Hans Christian Andersen’s much-loved fairy tale, written in the 1830s and passed down through generations, gets a 2023 upgrade in The Little Mermaid. Disney’s ambitious live-action rendition, currently playing in cinemas globally, doesn’t stray too much from the previous versions in terms of story but gives it a spunky and stunning photorealistic treatment, which makes Rob Marshall’s film one of the studio’s most enjoyable reimagining outings in recent times.
Marshall — who has directing credits like the Oscar-winning musical Chicago and the more recent Mary Poppins Returns — doesn’t bring in much new (apart from ticking some boxes, some of them quite unnecessarily, of inclusivity) to the narrative of a young mermaid who nurtures the ambition of swimming beyond the surface to explore the world of humans, but nicely balances what it knows fans of the fairy tale expect from it, with dazzling new elements.
For instance, the underwater world is brought to life in a way which will not only enthral young audiences but will also make older viewers appreciate its beauty and buoyancy. While the familiar favourites, Sebastian the crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs), Flounder the tropical fish (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Scuttle the northern gannet (voiced by Awkwafina) are the life and soul of The Little Mermaid, it is the film’s breakout star Halle Bailey — in the role of the mermaid Ariel — who makes this rendition of the story eminently watchable even in parts where the rest of it lumbers.
Bailey, a 23-year-old singer-actress, who is famous for being one half of the musical duo Chloe x Halle with her sister Chloe Bailey, with the siblings having already garnered five Grammy nominations, delivers a star-making turn as Ariel, whose curiosity about the human world almost borders on a sort of obsession. Bailey has remarkable screen presence and, of course, a mellifluous voice to match, with her rendition of Ariel’s signature song Part of Your World transporting the viewer and immediately making the magical character her own.
The Little Mermaid bursts with more or less the same colour and energy as its 1989 animated version. Its charm as a musical will probably appeal to fans of Hamilton, which isn’t a surprise, given that Lin Manuel-Miranda, the modern-day genius behind the global success of Hamilton, is also the force behind The Little Mermaid. Lin Manuel-Miranda not only functions as the film’s producer, but along with music man Alan Menken, he is the tour de force behind some of the new songs in the film.
It is perhaps redundant to outline the plot in much detail, as it more or less follows the beats of the story which is familiar to us. The youthfully naive and almost impossibly rebellious Ariel goes behind the back of her father, Sea King Triton (Javier Bardem), to leave the sea for the land — at first because she’s fascinated by it and later on account of falling for Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), the prince of a nearby island kingdom. Making a deal with the wicked witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), Ariel — swapping her mer-tail for human legs, but losing her voice, which has always remained her biggest asset — is given three days by Ursula to kiss Eric in an act of true love, failing which she will not only return to mermaid form but also become the witch’s prisoner for the rest of her life.
David Magee, who has adapted the script of The Little Mermaid, is also the man who turned Life of Pi into a filmable script. Magee forgoes the more dark and depressing aspects of the original to render his 2023 version into a more frothy and romantic version, but ventures into ‘woke’ territory not only in keeping Ariel, her sisters and Queen Selina (played by Noma Dumezweni), a new character introduced in the film, from being white-washed, but also touching upon themes like diversity, women’s emancipation, peaceful co-existence and the fact that dreams are meant to be celebrated and not condemned.
The Little Mermaid has its fair share of flaws — the story is laboured in parts, some of the CGI work is of questionable quality and the writing doesn’t make a case for anything that’s either risky or revolutionary — but the fact that we can walk into the cinemas this weekend and watch a soaring tale of love, hope, ambition and impossible dreams coming true, is alone enough to book a date with the film. And watch out for Halle Bailey... this one is a star!
Which fairy tale do you want to see a live-action remake of? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org