The Little Mermaid, review: an exciting, enveloping remake that deserves to make a splash

Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid - Disney/AP
Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid - Disney/AP

My favourite little mermaid is in London’s Horniman Museum. A little under two feet long, it’s a nightmarish amalgamation of teeth, scale and hair. Once owned by the American showman PT Barnum, it looks like you might dredge it from the bath plug after an energetic plunging session.

This woebegone curio is sadly not the inspiration for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Instead, Rob Marshall’s new film is a live-action remake of the 1989 cartoon, which starred Jodi Benson as the shell-bikinied mermaid Ariel who must find love with landlubber Prince Eric to throw off a curse and her father’s tyrannical control.

It’s the studio’s latest attempt to reimagine its stable of beloved, but troublesome, classics. These rehashes haven’t been altogether successful, ranging from the pleasant but pointless (2016’s The Jungle Book) to the pointless and childhood-scarring – Tim Burton’s dour, steampunk Dumbo being a notable example.

Happily, The Little Mermaid comfortably leaps clear of the lot. It serves as a handsome homage while persuasively making the case as its own discrete entity. This time, Ariel is played by 23-year-old singer Halle Bailey. With five Grammy nominations, she brings an unarguable emotional force to the musical numbers, filling them with blustery yearning. On screen, too, she has genuine star wattage, outshining Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric.

Here, the poor chap is given even less to do than in the cartoon and, while he gamely essays a kind of hapless affability, he mostly comes across as, well, wet. It’s the sort of role Hugh Grant once made his own, and I kept wishing a Grantish glint of self-awareness to redeem the foppish stammering.

In support, Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina are good value as Ariel’s bickering friends, the crab Sebastian and gannet Scuttle. And as King Triton, Javier Bardem bobs and glowers with all the gravitas you’d expect from a man who once made a pudding-bowl haircut terrifying.

The film, though, belongs to Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula. She plays the cephalopod sea witch as Cruella de Vil meets New York mobster – Tony Soprano with tentacles. Her scheming showpiece, Poor Unfortunate Souls, is a joy.

Scored by Alan Menken, who also composed for the cartoon, the music doesn’t stray too far from fan-pleasing familiarity. Yet Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence adds a welcome rap and steel-pan funk to the otherwise decorous soundtrack. I’d have liked some of the scale he brought to the choreography in films such as In the Heights; despite almost endless CGI possibilities, The Little Mermaid’s dance sequences feel a trifle muted.

Melissa McCarthy as cephalopod sea witch Ursula, in The Little Mermaid - Disney/AP
Melissa McCarthy as cephalopod sea witch Ursula, in The Little Mermaid - Disney/AP

Prior to release, there were various news headlines. The idea of a young black actress playing a mythical sea monster generated pufferfish-like outrage in certain corners of the internet. There was also the notion that the dialogue contained a coded insult to the Royal Family.

My one issue is the film’s grafting of live-action faces onto virtual sea-creatures. While the effect is not quite as disconcerting as it was in Tom Hooper’s disastrous Cats, it is still unsettling. Yet in the end, The Little Mermaid gets itself most into hot water with its uncomfortable grafting of live-action faces onto virtual sea-creature bodies. It’s not quite the Cats-esque horrorshow early footage seemed to portend – but we are well up uncanny valley without a paddle. Bardem’s King Triton is the worst offender, his hair and beard wafting in a way no substance has ever moved underwater: he looked more human when he had suckers sprouting from his face in Pirates of the Caribbean. Perhaps there’s just something about tentacles – the sight of McCarthy’s invertebrate wall-crawling will chill for a while.

In the main, though, the fusion works well. The digital imagery gives the action sequences an enveloping splendour and prickling thrill. (In fact, it may be too scary for some young viewers: the little girl next to me crawled into her mother’s lap during Ursula’s introduction.) Married to new music and its charming lead, The Little Mermaid justifies its shiny revisioning. After years of drift, it feels as though Disney has finally stumbled onto firm ground. Truly: life is (mostly) better under the sea.

PG cert, 135 min. In cinemas now