Watching The Little Mermaid remake, a sense of familiarity washed over me. Not merely because this movie already exists, but because most of these Disney remakes put us through the same wringer. When one is first announced, some are immediately on the nostalgia bandwagon while others question why a remake is justified (money aside). We come around to the idea when the teaser drops with a rendition of a classic song. We go back to skepticism as more footage surfaces, growing disenchanted with the ugly CG redesigns. When the remake comes out, it’s better than anticipated. The more we think about it, though, it dawns on us that while not half bad, the remake wasn’t half good either. By this point, it’s grossed $1 billion anyway, but when given the choice between the live-action remake and animated classic, it’s clear which version generations are going to watch over, and over, and over.
Although Rob Marshall’s Little Mermaid is essentially a copy-and-paste job, several elements keep it afloat, namely the diverse ensemble. Melissa McCarthy is a pitch-perfect Ursula. Jonah Hauer-King looks the part of Prince Eric, but he also manages to flesh out the pretty boy. While the CG creatures aren’t appealing to look at, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, and Jacob Tremblay turn in solid voice work as Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder, respectively. This school’s only fish out of water is Javier Bardem, who struggles to channel King Triton’s commanding nature. Bardem is a great actor, but between this and Pirates of the Caribbean 5, water-based Disney adventures aren’t his strong suit. Thankfully, Bardem’s underacting is balanced by the passion that Halle Bailey brings to Ariel.
A few tweaks aside, the Ariel character isn’t drastically changed here. Yet, Bailey doesn’t try to do a Jodi Benson impression. She brings out the character’s enthusiasm while making the role her own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her emotional rendition of Part of Your World. Yes, unlike Emma Watson, Bailey possesses an angelic voice that’ll leave you fishing for the soundtrack. While the other songs sound great, they leave something to be desired cinematically. Under the Sea lacks the colors and energy of the animated film. Kiss the Girl is shrouded in darkness to the point that you’ll wonder if you’re watching a Game of Thrones battle. Even when the visuals underwhelm, Alan Menken’s score never fails to work its musical magic.
Although Menken’s collaborations with the late Howard Ashman can’t be top, Lin Manuel Miranda admirably lends his lyrical talents to a few new songs. Miranda and Menken turn in two worthy additions, Wild Uncharted Waters and For the First Time. Then there’s The Scuttlebutt, which you’re either going to find infectious or obnoxious. I fall into the latter camp, which probably means it’s about to become a TikTok sensation. My biggest gripe? The Scuttlebutt adds little to the story, which can be said about most of the story changes. Eric is adopted in this version, although this doesn’t go anywhere. Ursula and Triton are now siblings, but unlike the Broadway version, the remake does little with this dynamic. The same goes for the revelation that a human killed Ariel’s mother, which even the direct-to-video Ariel’s Beginning delved deeper into. The runtime may be longer, but certain moments aren’t allowed to sink in as they did in Ron Clements and John Musker’s film.
The longer runtime does benefit the romance between Ariel and Eric. It’s still a three-day love story, but more time is dedicated to the couple after Ariel becomes human. There’s a genuinely charming scene where Ariel stumbles upon Eric’s collection of treasures. Where Ariel wishes to be part of the human world, Eric longs to explore the uncharted sea. It’s a nice parallel that expands upon one of the original film’s best elements. Their chemistry, coupled with the music and McCarthy’s villainous turn, help to elevate a remake that’s otherwise by the numbers. If you want a nostalgic throwback, the film delivers what it promises. If you want a Disney remake that captures the spirit of the original while evolving it, you’re better off with 2015’s Cinderella or 2016’s Jungle Book. For those in the middle, Marshall’s Little Mermaid is enjoyable enough for one watch, but it’s destined to go down as the watered-down version.