Disney Studio’s latest live-action adaptation of its animated classics takes viewers under the sea in an enjoyable retelling. The Little Mermaid has previously had a Broadway adaptation, so staging the animated film in live-action is not as far a leap as features like Dumbo, Mulan, or Lady and the Tramp. Director Rob Marshall infuses the movie with a kinetic energy that is present when characters aren’t limited to two-dimensional planes. Darker color tones give the film a somewhat drab aesthetic that undermines some of the movie’s other qualities. It’s not bad, but it is distracting.
The story remains wholly unchanged. Ariel (Halle Bailey, fantastic) longs to be a part of the human world. A chance encounter with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) results in retaliation by her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem). This sends Ariel straight into the sea witch Ursula’s (Melissa McCarthy, clearly relishing the role) trap. Aided by her sidekicks Sebastian (Daveed Diggs, suburb), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina), Ariel must convince Eric to fall in love with her to earn her freedom from Ursula.
Some liberties were taken with the source material to fill a longer run time and to remove pieces that don’t translate well into live-action. Gone are the songs “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons.” Added are Eric’s own ballad “Wild Unchartered Waters” and a misguided attempt at humor that is Scuttle’s rap, “The Scuttlebutt.” (Get it? Because the character’s name is Scuttle). Disney purists have been quick to decry such changes. However, while not an instant classic, “Wild Unchartered Waters” is a great addition for Eric’s character (if not for Hauer-King’s voice). “For the First Time” uses Bailey’s voice to establish Ariel’s inner monologue while she is mute.
Two non-musical changes that work in the film’s favor are Eric’s relationship with his mother and a more specific geographical location for Eric’s kingdom. Firmly establishing the setting in the Caribbean allows for the region’s culture to enhance the visuals and music. No longer must we wonder why Sebastian sports a Jamaican accent in what had previously been posited as a vaguely European nation.
The major drawback of the film, however, comes in the visuals. Following the beautiful water-based visuals of Avatar: The Way of Water, The Little Mermaid comes across as more muted and dark. One may argue that this is a more accurate representation of life beneath the water’s surface however the darker palate makes some of the details of the undersea world less impressive. By contrast, scenes on land are beautiful, particularly in the “Kiss the Girl” scene. It is distracting more than bad. The target audience will likely not notice but it seems an odd choice nonetheless.
Overall, Disney’s The Little Mermaid places in the top tier of its live-action adaptations. The terrific casting, the energy of the film, and the enhancements to the setting and characters all play a part. Based on the audience of the screening I viewed, the film connected with its young viewers, kept them engaged for two hours, and even brought out the dreaded “Disney adults without children.” If the question is why remake the classics, the answer is in the joy that these stories, characters, and songs continue to elicit. If nothing else, they prove the timelessness of Disney’s animated film catalog. Like visiting an old friend, they are comfortable and nostalgic. You can reminisce about past favorite moments while also creating new memories. Or put more simply, these stories are simply forever a part of our world.