Halle Bailey’s charms can’t distract from all the bizarre choices at the heart of this underwhelming live-action remake.
At this point, the only phrase more bone-chilling than “Suella Braverman policy” is “Disney live-action remake”. Sludgy, ugly, pointless ways to squeeze every last bit of cash out of over-tired parents and Disney adults with nostalgia for when their imagination was captured by beautifully crafted, hand-drawn animation and a litany of originally composed bops. While The Little Mermaid surpasses recent artless remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin, that is a very low bar to clear. Halle Bailey is fantastic as Ariel, and Daveed Diggs delightful as Sebastian the crab, but it’s still a late-stage capitalism slog.
Bloated from the original’s 83 minutes to 135, the hour mark passes before Ariel and the sea witch Ursula even meet and make a deal to exchange her voice for 3 days on land, to get true love’s kiss before sunset, or submit to being Ursula’s possession. Even with Bailey’s charms and euphonious rendition of ‘Part Of Your World’, it’s hard not to long for some sort of lunar eclipse loophole to make things get a bloody move on.
The padded-out details are all so inconsequential or strange: that Titan and Ursula are siblings, that a human killed Ariel’s mother, and that Prince Eric’s mother is trying to ban him from the sea as Titan tries to deny Ariel from the land. A bizarre amount of runtime is given to a geopolitical dispute around shipwrecks. Land people blame the sea gods for making the sea so inhospitable to them that their ships are all being wrecked, while the merpeople are furious that the shipwreck debris is damaging the reef, thinking the humans are doing it on purpose. It’s clear that a vague eco-message about protecting the sea seemed worth inserting, but wishing the humans would stop littering the tropical seas with all their dead bodies is such an odd choice.
Speaking of tropical seas, this is very much the Caribbean, not Denmark, like the Hans Christian Andersen original or the vague Europe of the animated feature. While casting Halle Bailey as a Black Ariel raised some eyebrows, and debating the race of a character that is half fish is a task for the bowels of the internet, transposing the action to the early 19th century in the Caribbean is a wild choice.
The nobility all have English accents (including his Black mother, white Prince Eric is adopted, because sure), while the locals have Caribbean accents, drink from coconuts and play steel drums. There’s something unintentionally hilarious to having our little Black mermaid falling in love with a handsome Prince who talks endlessly about increasing the Caribbean island’s trade with Portugal and Brazil because, erm… what are you trading there, buddy?
Titan himself has 7 daughters, each of a different race, “one from each of the 7 seas”, and I guess one of the ways “it’s better down where it’s wetter” is progressive views about polyamory. But the mermaid sisters are each stunningly realised, and the beloved musical number ‘Under The Sea’ is gorgeous, bright and colourful with swirling octopuses, jellyfish, neon coral and the witty lyrics of “What do they got? A lot of sand. We got a hot crustacean band.” But it’s still a reminder of what we once had: craft and creativity that made generations of young people want to befriend a little crab rhapsodising about a magical world under the waves, where now we’re trapped in much murkier waters.
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Published 24 May 2023
Reluctant to be part of your world.
For the love of god, get a move on, kiss the girl.
It’s true, we are poor unfortunate souls.