Disney is no stranger to live-action adaptations of its beloved animated stories. The Little Mermaid is the latest in a long line of photorealistic remakes that started with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in 1994. Like many before it, The Little Mermaid is at parts a shot-for-shot rehash of its predecessor. But unlike Beauty & The Beast, this take on the fish out of water tale features a cast that can stand up to the original both in acting and musicality.
The Little Mermaid centers on Ariel, a teenaged mermaid who is obsessed with human culture. She collects whosits and whatsits, trinkets from the surface world she longs to explore. When her father destroys her collection, she makes a deal with a witch to become human. We all know this story. And, a lot of us have grown critical of Ariel over the years, as we’ve grown up ourselves and realized she was out of her guppy a** mind.
Halle Bailey is a stunning Ariel! She perfectly encapsulates both the innocent naïveté of a sheltered princess and the fierce boldness of a young woman determined to create her own path. Like Jodi Benson before her, Halle’s vocal performance in The Little Mermaid’s music numbers fully engross you into the story. Nevermind that any of us would love to live in the beautiful underwater world that Ariel is desperate to escape. When she sings about the surface we want to go there too. Jonah Hauer-King is endearing as Prince Eric, and he brings a softness and sincerity that makes him easy to like. Together, they sell a sweet and earnest love story that you genuinely root for.
Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina as Sebastian and Scuttle, respectively, bring the humor. The latter is surprisingly adept in their random unneeded but ultimately fine rap number in the third act. Jacob Tremblay is the sweetest flounder in all seven seas. Triton (Javier Bardem) is perhaps a bit impassive as a strict but loving father. He never feels as big as the moment calls for, even when he’s destroying his daughter’s cave of treasures. Melissa McCarthy on the other hand spends every moment of her screen time doing the absolute most as Ursula. She does a spot-on performance, which could maybe be called derivative, as she perfectly recreates but doesn’t really evolve the character in any way.
The Little Mermaid takes what’s familiar and adds nuance where only nonsense existed before. As full-grown adults, some with teenage daughters, the idea of rooting for a young woman to completely disobey her parents and sign a predatory contract with a known scammer is a hard ask. This film expands on the original story just enough that Ariel’s motivations make sense and are relatable, even to us olds. The romance doesn’t feel forced or rushed, and it’s built on something more substantial than Ariel’s curiosity and Eric’s obsession. In fact, what makes The Little Mermaid work is the build-up of Ariel and Eric’s relationship. You want them to be together because they fit together.
Some story elements expand on the lore but don’t add much to it. There are mentions of Ursula stoking tensions between sea and surface dwellers. We also separately learn that Triton’s hate for humanity is a direct result of his wife’s death. These are almost certainly related, but there’s never any real exploration of them which deprives both characters of much-needed depth. Most of the changes made to the story enhance it, especially in service of the central romance. However, the lack of follow through on these potentially interesting and complicated dynamics is one of the few real disappointments of this film.
The film is photorealistic, but not realistic; it is not nor is it trying to be an Avatar. The underwater world defies any real physics logic. You’ll just have to suspend disbelief when hair lies flat instead of floating wildly. It’s fantasy! The sea life, merpeople, and… whatever Ursula is are all beautifully rendered. And while they are mostly relegated to the background, Ariel’s sisters stun with their gorgeous, culture-influenced fin designs. The sea setting is colorful and vibrant, and is especially gorgeous during the “Under the Sea” sequence—one of the scenes that justifies why this film exists. The surface is equally bright, with a pretty, broadly Caribbean setting and colorful cast of supporting talent.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist (and producer) Lin-Manuel Miranda do what needs to be done. There are updated song lyrics and three brand new songs—including Eric’s solo, “Wild Uncharted Waters”—that lean much more into LMM’s style. With these new additions, The Little Mermaid stays true to the original while offering something slightly new for the next generation of fans. The new songs probably won’t become staples—I sincerely hope your kids spare you “The Scuttlebutt”—but we can hope the youth have taste and will run the rerecorded classics back.
In a storytelling landscape rife with remakes, adaptations, and remakes of adaptations, one question is consistently asked, but often unanswered: Who is this for? Thirtysomethings who grew up with the original The Little Mermaid will find a lot to love here. There are both perfect recreations of iconic moments and subtle changes that broaden or deepen original scenes. The nostalgia is wielded to near-perfection, every meaningful moment in the original is recaptured, and without the weird icky feeling that comes from overindulgence in fan service. You know it’s meant to trigger the feels, but you enjoy every time it happens.
This is… for us. It’s also for the next generation of fans who will see themselves reflected in the diverse population of merpeople, and believe they can do or be anything because they’ve seen it. I took a moment to imagine what it would be like to watch this with brand new eyes. And I just knew young me would be absolutely enraptured. This film is not perfect and the climax is lacking. But it is charming, funny, and sincere and it makes me want to be part of that world.
The Little Mermaid swims into theaters on May 26.