‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: Halle Bailey’s Star Performance Anchors Rob Marshall’s Dark Disney Remake

As the harsh, unforgiving waves crash with abandon in the opening moments of Rob Marshall’s “The Little Mermaid,” there is a sense that a true loss of innocence is on the brink. In this new live-action adaptation things are not as bubblegum sweet and bright as the last time we visited Ariel’s story. The sea is rougher, less forgiving.

There is, as Ariel sings in the famed “Part of Your World,” something starting inside the heart of a tender, curious, and desperate mermaid the same way it did in 1989, but Marshall’s vision finds the raw humanity within the story, grounding a once-completely fantastical tale with a strong sense of realism that works to its advantage.

The new movie follows the same trajectory of the 1989 Disney classic: Halle Bailey’s young mermaid Ariel, a curious soul who longs to experience life on land and connect with humans. In an effort to sate her explorative soul in the wake of punishment from her father King Triton (Javier Bardem), she takes a risk and agrees to a devil’s bargain from Melissa McCarthy’s sinister Ursula that gives her three days to secure her place on land with a kiss from Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).

The film is unsubtle in its decision to introduce a major tonal shift within the way this classic Disney fairy tale is presented, centering a devastating Hans Christian Anderson quote about the suffering of mermaids as a word of caution. Is “The Little Mermaid” too concerned about being different from its predecessor? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean the attempt comes up dry. In fact, the tonal shift feels right when the audience takes in the full picture of Marshall’s version: the desperate yet grounded performances, the lifelike and relentless portrayal of the ocean and the overall sense of change bursting at the seams like a battle raging above water that threatens to break the surface.

That shift is further aided by the film’s performances, which makes it impossible not to dive further into how well cast this is. Bailey and McCarthy are the major standouts, with the former effortlessly proving her staying power as a multifaceted performer, and McCarthy reminding folks how versatile and reliable she is as a character actor. Bailey brings Ariel to life with a palpable and true sense of wonder, adventure, and passion.

She truly feels like a young woman yearning to break free, where sometimes the Ariel of our childhoods—the cartoon one, of course—comes off as more of a petulant child. Bailey’s vocal abilities are off the charts, no surprise, but her stylings and vocal tone fit the innocence and sweetness of the character perfectly. It’s an excellent mix that helps shape this full, three-dimensional version of a character we remember fondly. Bailey is, without a doubt, the main attraction and the full package, and this film is just the first of many where she will take a strong and assured lead.

McCarthy’s Ursula is an undeniable highlight, drawing you in with her general homage to the original character but delighting with little quips of her own comedic style. McCarthy does an incredible job of fading into the role, disappearing in a way that satisfies the nostalgia hounds who will undoubtedly come to the theater with major reservations before they even walk in the door.

Let’s face it: It’s an important film to at least one generation and the villainous octopus—with all of her beguiling and cruel hilarity—is crucial to the success of any new adaptation. McCarthy rises confidently to the challenge and delivers a suave, slick performance that will ensnare new fans of the story and thrill devotees of the original.

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The film also has a few surprise performances that round out this pack of casting wins. Hauer’s Prince Eric is not only emotionally resonant and rich with the need to be understood, but his vocal abilities far exceeded what was expected of him. Hauer has a bright future as a leading man and his vocal talents will hopefully land him front and center in many more musical projects. Like Bailey, he is a full-package performer.

Plus, the film’s peanut gallery—Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian, Awkwafina’s Scuttle, and Jacob Tremblay’s Flounder—were also well orchestrated as a trio employed for both comedic effect and crucial plot progression. Diggs, Tremblay and Awkwafina are solid performers, but with how understated and effortlessly seamless the original portrayals feel it can be hard not to brace yourself for what could be a tacky, unfunny reimagining of these wacky sidekicks. Diggs and Awkwafina bring a fresh sense of modern comedy to their roles while edging in their own signature styles and deliveries, and Tremblay rounds out the pack with a heartwarming and sweetly naive performance that feels lovely in its closeness to the original character.

The new movie wins out by also adding backstories that flesh things out but don’t throw the story’s well-known plot into disarray. Prince Eric and Ursula both get new and expanded backstories that further shape their choices and give the audience broader context to their impulses. It’s a smart decision that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the film and story, but bolsters its strengths. Plus, it gives the adult fans a little more meat to chew on.

One major gripe has to be addressed and it’s a sin that can’t be pinned on this film alone. Like many Disney adaptations for both screen and stage, “The Little Mermaid” has several new songs that, as usual, read like they were written solely for the purpose of garnering a Best Original Song nomination, at worst, and a win at best. None of these songs hold a candle to the kind of unbridled joy and warmth the original tracks elicit from us.

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It’s hard to make hits when you’re trying to make hits and Lin Manuel Miranda’s new songs are flat, boring and uninspired, despite being co-written with the original composer Alan Menken.​​ The film would be much stronger and more seamless with only classic “Little Mermaid” songs, but it seems creatives will never stop trying to make their marks on works that withstand the test of time. That might be the film’s biggest problem, but with every other shining element of this intriguing adaptation it’s a problem easily—and happily—ignored.

The live-action “Little Mermaid” is a fresh take on a beloved classic that isn’t afraid to take a fairy tale and make it as real as it can, inviting its audience to dive into uncharted waters alongside its engaging and charming central characters.

“The Little Mermaid” opens exclusively in theaters on May 26.

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