the film weren't so entertaining and thematically magical, this would be a make-or-break element — but instead, it ends up being a fleeting disappointment. That being said, the vast majority of technical elements of The Little Mermaid deserve to be celebrated — the mermaid designs are inspired, and the CGI construction of the underwater sequences is (with a few exceptions) much more colorful than the film's trailers let on. The practical costuming and architecture, particularly in the palace that Eric calls home, are stunning and convey a liveliness that matches Ariel's enthusiasm for the surface world. 

Maybe Disney's live-action remakes (which don't seem to be stopping anytime soon) can be seen as more than an easy opportunity to make some money at the box office, or an attempt to "legitimize" stories that were already told well in animation. Maybe, with the right story and in the right hands, these movies can function more as retellings, taking the opportunity to add to the tapestry of their central myths. The Little Mermaid near-perfectly proves how to do that, honoring almost everything that worked about Disney's 84-minute animated hit, while approaching its epic story from a broader, surprisingly tender angle. The Little Mermaid might be a story that audiences have already consumed (and will continue to consume) hundreds of times — but thanks to the incredible performances from its leads, and a whole lot of heart, this live-action iteration almost makes you feel like you're watching it for the first time.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Little Mermaid will be released exclusively in theaters on Friday, May 26th.