Modern twists make The Little Mermaid succeed in this latest retelling of the classic tale
I first saw the original Disney’s The Little Mermaid in theaters at a time when my adult life was just beginning, full of stress and challenges. The Little Mermaid was the break we needed in grad school and my friends and I loved it. Unlike other animated fairy tales in existence at the time, this princess did the rescuing and she chased her own destiny. I enjoyed the angsty, girl-power, romantic energy wrapped up with a hard-earned happy ending. Later, I came across a hardback collection of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and eagerly flipped to the story of The Little Mermaid. The original story was, to say the least, very different from my beloved Disney version. It was upsetting, sad, and lacked a happy ending. Life is full of surprises, and thankfully fairy tales can go in a lot of different directions. Now, decades later, after career, marriage, children, and hundreds of viewings, seeing the 2023 live action film version of The Little Mermaid is a full circle moment for me.
The premise of the 2023 The Little Mermaid is very similar to the animated version. So if you are unfamiliar with the story, beware of spoilers. Ariel is the youngest of several mermaid daughters of the Sea King Triton (Javier Bardem), ruler of the Mer-people—half-fish, half-humans who inhabit the underwater realm around the world. Ariel’s mother was killed by humans, so Triton sees them as cruel, dangerous, and generally to be avoided. But Ariel is not so sure. In true oppositional-defiant form, she collects human items from shipwrecks and tries (with mixed success) to learn about the human world on her own. Meanwhile, in a nearby island kingdom, Eric is a young man raised as a prince in the royal household but drawn to everyday life and adventure. This includes life onboard a ship where he works alongside other sailors, much to the dismay of Prime Minister Grimsby (Art Malik) and Eric’s mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni). Eric wants to help his country’s struggling economy through science and exploration. Like Ariel, he has a private storehouse of treasured items he has collected from other places. Both Eric and Ariel feel misunderstood by their parents. The meet-cute happens when Ariel swims up to the surface to check out fireworks from a passing ship carrying Eric, but a sudden storm quickly destroys the ship and tosses the unconscious prince into the ocean. Ariel saves him, bringing him to the surface; however, she is forced to leave him behind on the shore as other humans approach. The sea witch Ursula convinces Ariel to trade her voice in exchange for a brief chance to be human so Ariel can both reunite with Eric and explore the human world. If he kisses her before sunset on the third day of her humanity, she will remain human. If not, her soul will belong to Ursula forever.
The visual effects for The Little Mermaid are beautiful, including the opening dive down into the foamy sea, which is breathtaking. But the film truly succeeds due to appealing performances from the lead actors. Halle Bailey is perfection as Ariel. She balances youthful wonder and defiant confidence with a tiny bit of actual respect and mindfulness of the dangers of the world. That slightly more restrained exuberance gives this mermaid the complexity needed to carry a live action film. Jonah Hauer-King delivers an endearing performance as the conflicted prince with a tragic backstory. He manages to be authentically sweet and nerdy as well as strong and heroic. Art Malik elevates the character of Grimsby to a leader and mentor. Melissa McCarthy slays as Ursula. She is wickedly sarcastic and manipulative until the final climactic battle scene. Then her visual effects go a little wonky and become distracting. More on that later.
How does the live action film compare to the 1989 animated film? I rewatched the animated version after seeing the live action film. The 1989 version still holds up pretty well: the songs are fantastic and the plot is engaging with its star-crossed, headstrong teens, culture clash, and big climactic fight scenes. However, adapting an animation to live action means changes. Some elements that work in cartoon form will not translate well to real life. Overall, compared to the original, this is an excellent adaptation. It closely tracks the animated film’s plot and retains its key showstopper songs. But it is a strong film in its own right, even for a non-Disney princess loving audience.
Here are some of the differences: Instead of hanging out at the palace, Ariel’s ethnically diverse sisters each patrol a different sea across the world and reunite periodically to report to Triton. I am sure this will have major spin-off potential but, in the film, the sisters remain mostly silent, which is a disappointment. Apparently Ariel’s territory is the Caribbean Sea because the live action film has a more distinctively Caribbean vibe. Eric’s home is a small island kingdom whose residents have British and Caribbean accents and the marketplace scene is very tropical. Watch for Jodi Benson (the original Ariel voice actor) in a funny cameo with Halle Bailey during this scene.
There are also three major backstory details in the new film which add depth to the story: 1) Ariel’s mother was killed by humans, hence Triton’s bitterness towards them; 2) Eric was shipwrecked as a baby and rescued by the queen, who adopted him into the royal household, hence her fear of her son spending time on long sea voyages; 3) Ursula is Triton’s sister—this is such a fun twist but it is never really explored. Not doing more with the family drama was a missed opportunity for the story.
Another general difference occurs when Ariel agrees to trade her voice for her humanity but Ursula secretly wipes Ariel’s memory of the need for the kiss. As a result, Ariel and Eric are just getting to know each other, she has no sense of urgency, and she is just as interested in his culture as in him. A lyrical difference occurs in the song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The words are slightly changed so that Ursula’s original comments on society’s sexism are cut, because apparently that society isn’t sexist anymore—or maybe the film fears the sarcasm will be lost on modern audiences. The song “Kiss the Girl” also has a few adjustments, modernizing some of the lyrics with an emphasis on consent.
Overall, most of the new tweaks are fun ways to add complexity to the story. Despite those improvements, there are a few things that did not work for me in this film. And they are mostly, to my great surprise, related to visual effects. I’m generally not a fan of cute talking animals or objects—even in animation—but in a live action film, the effect can be especially strange. The visuals of live action Sebastian (grumpy crab/royal advisor, voiced by Daveed Diggs) and live action Scuttle (silly seagull friend, voiced by Awkwafina) were okay, but the effects for live action Flounder (Ariel’s tropical fish bestie) were very odd, leaning heavily into a weirdly realistic/uncanny valley effect rather than the more fantastical designs of Ariel’s other two animal friends. Jacob Tremblay did a good job with the dialogue, but the fish visuals were just off and a bit unsettling. (I would have converted him to a merboy friend instead of a strange looking talking fish.)
The other weird visual was the giant Ursula monster in the climactic battle scene. As in the animated version, Ursula angrily grows to enormous heights in her final battle with Ariel and Eric. In the live action version, giant-sized Ursula’s head seems slightly out of proportion with her tentacled body, and the facial expressions don’t have the intensity needed for that last big scene. However, most of the visual effects in the film are gorgeous, making the smaller visual issues surprising because, well, this is Disney.
My other few quibbles about the film have to do with small plot points. Ariel’s mother was killed by humans, but Ariel and her sisters never discuss the tragedy or how it changed their family. Even one or two lines might have added some emotional heft to the story without becoming too upsetting. Another minor annoyance occurs in the scene where Ariel gets to drive a horse-drawn wagon near the village marketplace. In the animated version, Eric gives her the reins and she drives aggressively but with surprising competence—at one point successfully jumping over a chasm while Eric comically ducks under the seat in fear, and after they land safely on the other side, he leans back with his hands behind his head, indicating that he trusts her. In the live action film, Ariel takes the reins and smashes into multiple fruit vendors, creating a mess as they careen along. For some reason, chaotic driving or riding appears to be a requirement in some fantasy films, but in this story it is very out of character for Ariel. Although she is new to life on land, this is a princess who fulfills serious duties, she saved Eric, and she loves elements of human culture—they are sacred to her. I’m not sure why we needed this destruction.
Overall, I loved The Little Mermaid. Halle Bailey’s beautiful facial expressions and astonishing voice captures the heart of the story in all of the classic songs. Watching her belt out “Part of Your World” made me teary and nostalgic. Despite being a kid-friendly movie, the entire cast was both strong and authentic, especially in the second act, when Ariel is unable to speak but delivers powerful emotional energy in each scene. The updated adventure was addictive, leaving me wanting more. And, given the number of loose threads in this story, hopefully we will get more.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10Highlights:
- Sweet story
- Plot holes
- Strong acting
- Mostly gorgeous visuals outshining some surprisingly weird effects