Written by Victor DeBonis
I can say with certainty that the 2023 “Little Mermaid” remake, while not quite working as a whole, is far from the worst of the live-action Disney remakes. I should take a moment and state that I absolutely love the original animated movie from 1989. While not without its stumbles, the original had an interesting and passionate heroine that I was often rooting for, and her story was wonderfully animated and accompanied with excellent voice acting and fantastic songs that I can recognize the melody to in my sleep. The animated “Little Mermaid” is easily in my Top 10 favorite animated Disney films, and it was always going to be a challenge for this remake to match that level. Despite taking genuine risks with newer material that make sense this time around, this newer film is definitely not awful as some of the earlier remakes are. With that being said, the 2023 version still doesn’t possess so much of the magic that made the original truly shine, mainly due to several technical pieces that try to fit but don’t quite.
I want to point out the areas in which the film works first. As aforementioned, this film takes legitimate chances to take the narrative in different directions within specific places. It is not a shot-by-shot remake a la “Lion King” from 2019, and that fact alone gives me huge relief. There are moments that repeat certain lines or moments to be sure, which is sometimes distracting when it is said without the same energy as the previous film did, but the film doesn’t try to recycle the entire story verbatim.
Some of these changes are solid ideas. For instance, the audience gets to see the parents of Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer King) in this version, and the mother is a monarch who restricts her son from trying to reach out to other cultures and remain where he is at his palace. This dilemma lends similarity to him and the titular heroine, Ariel, because they both yearn to escape their confining boundaries set by parents who care for them but are more protective than needed. Eric also has a bit more depth to him this time around (for a Disney prince, at least) in the sense, that, beyond looking nice in the eyes of the movie’s heroine, he has plans of longing to connect with people from other places and explore new territory. Again, this brings more for him and Ariel to connect with. The idea of two daring adventurers looking for a new place and someone who will encourage their spirit to soar higher works greatly from this new addition to this story.
Consider when, instead of repeating the move of showing merpeople as the original did, the camera introduces the underwater world by literally diving through fields of plants and groups of tortoises peacefully drifting through the waves. Immersive moves, such as this, succeed at yanking the audience into the world and feeling part of a experience that is reaching for fantastical heights. Small yet effective details to the story also work nicely, such as the new detail of Ariel subtly helping a dog reach land instead of only saving the prince.
Most of the musical numbers work well. Halle Bailey unquestionably has impressive singing pipes, and she brings plenty of gusto and passion to her version of “Part of That World.” In this movie, “Under the Sea” is impressively choreographed, thanks to swirls and waves of different sea creatures guiding Ariel throughout the song to dance along with them and admire their wondrous presence in the waters. This particular number reminded me of director Rob Marshall having made “Chicago” in the past, and it causes me to recall that one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker in previous titles came from staging impressive numbers with creative movements and complex yet precisely executed choreography. Even a few of the new numbers succeed, such as a new number of Bailey’s character mentally singing her wonder about her first experiences of adapting to life as a human and the newfound splendor of it all.
There is one number that does not work, however. It comes in the form of an awful rapping number involving the bird in this film. The lyrics feel forced, the hip-hop vibe doesn’t match with the formal atmosphere of the rest of the movie, and the song lacks any real purpose other than simply trying to tell Ariel to get ready for the day and wake up. Awkwafina, who voices the bird, is a terrific talent, and I admire her energy and spunky demeanor from her vocal performance in this film. However, this song does not work at all, and it causes the film to halt in an abrupt and awkward manner.
There is clearly stuff that works in this film, and I admire this movie’s ability to try harder than simply tell the same story verbatim as countless other remakes have before. However, much of this movie possesses elements that prevent it from being that great as well.
For starters, the lighting in this film is rather poor. Part of the beauty from the original film came from the vibrant colors animating this fantastical world. Colors simply popped beneath the waves in the 1989 version, and this allowed the adventure from beneath the surface to feel vastly magical as well. Aside from some plants floating around, so much of this underwater world is oddly overwhelmed with immense shadows, and, at times, it is hard to see even characters themselves swimming around this place. Specific scenes on land from the evening also lack decent lighting, and it causes a difficult experience in appreciating what’s on-screen.
The character designs of the underwater creatures, save for tortoises and a few other creatures, also don’t work and appear jarring. Flounder doesn’t have the vibrant, bold colors that his animated counterpart had, and Sebastian’s pointed eyes look odd with the way in which they’re presented. Unfortunately, these designs fall into a similar trap as 2019’s “Lion King” did because both films trade away the charm and expressiveness of the animal characters’ faces and try too hard to create greater “realism” via designing animals with faces that don’t show a single smile or frown. This makes us harder for us to connect emotionally with the animal companions and have to depend more on the vocal performances to recognize their reactions to specific situations.
The performances from the human actors also sound off, too. An exception is Jonah Hauer-King who provides believable charisma and concern to his role. In regards to her non-singing performance, Halle Bailey as Ariel sometimes does well in expressing a quiet yet believable longing for something beyond her familiar environment, and she reveals a subtle fear and wonder with her eyes in some moments. However, some of her vocal deliveries or facial reactions to certain scenarios are meant to communicate frustration or excitement to specific scenarios but don’t always come through in a successful way. Melissa McCarthy does her best as the villain, Ursula, and echoes a snarky presence that suits her character. However, her vocal performance feels less sinister and more comedic, partly due to how her voice can’t quite reach the gusto or lower, more ominous sounds that late-great Pat Caroll expressed in the animated version. Daveed Diggs, at times, sounds dull in his delivery with specific lines and doesn’t often change in his volume level when saying them aloud. However, he can sometimes get a laugh from me from saying a humorous line that matches the situation well.
Javier Bardeem gives a performance as Ariel’s father, King Triton, that, for unknown reasons, simply sounds flat throughout much of his presence. There are other moments in which he is meant to sound angry or saddened, but none of these strong emotions are truly present in his voice or his visual reactions. His first scene requires him to appear infuriated at the absence of Ariel, yet he merely looks and sounds mildly surprised. Bardeem is an incredibly talented actor who has brought power and charisma to spare in countless films from before, but, outside of a few moments in which he is sneakily trying to find out additional information or is having to deal with the arduous truth about something, he lacks much energy.
Some scenes also lack proper emotional drive or much narrative sense to them as well. The biggest example might be the well-known scene in which Triton confronts Ariel about conversing with Eric and destroys items from her room as a way of trying to prevent her from going to the upper world. In the animated movie, it is clear that Triton is vocally angry, and he is swirling throughout Ariel’s room and creating a whirlwind of destruction to what Ariel holds dearly in a misguided attempt to keep her safe. Ariel buries her face into her arms and openly sobs, clearly devastated. It’s a heartbreaking scene that doesn’t back away from showing its devastating vision and feelings.
In the live-action version, Triton doesn’t sound as angry as he should, and he destroys maybe two objects quickly, and Ariel just calmly leans her head without looking that saddened about the entire ordeal. The emotional power in what should be a devastating scene, especially for a kids’ film, is sorely missing here, and that’s disappointing in a way. Other moments and line deliveries happen in this film in which they’re trying to recite a familiar line or do a specific scene from the original but, for unknown reasons, don’t voice the same emotions or wonder as the animated film did. It feels mostly meant to poke at audience members’ nostalgia.
Some other elements to the story don’t make much sense, either, including a seabird somehow being able to survive underwater for a longer period of time without choking and the death of Ariel’s mother (a legitimately interesting subject) only being mentioned a couple of times but never being explored. The friendship between Flounder and Ariel also isn’t explored much in this movie, and the former character isn’t given proper time to demonstrate his ability to overlook his fears and anxieties to assist his best friend. Flounder’s time is spent more often with the crab and bird in this movie. Also, how is Ariel supposed to cause the prince to fall in love with her if she isn’t supposed to remember much of what Ursula asked her to do? This is such a confusing instance, and it adds to other instances, such as Eric and Ariel trying to wait to avoid his parents for a long time, that made the film feel longer than it needed to be.
Overall, this version of “The Little Mermaid” is nowhere near as bad as the live-action versions of “Mulan” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and it definitely shows greater effort than Disney remakes in trying to do something different beyond giving what we can already see in the original animated versions. Yet, it still feels lacking in other places regarding performances, visuals, and specific parts of its storytelling. This film is far from dead in the water, but it also follows the pattern of most of the other Disney remakes (save for the very good “Cruella” and 96 version of “101 Dalmations”) in not doing much to justify its existence and feeling underwhelming as a whole.