Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee (screenplay by), Hans Christian Andersen (based on the story by), John Musker and Ron Clements (based on Disney’s The Little Mermaid animation screenplay by)
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina
Synopsis (IMDb): A young mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
The animated version of The Little Mermaid was never my favorite growing up, even though it still enchanted me with the thought of mermaids and long, thick, bouncy hair. A couple of things made the film not high on my list–Scuttle for one, because I find him annoying. Sebastian, second, because I don’t like his lips, and we could make a full Color-Coded post about Sebastian and why he’s apparently got to have a comically big bottom lip. Third, Eric is just boring.
So I was interested to see how these elements would translate in the live-action film. I was especially keen to see how Ursula would translate, since she’s the best thing about the animated film. Even seeing Ariel was going to be a new experience because despite her beautiful hair, animated Ariel isn’t my favorite princess. But Bailey has elevated the character to me, making this live-action version of The Little Mermaid so much better than the animated one, in my book.
Bailey’s Ariel isn’t great in my book just because she’s Black. If I’m being honest, I’m not always excited about when Black actors take on traditionally white roles because sometimes, it feels like it would be more powerful if creators made their own, brand new characters so we don’t have to constantly rewrite old stories. (There are clear caveats to this rule, because I love Brandy’s Cinderella and no one’s taking that from me.) What I’m trying to get at is that a lot of the time, I don’t care about a white character remaining white in a live-action adaptation. I’m pleasantly surprised if a movie or series decides to switch things up, but I’m not basing my personal fight for equality in Hollywood on how many legacy characters get race-switched.
With that said, I do believe what the cast and crew say about Bailey being the only, best choice for the role. She has the true essence of Ariel in both her innocent personality and singing voice. I don’t know who else could have embodied the feeling of an animated Disney princess brought to life as well as Bailey. She’s as close to perfect in casting as you could get.
It’s clear that Bailey is the absolute best part of the film. But how do the other characters stack up? Let’s start with Triton (Javier Bardem), who is truly acting like a father, which should help people to not resort to typecasting the character as just a “zaddy.” Triton brings tenderness and humanity to the role of Triton and embodies the feelings of a man who is trying to do what’s best for his child even while making mistakes. In other words, he humanizes the parental role and shows how parents are just people learning as they go. I appreciated.
Eric (Hauer-King) is also expanded upon. He’s less of a doorknob and more of a fully-rounded person who wants adventure and freedom, away from his adopted mother, the Queen (Dumezweni), who is very similar to Triton in that she’s just as overbearing out of fear and loves too hard. The Queen is a new character and frankly, she’s not as fleshed out as she could be. But Dumezweni does her best to bring motherly instinct to the role. The Queen’s major domo, Sir Grimsby (Malik) is also new, and he’s similarly not as fleshed out as he probably could be. But he plays good cop to the Queen’s bad cop and, like a father figure, helps Eric live the life he wants to live.
The characters I didn’t like so much are sadly plentiful. I still don’t care about Sebastian and Scuttle, voiced by Diggs and Awkwafina, respectively. Scuttle might not be a male anymore, but she’s just as annoying, and it says a lot that Awkwafina said in interviews that Scuttle was her favorite character growing up. To be fair, the live-action Sebastian and Scuttle are a bit more toned down than they were in the animated version, but they are still largely superfluous to me. On the flip side, I’ve always loved Flounder, and having him voiced by Tremblay is also pitch-perfect casting. I would take more Flounder over Scuttle and Sebastian any day.
I hate to say it, but Ursula (McCarthy) also goes on the list of characters I didn’t love as much. Whereas Pat Carroll brought fire and punch to the character in the original film (supplemented beautifully with Ruben A. Aquino’s sassy animation), McCarthy feels weighted down. I know she wanted to bring a sadness and bitterness to the character, but the animated version was already bitter–she just also had tons of sass and personality to go with it. McCarthy’s Ursula needs more confidence, strangely enough–more of an “I don’t give a f—” attitude. The sweetheart neckline and high collar on the octopus “dress” also doesn’t work at all.
So if I’m not in love with like, half of the characters, why is this film still better than the animated version for me? Because it feels more like a complete movie. The animated version was purely about blind love, which can be boring. This film focused on more why Ariel and Eric might be drawn to each other. We see their friendship, their personal issues with their families, and how they each battle internal and external struggles to get the lives they want. We actually see Ariel and Triton talk about Ariel’s mother, for instance, and how she was also just as headstrong. Triton’s grief over the loss of his wife due to sailors makes him think that Ariel will suffer the same fate, which leads to his overprotectiveness. That’s some depth we didn’t get in the original, not to mention every scene with Eric and his mother arguing over Eric’s safety.
Even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contributions are great, and I’m not really a Miranda fan. I feel like Miranda’s work fit better than it has in other films because this film had Alan Menken back to compose, because when left to Miranda’s own devices, we get “rap” like Scuttle’s song, “The Scuttlebutt.” In short, Miranda needs someone with melodic talents to temper him, because without it, Miranda just follows the same staccato tempo he’s familiar with. Not every film needs a rap song (or, if we call it what it really is, spoken word set to music, which is surprisingly different than rap).
Overall, The Little Mermaid is a fun, fulfilling take on the original film and could possibly make those of us who were cool on the original see it with new eyes. It has certainly made me more of an Ariel fan than I was before. I hope this role is just the beginning of fairytale films for Bailey, who can enchant not just with her hair like Ariel, but with her talents, beauty and ethereal presence.