Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of its beloved animated films from the 1990s, including Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan, typically prompt one question above all — did the new film do something unique to justify its own existence? While answers may be mixed, the VFX technology available today affords the opportunity to tell stories in new, visually striking ways that can appeal both to audiences who grew up with the animated originals as well as younger generations who have yet to see them. Whether or not there were people clamoring for a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, which started Disney’s animation boom in 1989, the studio’s big-budget update has plenty to deliver.
The Little Mermaid hails from Rob Marshall, a director who has spent much of his cinematic career adapting acclaimed musicals (his first effort, Chicago, ranks as his best). He’s a fitting helmer for this visual feast, offering an experience that taps into the beauty of the ocean and emphasizes how longstanding misunderstandings can sow problematic divisions. The film succeeds in trading the boundless imagination of animation for a similarly striking presentation that combines live-action actors and computer-generated effects, resulting in a look that feels natural and real — an especially impressive feat considering that much of it takes place underwater.
It’s difficult not to compare the new Little Mermaid to another Disney movie featuring an underwater city — Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Yet while the design of Talokan stressed the complexity of construction and worldbuilding, this world is much simpler. Mermaids — and mermen — speak underwater without any difficulty and move by swimming around, so the sense of wonder comes instead from the marvelous world of creatures around them. There’s a spectacular color palette bursting with energy, and there’s an equally remarkable shift once Ariel (Halle Bailey) begins to discover how humans live and how their world looks.
Bailey is an extraordinary talent who will surely have a long and productive career following this — her first leading role — and she imbues Ariel with a fierce determination to find her voice. Her yearning to understand what it means to be human feels lived-in and legitimate, and it’s easy to follow her journey, as Ariel feels sidelined by her father (Javier Bardem), which leads her into the welcoming tentacles of manipulative sea witch Ursula.
Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy plays Ursula, and she knows how to command attention during her big musical performance numbers while still allowing her co-stars to shine. It’s quite fun watching McCarthy do her best impression of Kathleen Turner in a scenery-chewing turn, and her performance is further enhanced by the way Marshall shoots her, using lights and quick-moving camera work to show just how villainous her character is.
Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina contribute considerable comedy as Sebastian and Scuttle, Ariel’s crab and bird friends, respectively, who step in to assist her when they learn she must share a genuine kiss with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) or be forever prisoner to the maniacal Ursula.
Like many Disney movies before it, this is a story that might have been crafted with kids in mind but still surely has the potential to scare younger audiences. Its shipwreck scenes are particularly vivid and vicious, compelling for adults watching, and capable of grounding viewers in more serious, intense moments free from song and dance. They’re well-balanced by more choreographed, gleeful musical numbers that will delight fans of the original who look forward to hearing familiar tunes like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” There are also new additions to the soundtrack from Diggs’ Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who adds a bit of modern pop to the film’s otherwise classic melodies.
Side-by-side comparisons between this film and the 34-year-old animated movie will undoubtedly present some points of divergence, but the overall effect is the same. It’s refreshing to see a great deal of diversity and representation in front of the camera, something that only adds to the film’s message of inclusivity and acceptance, as the story celebrates our differences. That said, it’s the people who remember first seeing 1989’s The Little Mermaid as children who will most likely relish the chance to show their own kids this strong example of how live-action and animation can work together. Though each medium offers different things, when done right, both can be equally satisfying together.
The Little Mermaid will be released by Disney in theaters across the globe on Friday, May 26.