The youngest of King Triton’s daughters, and the most defiant, Ariel longs to find out more about the world beyond the sea, and while visiting the surface, falls for the dashing Prince Eric. With mermaids forbidden to interact with humans, Ariel makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, which gives her a chance to experience life on land, but ultimately places her life – and her father’s crown – in jeopardy.
When Bailey’s casting was announced last year, she received a torrent of abuse online, slamming her and Disney for recasting Ariel as a Black mermaid. It was a sad reminder of how angry some people get when a remake or reboot doesn’t cater perfectly to their childhood memories, and also how easily some can couch their racism as nostalgia.
The other actors are more of a mixed bag. As Eric, the hunky human prince whom Ariel saves from drowning and falls in love with, Jonah Hauer-King toggles between dashing and drippy. Bardem is a great actor, but even he can’t do much with the solemnly bearded King Triton, who’s saddled with some of the movie’s more fake-looking CGI. Melissa McCarthy puts a wickedly mischievous spin on Ursula, the many-tentacled sea witch who transforms Ariel into a human for a very steep price. Too often, though, she goes for easy laughs at the expense of real menace.
Speaking as someone with no small attachment to the original Little Mermaid myself, I’d say Bailey’s casting is one of the few instances in which this new movie actually demonstrates some fresh thinking. Her singing voice is as lovely as the role demands, and while she’s not always as vivid in her non-musical moments, she keeps you fully absorbed in Ariel’s journey.
But the characters who fare the worst this time around are probably Ariel’s faithful critter friends. In the role of Scuttle, the raucous seagull, a little of Awkwafina’s goofball shtick goes a long way. And Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame, struggles to make an appealing sidekick out of Sebastian, the worrywart crab who tries to keep Ariel out of trouble. That has less to do with his acting and singing than with just how unappealing the character designs are. What made Sebastian and Ariel’s fish friend Flounder so memorable in the original film was their glorious cartoonishness; here, they look creepy and dead-eyed.
The filmmaker Rob Marshall has lately become Disney’s go-to director for musicals, for reasons I don’t really understand. His film of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods struck me as one of the murkiest-looking movie musicals in recent memory, though I’d sooner sit through it again than his 2018 effort, the charmless Mary Poppins Returns.
The movie could use more moments like that. The screenwriter, David Magee, does try to put some new riffs on old material. He fleshes out the long-standing tensions and misunderstandings between humans and merfolk, and he also tries to make Ariel a tougher, more confrontational heroine.
The Little Mermaid, for its part, does have some charm. Its aquatic sequences are no match for Avatar: The Way of Water, though Sebastian’s big “Under the Sea” number does achieve a nice level of Busby Berkeley-style calypso craziness. And the story fitfully surges to life above water, especially in a few freshly scripted scenes in which Ariel and Eric’s romance takes center stage.