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Bailey and McCarthy shine, but new Little Mermaid lacks the magic of its classic animated predecessor

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Photo courtesy of Disney
Photo courtesy of Disney


The Little Mermaid is a decided step up from other recent Disney animation-to-live action(ish) remakes like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. For one thing, the film is a stellar showcase for youngster Halle Bailey. She's tremendous as Ariel, the youngest daughter of the all-powerful King Tritan (Javier Bardem) who longs to leave her home under the sea and explore the human world. For another, Melissa McCarthy's dynamic, scene-stealing performance as the evil witch Ursula is everything a fan could hope for and more; the comedic superstar is so perfectly cast, it's impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.

On the other hand, at a whopping 135 minutes, this reimagining of the 1989 animated classic is almost an hour longer than its predecessor. It adds unnecessary details, elongates scenes, adds a few anemic new musical numbers, and features an abysmally staged dance sequence in an outdoor marketplace that's shockingly horrible. The cinematography by veteran Dion Beebe (Gemini Man) waffles between fantastic and mundane from one scene to the next, while the visual effects are equal parts eye-popping and eye-rolling, a frustrating turn of events to say the least.

Thankfully, the stuff that's great is legitimately superb. Bailey is a born superstar. She makes Ariel entirely her own. She sings with a passionate urgency that's rapturous, delivering composer Alan Menken and the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman's magnificent anthem "Part of Your World" in a way that makes it almost feel brand-new. Bailey also has divine chemistry with Jonah Hauer-King's two-legged object of the mermaid's affection, Prince Eric, generating an electrifying warmth that makes their blossoming romance something blissfully special.

Photo courtesy of Disney  

As for McCarthy, she more than delivers as Ursula. If anything — considering how much pointless material has been added to this remake — I honestly wish writer David Magee (Mary Poppins Returns) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) had included more of the evil Sea Witch and excised any of the songs written specifically for this updated version (with lyrics written by Lin-Manuel Miranda). McCarthy is over the top, but in full service to the material. She's raucously vile, taking such extreme pleasure in her monstrous villainy that watching her work her black magic is nothing less than a constant joy.

I just wish the stuff that falls flat didn't do so with such a colossally upsetting thud. While some of the underwater bits do look stunning, in a post-Avatar: The Way of Water world, something that looks this cartoonishly unnatural and washed out simply will not cut it. Marshall, seemingly in an admirable pursuit to not restage memorable sequences from the original shot-for-shot, still makes some absurd framing choices, most notably during the climactic aria during the reprise of "Part of Your World," after Ariel has saved Eric from drowning and watches him from afar, nestled behind a jagged seaside rock.

Then there are the effects themselves, mostly as they pertain to the crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), the flounder Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and the seagull Scuttle (Awkwafina). Like with The Lion King, the pursuit of photorealism with these digitally created animals robs them of any opportunity to emote. While the talented vocal cast gives it their best shot, all of their performances are aggravatingly unnatural. The deadness in each character's eyes sent constant shivers down my spine, and in large part because of this, signature musical numbers like "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" (don't get me started on the new lyrics for that one) left me cold.

The tale may not be as old as time, but it's still the same comforting reimagining of author Hans Christian Andersen's surprisingly dark source material. Even though her father forbids it, the young mermaid wants to experience the wonders of the human world and makes a pact with the Sea Witch so she can freely walk upon dry land. She has three days to get a dashing prince to give her a kiss of true love, otherwise her soul is forfeit, and she must get him to do it without the use of her voice. Music, chaos, and hijinks involving singing and talking animals ensue.

For the poor, unfortunate souls hoping this The Little Mermaid will either equal or surpass the animated version, disappointment will be their unhappy bedfellow. But younger audiences will likely enjoy themselves quite a bit, and I can almost guarantee they're going to fall euphorically in love (and deservedly so) with Bailey's Ariel. They'll want to be a part of her world, and maybe that's all that matters.