Despite controversy, despite an exciting partnership between Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken, despite a multimillion dollar budget from Walt Disney Pictures, 2023’s take on “The Little Mermaid” is in many ways indistinguishable from the version that debuted in 1989.
In a lot of ways, that isn’t a bad thing. This new film takes a classic and adapts it with a very fun new cast and some story changes that freshen it up a little for a more modern sensibility — specifically by deepening the relationship between Ariel and Eric.
The problem remains that “The Little Mermaid” is still fundamentally the same film as “The Little Mermaid.” The plot hits all the same beats, the characters follow largely the same arcs, and perhaps worst of all is that the songs sound almost indistinguishable from the versions that were played more than 30 years ago.
In the lead role of Ariel is Halle Bailey, a talented young singer-songwriter. I was tremendously excited to hear her take on iconic songs. She certainly does get moments to shine, in familiar tunes and especially in a new song where she exuberantly wonders at walking and dancing for the first time, then at experiencing doubt for the first time. But her takes on “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea” don’t feel as original as I might have hoped.
The rest of the cast, too, are without exception fun and interesting. Javier Bardem is delightfully weird as King Triton, Daveed Diggs sells Sebastian and Melissa McCarthy entirely steals the show as Ursula.
“The Little Mermaid” is filled with talented actors delivering winning performances, but there’s some charm missing — missing in the entirely empty undersea landscapes and in the distracted back and forth motion of Triton’s arms as he treads in place.
Prince Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, represents the one major departure from the source material. He’s fleshed out with dreams that mirror Ariel’s; he’s even given his own ballad on the beach to declare his desires.
Considerable time is spent both developing Eric and developing the relationship between him and Ariel in the new film, which clocks in nearly an hour longer than the original. It does a lot to make that central thread a lot less weird. A sequence of Ariel and Eric exploring his island and visiting a bustling marketplace is easily the film’s best, which perhaps shouldn’t be the case in any movie that features the iconic “Under the Sea.”
“The Little Mermaid” is a good film that successfully refreshes an animated classic for a modern age. It, like its predecessor, tackles themes of curiosity and freedom as Ariel and Eric push back against the worlds they’ve grown up with. It’s maybe a little overlong, but it’s a fine family film.
I would appreciate far more an interesting artistic swing that missed the mark than the safe, expensive, sanitized film that Disney delivered; in much the same way as they’ve delivered recycled takes on several of their previous films in recent years.
“The Little Mermaid” will be playing this weekend at Kenai Cinema, Orca Theater and Homer Theatre. Check showtimes and get tickets at catheaters.com, orcatheater.com or homertheatre.com.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.