There’s a particular moment in every good-to-great Disney film where you feel, somewhere deep in your bones, that anything is possible. The moment doesn’t have a specific timestamp. It differs for everyone: perhaps it comes from “Circle of Life” or Belle and the Beast’s ballroom waltz. The feeling those and other scenes evoke is so powerful that it has allowed Disney to carve out a subsection of global popular culture around it. If one could name it, the best is “magic.”
Disney’s obsession with transforming its beloved animated films into modern live-action titles has tested the magic. At best, they are pleasant-enough diversions that resonate long enough to make you log into Disney+ to relive the original. The worst examples are soulless enterprises that cravenly profited off audience nostalgia while desperately trying to justify their existence. Collectively, the live-action remakes carry distasteful emotional manipulation that undercuts Disney’s status as the arbiter of wonder. Magic is absent.
The Little Mermaid suggests that the magic isn’t lost forever.
You first sense the spark in Rob Marshall’s film about the mermaid princess who dreams of life on land when she first sings about it. Ariel’s “Part of Your World” is one of the most iconic entries in the Disney canon, and any live-action adaptation lives and dies by the performance. Halle Bailey enchants you within seconds of hearing her voice. Her interpretation is an intriguing, stunning blend of wide-eyed wonder and fierce intention, communicated by the singer-actress’s sparkling, powerful range. Marshall feeds off her energy to stage a swift but focused showcase for her voice as it pulses through the screen. It’s a jaw-dropping show-stopper of a number that deserves recognition alongside Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, and Barbra Streisand as one of the best musical performances in film history.
Bailey is staggeringly great as Ariel, with bottomless charisma, youthful stamina, and genuine warmth. Silent or singing, she commands your attention, and the film is at its spell-binding best when it channels her spirit. With Bailey as a guiding light, Marshall’s direction feels light, even fluid, if you can forgive the pun. The equally iconic “Under the Sea” is an intoxicating rush of bursting color and creative choreography. (He manages to energize the hyper-realistic and visually unappealing sea creatures.) Locking into Bailey’s palpable chemistry with Jonah Hauer-King, Marshall shifts the film into an irresistibly charming romance once Ariel arrives at Prince Eric’s castle. The couple flutters across the screen, warming the coldest hearts with their sweeping hijinks, tender reflections, and longing looks. By “Kiss the Girl,” you realize that this film is not only Disney’s most romantic in years but also the closest to matching the original’s magic.
Bailey is a force of nature, the best Disney live-action lead to date, and surrounded by a great cast. Hauer-King is an appropriately swoon-worthy Prince Eric, strong in his own right but dynamite alongside Bailey. Daveed Diggs comes within scurrying distance of stealing the film as Sebastian, the perennially exhausted but well-meaning crustacean. He gets the film’s biggest laughs and adds much-needed life to his character’s design. Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula is a campy, vampy delight, with her slithering affected drawl and bursts of incredulous humor. Javier Bardem’s muted take on Triton is surprisingly effective, adding pathos to the king’s helicopter parenting style. Flounder and Scuttle feel more superficial than their animated counterparts, but Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina make the most of their respective characters.
The Little Mermaid’s approximation of the Disney magic does have flaws. “Under the Sea” may be beautiful and vibrant, but the film frequently suffers from poor visibility and lighting. Several underwater and nighttime scenes appear murky at best. The most glaring example is the big final-act battle between Ariel, Prince Eric, and a kaiju-sized Ursula. The scene is nearly unwatchable, even on the best screen imaginable, as if Marshall is deliberately obscuring the visual effects required to make it work. While not the worst of the year, the use of CGI is mediocre, suffering the indignity of premiering within months of Avatar: The Way of Water. The film is vastly more engaging out of the water and on land, suggesting that Marshall wasn’t entirely comfortable with the mixed media approach that this film required.
The Little Mermaid also tries to expand the original with new story beats and songs. Prince Eric is now an adventurous seafarer who seeks trade negotiations to keep his fledging kingdom afloat and relevant. His new song, “Wild Uncharted Waters,” marries this modern philosophy with his desire to find Ariel after she rescues him. Hauer-King is a good vocalist, and Alan Menkin’s composition is appropriately grand, but the lyrics lack the late Howard Ashman’s graceful charm. (“The Scuttlebutt Song” isn’t worth mentioning.) In an odd change, Ursula “curses” Ariel by making her forget that she needs Prince Eric to kiss her to become a real human whenever someone mentions it. It’s likely meant to erase concerns that their relationship lacks consent, but it is clumsily executed. To Marshall’s credit, these changes are minor trifles rather than the nagging distractions that plagued Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
The reason why the film’s issues are forgivable lies with its superstar in the making. Halle Bailey gives The Little Mermaid its reason to exist. (Not every Disney remake has that.) What she brings to the film is so vital that you want it to succeed even in the worst circumstances. Thankfully, Rob Marshall rises to meet the moment, delivering a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the film that started the vaunted Disney Renaissance. It is by far the best Disney live-action remake to date, a compelling counterpoint to the argument that the Mouse House has slipped into creative bankruptcy.
If directors can recreate the spark from Ariel singing the first notes of “Part of Your World,”, then maybe we still can believe in magic after all.