Film Review: Halle Bailey rules the uneven ocean of The Little Mermaid

Whilst, for the most part, there’s a certain unnecessary mentality that comes along with Disney and their incessant need to live-action-update their animated back catalogue, some of these efforts have given way to adaptations that are inherently interesting (Jon Favreau’s 2016 take on The Jungle Book), undeniably charming (Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015) or have inspired character tales that, though undo their animated impact, prove fresh in their own manner; Maleficent and Cruella hoping scene-chewing turns from Angelina Jolie and Emma Stone, respectively, will undo their characters’ villainous inclinations.

Of course, for every effort that succeeds in some aspect, there’s a Dumbo, a Pinocchio and a Lion King to remind you the House of Mouse doesn’t always win; the latter’s billion dollar haul aside.  In the case of The Little Mermaid, there’s more right with it than wrong, but it also doesn’t entirely succeed in proving that a live-action update is worth the time.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a stronger effort than many will be expecting, and Halle Bailey is simply luminous in the lead role, but the extra narrative padding and new song additions haven’t enhanced what was already a magical experience.

That aforementioned extra padding equates to a whopping 52 minutes of additional story time, most of which attempts to plump up the character of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), arguably one of the more vanilla princes in the Disney vault, who now gets his own solo lament (“Wild Uncharted Waters”), performed here with all melodramatic gusto of a budget pop act.  In fact, all the new tunes written and recorded for the film – courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda – possess none of the whimsy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman‘s originals, and their exorcism from proceedings wouldn’t have hurt the film’s overall nature; I’m sure many will be cursing Miranda’s name when they near Awkwafina‘s rap outing “The Scuttlebutt”.

On the mention of Awkwafina, whilst her rap might be ill-advised, her vocal performance as Scuttle is one of the film’s more livelier, memorable ingredients, and though some may cry foul that her voicing a character that was previously depicted as male is pushing some feminist “agenda” (it’s not, and you know who you are), she creates a humorous balance opposite the vocals of Daveed Digs (splendid as Sebastian the crab) and Jacob Tremblay (sadly underutilised as the anxious tropical fish, Flounder).

Of course, it’s Bailey as Ariel – the titular little mermaid – that matters most.  Another casting decision that drew ire from so-called “purists”, she’s beyond superb as the optimistic mermaid, and her wide-eyed innocence and powerhouse voice makes for pure joy every time she’s on screen; I defy anyone to not be impressed by her rendition of “Part of Your World”.  Similarly, Melissa McCarthy silences any of her detractors as she happily envelops the camp, villainous nature of Ursula, an octopus tentacled sea witch, and gleefully devours the minutes she’s afforded throughout.

The story of Ariel wanting to explore the human world, doing so in a manner that strips her of her siren-like voice and having to prove herself as Prince Eric’s true love is played beat-for-beat from its animated counterpart, and none of the new material allows Rob Marshall‘s film to deviate from such.  The film’s overt CGI nature means that not everything always looks seamless to our eyes (though it must be said how spectacular Sebastian looks as a creation), but it’s never embarrassing enough to take us out of the story.  And when it leans into the set pieces we know from the original (namely the “Under the Sea” sequence) there’s an undeniable life-force that rushes through.

Though this new iteration of The Little Mermaid won’t take place of the animated original, there’s a whole generation of children that will see this film as their first introduction to the character and the story, and because David Magee‘s script plays things so safe, it’s difficult to take the experience away from those that don’t have 1989 version to look to.  Bailey’s casting and presence makes far more of an impact than the story does, but in spite of its superfluous nature, it’s charming and entertaining enough whilst it’s here.


The Little Mermaid is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.