Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy and Javier Bardem star in director Rob Marshall’s live-action version of Disney’s animated classic.
Stage veteran Rob Marshall has built a successful big-screen career by directing musicals with multiple stars and elaborate production sequences: Chicago (2002), Nine (2009), Into the Woods (2014), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018). He has made occasional forays into non-musicals, with much less success: the dismal Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and the forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
Sticking to his strengths, Marshall helms the live-action remake of Disney’s animated version with his usual vim and vigor. Scripted by David Magee (Mary Poppins Returns), the film is altogether charming, thoughtful and romantic.
Disney’s Academy Award-winning film set a pattern for the animated musicals to follow. The live-action version follows a different pattern, though, as established by the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), which revolves around making the films themselves longer so as to include, not only all the most memorable moments and songs, but also new songs, which has often led to lumbering films without much distinction.
Occasionally, though, they get it right, as with Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (2014) and Craig Gillespie’s Cruella (2021), creating something fresh and new. Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is a lesser film than those two, but it’s a step above what might otherwise be expected.
Perhaps it’s my lowered expectations. I enjoyed the 1989 version, but was never that enamored with it. The new version keeps the problematic issues that the original raised, for reasons I cannot fathom. (Why does Ariel need to remain mute after she is transformed into a human? Why must she abandon her family and friends in pursuit of a romantic crush?)
The first question is ignored; apparently, the evil Ursula rendered Ariel mute to prevent her from using the power of her magical singing voice to command the Prince to kiss her and thus foil Ursula’s evil plan. (It’s complicated, especially if you haven’t seen the original.)
The second question is softened with the film’s approach, placing Ariel’s father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) into the role of an overprotective father, mightily concerned that his youngest daughter might run away (?!) with a member of the human race, which he holds responsible for the death of his beloved wife years before.
The varied evils portrayed by Melissa McCarthy, taking great joy in playing the diabolical Ursula, and the range of vulnerabilities exposed by Javier Bardem as the ultimate father figure, make up for the dramatic limitations of the lead roles. Halle Berry is a fine singer as Ariel, which bolsters her performance.
Truthfully, few romantic sparks fly between Halle Berry as Ariel and Joan Hauer-King as Prince Eric — they seem more like good pals rather than anything more — but that’s part of what makes this version work: it’s soft and gentle and entirely suitable for family viewing. Awkwafina provides comic relief as diving bird Scuttle; Daveed Diggs is serviceable as Sebastian the crab. Solid support comes from Art Malik at the helpful royal butler Grimsby, who deserves his own spin-off series.
Approaching the film with lowered expectations definitely helps. The Little Mermaid swims quite comfortably in calm seas without calling too much attention to itself.
The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, May 26, via Walt Disney Studios. For more information about the film, visit the official site.