Why did Halle Bailey get the gig as Ariel in this live-action take on the much-loved 1989 cartoon musical? Well, 10 minutes in and the answer’s obvious. Lily James and Emma Watson were charming in bringing other Disney cartoons to life – in 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast respectively – but Bailey is in a different league. She is a phenomenal singer, actor and “batty lip burbler”... but more of that later.
Much of the cartoon’s plot has been tweaked. Scriptwriter David Magee introduces new characters a-plenty; he’s added topical themes galore. You want new songs? Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken provide four.
Yet the gist of the thing hasn’t changed. Ariel, the rebellious daughter of human-phobic king of the sea Triton (Javier Bardem), falls for the intrepid, very much human Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), saving him from drowning.
Desperate to be part of Eric’s world, she accepts help from her aunty, the sea-witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), agreeing to give up her beautiful voice, so she can be human from the waist down. Ariel’s friends, crab Sebastian and seagull Scuttle, (Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina; both on top-form, especially during rap number The Scuttlebutt), now have three days to make Eric fall in love with her. Because if he doesn’t kiss her, Ursula will stick it to Triton.
McCarthy was born to play the vivaciously vicious witch, who is at her most hilarious when Ursula is taking umbrage. And check out the character’s smutty panache as she hoists up her Mae West-style corset and, later, snaps out of a strop. Ursula has long been associated with drag queens. McCarthy honours that tradition, divinely.
True, some of the CGI and production design lacks finesse. When Ursula’s legs and arms gyrate, you may be remindined of a washing machine that’s been stuffed with too many clothes (her tentacles don’t so much swirl as squidge). And poor Sebastian looks like a Poundland toy.
But it doesn’t matter because Ariel, interacting with gorgeously luminous squid and jelly fish, is anything but all at sea (as in Avatar: The Way of Water, plumbing the flourescent depths is a trippy treat). And the crannies of the kingdom are splendid. My favourite nooks: the local market (where Ariel learns to dance) and Eric’s helter-skelter library of treasures.
Talking of Eric, Hauer-King after initially being a bit disappointing, yet he comes into his own in the second half. At one point, our heroine helps the prince to guess her name by repeatedly plucking his lower lip. The technical term for this is “batty lip burbling”. Which may not sound sexy but, as performed by Bailey and Hauer-King, really is.
If the new version isn’t quite as consistently satisfying as the cartoon, it’s easily the best of all the recent live-action Disney adaptations. The Little Mermaid is popping candy for the soul. Which is why I’ll be seeing it again, asap. The internet thinks this is the naffest/most horribly woke movie of the year. Not me. I want more.
In cinemas from May 26
120mins cert PG