Review: Disney’s Live-Action “The Little Mermaid” – A Star-Making Turn from Halle Bailey and Mixed CGI Effects
Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” has been highly anticipated since it was first announced. The original hand-drawn musical, released in 1989, is largely credited with kicking off the Disney renaissance. It won two Academy Awards for its musical components: original score and original song (“Under the Sea”). The 2023 version of “The Little Mermaid” stays true to the original story, following a headstrong mermaid named Ariel who longs to be part of the human world. Halle Bailey delivers a star-making turn as Ariel, her performance so guileless and open-hearted that she seems to possess the properties of bioluminescence. Admirers of the beloved 1989 animated classic may approach the new live-action adaptation with trepidation, but Bailey’s performance alone justifies the film’s existence beyond a blatant cash grab.
Melissa McCarthy plays the sea-witch Ursula with evil glee, but the CGI takes away the character’s sinister streak and McCarthy doesn’t have the vocal chops Pat Carroll had just through her voice in the cartoon. The marketing around the film would have you believe that this “The Little Mermaid” is a bold reimagining that prioritizes a modern, moral, even feminist schema missing in the original. But this “Little Mermaid” doesn’t reimagine so much as curdle its predecessor’s story with mostly minor changes.
“The Little Mermaid” is directed by Rob Marshall and stars Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, who Ariel rescues from a shipwreck and immediately falls for. The sea witch Ursula offers to make her human for three days (although voiceless) to see if she can make Eric fall in love with her, but of course Ursula’s not playing fair. The woman is a witch of the sea!  McCarthy hams it up in a performance that’s part Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” part Phyllis Diller on an old episode of “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”
Bailey’s performance is so accomplished for being delivered amid crashing waves, sweeping vistas and the crushing expectations of generations of fans. With confidence, charisma, and oceans of charm, she confidently takes on the role of Ariel for a new generation and makes “The Little Mermaid” her own. Bailey has a big, crystalline voice and bravura delivery yet gracefully captures the passion beneath the words when she sings “Part of Your World,” about her longing to be on land. She is also a fine actor whose wide-eyed sincerity makes us believe that Ariel is enamoured of all things human, from a fork to Prince Eric.
The film does have some flaws. While “Under the Sea” is the one sequence that just about matches the spectacular visual appeal of the original, the realism deflates the number. In keeping with accuracy, the ocean isn’t as brightly lit and some of the creatures look almost dull marching in unison across the ocean floor. The poor spacing in the sequences hinders the focus on Ariel and Sebastian, who are supposed to be the center of attention during the performance. It can be perplexing when you are uncertain about the appropriate size of characters or creatures in relation to the scene's scale.
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