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Is it see-worthy? The new 'Little Mermaid' is not that bad ... but also not that good

Halle Bailey's casting as Ariel in the live-action adaptation of <em>The Little Mermaid </em>is one of the few instances where the film demonstrates fresh thinking.
Halle Bailey's casting as Ariel in the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid is one of the few instances where the film demonstrates fresh thinking.

I haven't really been a fan of Disney's recent live-action remakes of its most beloved animated titles — a practice that may make commercial sense, but feels increasingly like an artistic dead end. Even so, I tried to keep an open mind when I heard that The Little Mermaid, one of my favorite movies in the Disney canon, was getting the do-over treatment.

This kind of retread may be unnecessary, but unnecessary doesn't have to mean unenjoyable. And with that brilliant Alan Menken score and those ingenious Howard Ashman lyrics — and yes, I can sing the whole thing from start to finish — really, how bad could it be?

The answer is: not that bad, but also not that good. Like a lot of its fellow Disney remakes, this Little Mermaid too often feels like a dutiful cover version rather than an inspired reimagining. The story hasn't changed much: The good King Triton, played here by Javier Bardem, has forbidden all mermaids and mermen from visiting the ocean's surface, warning them that humans are dangerous. But that hasn't stopped his youngest and most free-spirited daughter, Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, from becoming deeply fascinated with the human world, which she learns about by collecting artifacts from shipwrecks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ariel's fish friend flounders in Disney's remake of<em> The Little Mermaid.</em>
/ Disney
Ariel's fish friend flounders in Disney's remake of The Little Mermaid.

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.

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. Along similar lines, Prince Eric is now a more vulnerable, fully rounded character than before, as we can hear when he expresses his longings in a new song written by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The song is a nice touch, but as with so much in this Little Mermaid, it isn't on a par with anything in the original. The movie is pleasant enough, but I wouldn't call it see-worthy.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.