The Little Mermaid is directed by Rob Marshall and stars Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina. The story in this latest Disney live-action remake is the same as the classic 1989 animated film: a mermaid (Bailey) makes a deal with a sea witch (McCarthy) that she can be part of the human world in order to woo Prince Eric (Hauer-King), but she loses her voice in the process.
The great thing about The Little Mermaid (2023) is the performance by Halle Bailey. She is a luminous revelation, and her voice is absolutely fantastic. She nails the two songs, and people years from now will be listening to her rendition “Part of Your World” alongside – or perhaps even instead of – the original 1989 version. Bailey is The Little Mermaid’s (2023) glue, which makes it so disheartening when she is sidelined during the last half of the film.
When Ariel loses her voice, the film becomes less compelling and less interesting. Thematically, depriving a woman of her voice was always a prickly story beat, and this live action remake does nothing to correct that error. Unlike Aladdin (2019), which gave Jasmine (Naomi Scott) more agency, The Little Mermaid (2023) keeps the central story intact.
There are some updates, most of which do work. A great song for Awkwafina that was penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda injects some energy into the lulling story beats, and some lyrics were updated to emphasize consent during “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” These updates work well and would go unnoticed by most audience members.
Some of the CGI animation is straight from the uncanny valley – Sebastian the talking crab is disturbing, and I worried for Flounder’s oxygenation while he was out of the water for so long – and some of the musical sequences are beautifully rendered. Ultimately, the CGI in this “live action” remake is a mixed bag.
Aside from the race-blind casting, which is indeed important and makes the film vibrantly modern, The Little Mermaid (2023) is a safe, light summer film that takes no risks and serves audiences exactly what they expect. One day, Disney will run out of its own films to remake, but that day is not today.