Characters and performances succeed, yet some songs and plot points miss the mark
The Little Mermaid (2023) is the latest in Disney’s line-up of CGI-drenched live-action remakes. These films have always seemed like a transparent business decision. They’re over-reliant on nostalgia, with awkward new songs (if the music isn’t cut out entirely) and edits to the script that intend to address old problems and plot holes but end up bloating the movie. The core issue with these live-action remakes is that Disney seems to have forgotten why the originals were animated in the first place and they often come off as soulless at worst and dull at best.
But I have to admit that I enjoyed The Little Mermaid more than I expected.
There are some new additions to the adaptation that work. Prince Eric, like Ariel, dreams of exploring the world. His interests lie in the world beyond his island kingdom with the hopes of establishing trade and exploring uncharted waters. This addition to the story gives Eric and Ariel a moment to bond, and their relationship grows organically from there. Their chemistry builds until the audience can’t help but chant along to “Kiss the Girl.”
Ursula’s deal with Ariel also comes with a hidden amendment: Ariel is unable to remember that she needs to kiss Eric by the end of three days. Presumably, this is supposed to address the plot hole of why Ariel doesn’t put more effort into seducing Eric. But all it does is strip Ariel of her agency while she’s on land. Sure, she completes her life-long goal of exploring the human world, but the motivation of the ticking clock is only felt by the animal sidekicks. And when Ariel realizes Ursula’s betrayal, it barely lasts a second before we move onto the next plot beat.
When it’s not simply following the same beats as the original or furiously expositing the new lore, the movie is fun and creative. Especially during “Under the Sea,” when it actually takes advantage of the animation and the sea creatures dance to the music. And it’s colourful! (Though no bass play the brass nor do carp play the harp, and the lyrics only draw attention to that.)
For the performances, the stand out roles are Halle Bailey as Ariel and Daveed Diggs as Sebastion. Bailey nails “Part of Your World” and balances her naivety with the genuine curiosity and determination that make her so enjoyable to watch. Diggs brings something new to Sebastian as a stick-in-the-mud with a heart of gold who learns to genuinely care for Ariel. Diggs is easily the most entertaining cast member.
Despite these enjoyable aspects, Disney’s need to justify the retelling gets in the way. The insistence on tying the fairy tale to the real world sticks out rather than grounding the story, plot beats are introduced then forgotten until the last few minutes, the new songs feel more like failed experiments than successful additions, and the attempt to make the talking animals realistic distracts from the plot.
Overall, The Little Mermaid feels like a solid 6/10. Along with some major flaws, it has some genuinely strong ideas, if only they were given more room to breathe.