Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (2023)

It’s fine. Really.

Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid tells the tale of Ariel, a miserable princess trapped in a humorless underwater kingdom. She’s surrounded by bossy relatives and ugly CGI. On top of that someone keeps turning out the lights. No wonder she wants to escape to the sunny world above. Halle Bailey takes Ariel’s alienation seriously. Her passionate performance wins our sympathy. We’re free to read whatever otherness we want onto her plight.

Hans Christian Andersen’s tale was of unrequited love. Disney’s 1989 film reimagined it as a colorful romcom. Marshall brings back some of Andersen’s angst, losing joy in the process. Jacob Tremblay and Daveed Diggs can’t do much with the thankless roles of Flounder and Sebastian. Ariel doesn’t give two bubbles about them and neither does the film. Awkwafina briefly livens things up as Scuttle, the socially awkward seagull. Love her or hate her, she’s having more fun than anyone else on screen.

What about Ursula? The fabulous sea witch who cons Ariel into trading her voice for a human body? The Divine burlesque diva? It seems Marshall gave Melissa McCarthy one note: “Be angry.” And she is. She screams. She scowls. She seethes with rage. Her big song is staged in a creepy den of slime, skulls and flames. She’s a genuine threat. She hasn’t an ounce of charm.

So, what works? Surprisingly, it’s the human realm where the film comes to life. Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is portrayed as a Bizarro Ariel. Hoarding sea treasures and holding the same arguments with his family that Ariel holds with hers. His Queen mother (Noma Dumezweni) and sly manservant (Art Malik) bring spark to these scenes that Javier Bardem’s King Triton lacks in his. Marshall uses the expanded run time to develop Ariel and Eric’s relationship.

It’s easy to forget the film is a musical. Alan Menken keeps six songs from the animated film (RIP “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons.”), ignores the songs from the 2008 Broadway musical, and adds three new songs from lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. Eric’s ballad is forgettable. Awkwafina’s rap is weird but adds some needed levity. Most successful is “For the First Time.” Ariel’s inner monologue as she sets foot on land. It lets her express all the excitement, terror, hope and despair that her adventure is bringing. It gives the remake stakes and a heart.

See it if you want. Or watch the cartoon. Or both. It’s fine. Really.

Odds and Ends

  • Halle Bailey would be marvelous in the musical Once on this Island. The 1990 Mermaid adaptation by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
  • Marshall’s not afraid to objectify his leads a bit. I was amused by Eric’s gratuitous shirtless scenes.
  • However, it must be acknowledged that Eric’s clearly pushing 30. He’s had a lot of “21st birthdays” on that boat. It makes scenes of his mother bossing him about unintentionally camp.
  • Why is Ursula shouting at her tentacles like Doctor Octopus? I appreciate the weirdness. But why not let Flotsam and Jetsam talk to her?
  • The mersisters were wasted.
  • Kudos to Jessica Alexander in the small role of Vanessa. She makes the most of her screen time.
  • I like the ways screenwriter David Magee gives Ariel agency. Though it renders Eric superfluous in the big finale.
  • The Broadway adaptation is a mixed bag as well. I like the songs “Her Voice,” “If Only” & “I Want the Good Times Back.” I’d take Awkwafina’s rap over the Broadway Scuttle’s wretched comedy numbers.
  • Scuttle gets a dark joke that fans of the Andersen tale will appreciate.
  • Did you spot the cameo in the marketplace?
  • Seriously who turned out the lights? The underwater action sequences are rendered in near darkness.

You can find more of my reviews on The AvocadoLetterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.