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The Little Mermaid

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Disney

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Forget the freaky photo-real fish and fall for Halle Bailey’s charm in Disney’s new-look mermaid adventure

Disney has been on a tear for the last decade recreating the animated material from its storied 1990s Renaissance and beyond. Basically, every ‘classic’ movie musical that millennials grew up with has been reshot, nearly scene-for-scene, in live-action realness. We’ve already had Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan, Aladdin, Cinderella and The Jungle Book, and there’s no sign of the production line slowing

The latest nostalgic live-action redo of a Disney animation, The Little Mermaid begins in off-putting fashion with photo-realistic sea life discussing how to rescue a mermaid princess. Get past the talking fish, though, and you’ll find all the  story beats that made Oscar-winning animation so beloved. And what’s added by Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee mostly works to enrich the story.

The setting is the azure waters around a fictitious island in the Caribbean. There, an aged-up, 18-year-old Ariel (Halle Bailey) is introduced – still the spirited mermaid you remember, desperate for adventure and eager to learn all about the humans above. In her future, of course, is a dashing prince, a deal with a manipulative sea witch, and true love’s first kiss.

Director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) throws in some welcome additions to keep things fresh. Ariel spends much more time with Prince Eric (a sincere turn from Jonah Hauer-King), and a sense of being trapped afflicts them both. We get to meet Eric’s mermaid-averse mother, which makes this budding romance feel more earned. That works in the story’s favour, especially in an age where ‘love at first sight’ feels like an archaic trope. Ariel’s sisters get more screen time, too, rounded out from their role as set dressing in the animation.

Song-wise, it’s the old classics that still hit home, although Lin-Manuel Miranda adds a few new ones, including a crowdpleasing rap by crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and seagull Scuttle (Awkwafina). Diggs and Awkwafina – plus  Jacob Tremblay as the voice of a far-too-real Flounder – do what they can with some hit-and-miss dialogue as Ariel's sidekicks.

Bailey, though, is the star attraction and she brings all the right amounts of courage and playfulness to the open-hearted mermaid. And her voice is just as breathtaking as Jodi Benson’s, the OG Ariel. 

Ursula’s make-up could be louder, but her cackles and sensual tentacle movements are scene-stealing

And while she initially felt like a leftfield pick, Melissa McCarthy makes a fun Ursula, the Spy actress embodying the sea witch in all her OTT glory. The make-up could be louder, but her cackles and sensual tentacle movements are scene-stealing. 

Javier Bardem is less good as an intimidating, yet robotic King Triton who sports two emotions: anger and stoicism. Neither are what you’d expect from a father desperately trying to find his daughter. 

Like Disney’s other recent reboots, this version of The Little Mermaid fails to live up to its Oscar-winning predecessor (how could it?). But it adds just enough to be an enjoyable, though hardly groundbreaking, return to that magical world.

In cinemas worldwide May 26.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

Cast and crew

  • Director:Rob Marshall
  • Screenwriter:David Magee
  • Cast:
    • Melissa McCarthy
    • Halle Bailey
    • Jonah Hauer-King
    • Javier Bardem
    • Daveed Diggs
    • Awkwafina
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