Bailey is the greatest part of this picture, but despite a talented cast, this live-action remake falls short of the 1989 masterpiece.
Halle Bailey is as naturally Disneyfied as real people get, with her enormous eyes, soaring singing voice, and obvious purity of heart. It’s ironic, though, that her casting as the titular Ariel was ever considered problematic. In one sparkling mermaid-core bundle, Bailey is both the completed film’s single unqualified achievement and the finest justification for the entire live-action remake project. If these films are to have a function other than being nostalgic cash-ins, it must be to allow all children, not just white children, to envision themselves as Magic Kingdom residents.
Read More: About My Father’ Review: Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro Team Up for a Superior ‘Meet the Parents’ Scenario in ‘About My Father’
Almost everything else, though, flops around like a dead fish on deck. This is especially true for the trio of comic-relief characters: Sebastian the crab, Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seabird. This is not the fault of the great voice cast, which includes Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina. It’s just that what’s charming or hilarious when done by anthropomorphized cartoon cuddles is no longer cute or funny when done by computer-generated sea-life approximations with no recognized facial emotions. CGI renders dead whole sections of character interaction from its 1989 predecessor, such as Scuttle’s lessons on how to operate a human “dinglehopper” and Flounder escaping a shark attack. And you’d be lucky to make out much of it through the mist of underwater filmmaking.
It aches since the original The Little Mermaid is a great classic. Its song-and-dance sequences rank among the greatest in the Disney canon, fusing inspirations ranging from Harry Belafonte calypso to Esther Williams’ 1940s aqua musicals with the wiggle of famous drag queen Divine. These have been resurrected, with original composer Alan Menken joining Lin-Manuel Miranda to create new toe-tappers such as The Scuttlebutt. However, performers once again catastrophically weaken performances: the northern gannet is well-known for its diving talents, but this seabird species just cannot musically emote. Perhaps it’s the beak.
The Little Mermaid doesn’t lack the skill or public goodwill – director Rob Marshall achieved miracles with Mary Poppins Returns – but the alluring allure of ostensibly assured box cash has wrecked it. But there is dry land in sight, and it’s the same outcrop on which the House of Mouse was built: the awareness that some stories, particularly the most wonderful ones, are best presented through animation.
The Little Mermaid will be released in Australia on May 25, and in the United States and the United Kingdom on May 26.