The Little Mermaid is Disney's best live-action remake

halle bailey, the little mermaid
The Little Mermaid reviewDisney

Following the death of Walt Disney in 1966 and his brother Roy in 1971, Disney entered something of a dark period. It struggled to replicate the box-office success of golden-age classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and The Jungle Book, and was more or less at the edge of the abyss.

However, the tide of fortune shifted for the studio with the release of its 1989 animated feature The Little Mermaid, which emerged from the depths and launched what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.

This new era saw Disney return to its traditional storytelling roots while using Broadway-inspired music to propel the narrative forward, laying the groundwork for later Disney hits like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, until the era ended with Tarzan in 1999.

Given The Little Mermaid's history and role in making Disney the powerhouse empire it is today, it's quite fitting that its live-action remake is the studio's best retelling of a classic tale to date.

halle bailey, the little mermaid

In case you've never seen the animation, The Little Mermaid centres on a spirited young mermaid named Ariel (Halle Bailey), who is captivated by the world up above and later falls for a human prince after she saves him from a shipwreck.

While mermaids are forbidden from interacting with humans, Ariel defies her father King Triton's (Javier Bardem) orders and strikes a bargain with the wicked sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who gives Ariel the chance to explore life on land for three days in exchange for her voice.

Ariel must share true love's kiss with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) within these three days if she wants to remain human, otherwise she will transform back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula.

It's very much business as usual when it comes to the plot, but director Rob Marshall has made sure to add some new elements which help set it apart.

scuttle, flounder, ariel, halle bailey, the little mermaid

The tail tale has been subject to criticism in recent years for depicting a young woman who gives up her voice for a man. While we're not sure this was ever Ariel's sole motivation (have you listened to 'Part of Your World?'), the remake adds a small yet significant change early on to nip this criticism in the bud.

Before Sebastian tries to convince Ariel that life 'Under the Sea' is better (which Daveed Diggs nails, by the way) after she saves Eric from the shipwreck, Ariel tells him: "If you had just seen it up there, the ship rolled on the wind, and they filled the sky with fire."

In the animated version, however, Ariel fawns over the human prince and pulls petals from a flower one by one, reciting "he loves me, he loves me not" until she excitedly lands on "he loves me!".

It may be small, but this change effectively drives forward the idea that Ariel is initially fascinated by the human world and that she longs to explore it, while the possibility of courting a charming young prince is merely an added bonus.

Ariel's brand-new song 'For the First Time', which she sings when she sets foot on land for, you guessed it, the very first time, further aims to prove this, while managing to reach the stirring heights of the classic Little Mermaid songs.

halle bailey and jonah hauer king, the little mermaid

McCarthy and Bardem deliver strong performances as Ursula and King Triton, while Hauer-King makes the most of Prince Eric's expanded role from the animation. He's now a fully realised character who has his own journey, aspirations, and even a song. His chemistry with Bailey is also a high point.

What makes this remake Disney's best, though, is undoubtedly Bailey's performance. Even without her voice, she's sheer magic and makes you feel every emotion Ariel is experiencing. Her rendition of 'Part of Your World' is a showstopper, proving she's every bit a Disney princess.

We must admit that the underwater visual effects can be a little rough at times, and the uncanny CGI Sebastian is pretty hard to look past. It also feels a little too long, but none of this is really enough to detract from the overall enjoyment.

The Little Mermaid retains the heart and spirit of the animated classic, while adding new elements that offer a fresh perspective on familiar events. Thanks in large part to Bailey's outstanding performance, this adaptation has the potential to captivate a new generation of Disney fans.

4 stars
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The Little Mermaid is released in cinemas on May 26. The animated movie is streaming now on Disney+.

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