‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: A Charming Remake With a Powerhouse Performance from Halle Bailey

by | May 26, 2023 | Disney Movies

We’re sharing our review of the new The Little Mermaid live-action remake, now available to see in theaters.

As soon as the all too familiar castle logo fades from the screen, The Little Mermaid (2023) immediately sets itself apart from its animated counterpart. The harsh cascading waves punctuate the unforgiving winds of the ocean, and a surprisingly somber quote from Hans Christian Andersen, “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” It’s somewhat of a thesis statement for this modern adaptation. One that seeks to grant Ariel some new depth while also beholden to the Disney classic with which it shares its namesake. The Little Mermaid joins the ranks of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King as the latest Disney animated classic to receive a live-action reimagining in recent years.

A Charming Remake of a Disney Classic

the little mermaid review

Photo Courtesy of Disney

Director Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Mary Poppins Returns) is pulling from the musical fantasy masterpiece that revitalized Walt Disney Animation and ushered in the “Disney Renaissance,” a prolific period of storytelling that defined Disney for a generation of fans and popular culture at large. A tall order to do this story justice and innovate enough to make the whole exercise feel worthwhile. The result is a charming remake complete with a star-making turn from Halle Bailey, all the classic music, as well as some bold original songs from Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and often dazzling visuals that present this timeless story in a new dimension.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), an adventurous and free-spirited mermaid, has an affinity for the surface world and humankind, much to her father, King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) dismay. When the evil sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) presents her with an opportunity to become human in order to be with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), she finds herself racing against the clock to fall in love and save her voice.

The best moments of The Little Mermaid (2023) are not in its nostalgic pinings or its well-intentioned attempts to recreate the original film’s most iconic musical motifs but in the endearing performances of its leads and the romance at the heart of the story. Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King have an immediate and natural chemistry, and it is a treat to see their characters fall in love against all odds. This dynamic is perhaps best exemplified in a sequence where the two take a carriage ride across the island as Ariel is beginning to learn about human customs, complete with a rustic market populated with bustling townspeople, dancing, and music. In these particular moments, the movie becomes a romantic comedy of sorts. Essentially, the surface world is for the film, much like Ariel, where the movie finds its rhythm and truly comes alive. 

 A Powerhouse Performance from Halle Bailey

the little mermaid review

Photo courtesy of Disney

We don’t see performances like Halle Bailey’s too often. A powerhouse performer with a voice that makes it sound like these songs are being sung for the first time. She is charismatic and ever-present in dramatic moments, imbuing Ariel with an undeniable optimism and kindness of spirit. It’s hard not to fall in love with her right alongside Eric. Jonah Hauer-King is stellar as well. A compassionate and determined romantic foil for Ariel and with a considerable boost in screen time, he is afforded more nuance and personality than previous iterations of the character. The film treats the two as true equals. 

The under-the-sea portions of the film are dramatically compelling, if not a tad visually uninspired, with photorealistic animal designs and hit-or-miss effects. If an intentional aesthetic choice to highlight Ariel’s indifference to the sea, the muted colors and murky environments fit the mood in contrast to the vibrant allure of the surface. The exception to this rule is Ursula’s subterranean ocean lair, a dark cavern of bioluminescent colors and dark shadowy corners with plenty enough scenery for Melissa McCarthy to devour.

The Music, Both Old and New

Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian handles the vocal performance of “Under the Sea” sufficiently, although the fish playing musical instruments were sorely missed. “Part of Your World” is a spellbinding and chill-inducing ballad with several powerful reprises throughout the film. Bailey makes the song her own, and the sequence is certainly the film’s strongest musical number. The new songs, particularly “Wild Uncharted Waters” sung by Eric and “For the First Time” sung by Ariel, are excellent character-building pieces and musically expressive in their own right, with Broadway darling Lin-Manuel Miranda standing in as lyricist for the late great Howard Ashman. However, be warned about “The Scuttlebutt,” a rap-sung number from Scuttle (Awkwafina). Reactions may vary.

Eventually, Disney will run out of animated titles to remake and repackage. Still, in the case of The Little Mermaid, it is an experience worthy of the title and comes away in the end with an identity of its own. Halle Bailey is pitch-perfect as Ariel, and if this is just a taste of her on-screen talents, she has a very fruitful acting career ahead of her. The entire ensemble cast adds gravitas and new texture to their roles, soundtracked by the timeless music of Menken and Ashman. This will be a defining work for a whole new generation of children that will see themselves in this Ariel and hear their wants and needs through her voice. A powerful testament to the boundless ocean that is Disney’s storytelling library, and much like the myths and fables they take inspiration from, these characters and their stories will continue to endure. 

Written by Nicholas Janzen

Nicholas is a lifelong Disney fan and movie fan. After graduating with a BA in Film Studies, he has been writing about movies and producing social media content specializing in movies, TV and entertainment news. Follow him on TikTok & Instagram @nicholasjanzen
Nicholas Janzen

Written by Nicholas Janzen

Nicholas is a lifelong Disney fan and movie fan. After graduating with a BA in Film Studies, he has been writing about movies and producing social media content specializing in movies, TV and entertainment news. Follow him on TikTok & Instagram @nicholasjanzen