The Little Mermaid review: Halle Bailey is a powerhouse in this captivating Disney remake
You'll want to be part of this world
🎞️ When is The Little Mermaid in cinemas: 26 May 2023
⭐️ Our rating: 4/5
🎭 Who's in it? Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem
👍 What we liked: Halle Bailey is phenomenal as Ariel, she has a powerful presence onscreen and sings beautifully. Daveed Diggs as Sebastian is a comic delight.
👎 What we didn't: The CGI has some issues.
📖 What's it about?: Mermaid Ariel is fascinated by humans, and she makes a deal with her aunt Ursula to become one and loses her voice in the process.
Disney loves a remake, and in recent years the company has been working through its back catalogue to give its classics a modern live-action reboot. These have been made with varying degrees of success, but now they have turned their sights to The Little Mermaid.
The 1990 version, which is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale of the same name, followed Ariel, the titular siren who is determined to join the human realm after falling in love with Prince Eric.
Read more: All the Disney live-action remakes in development from Moana to Peter Pan & Wendy
She is tricked into giving up her voice to do so by villain Ursula, and must share a kiss of true love in order to break the spell or risk becoming the sea witch’s underling forever.
The 2023 remake shares much the same story, but with some subtle yet important tweaks. In this new version, Halle Bailey’s Ariel has more agency as a character compared to her cartoon counterpart.
Heroic moments that were once given to Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) are now the mermaid’s time to shine, while there is more emphasis put on Ariel’s relationship with her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), in the face of Ursula's (Melissa McCarthy) machinations, as well as the history of hostility between humans and mermaids.
Read more: Melissa McCarthy brought "drag" energy to classic Disney villain
Ariel and Eric’s love story is an apt representation of the latter: Of tolerance and what it can bring, and how fear of the unknown shouldn’t divide people. That’s not to say the film is widely different from its source material, in fact those who love the original will see a lot of similarities in the 2023 edition. It keeps the spirit of the animation while also adding to its heritage.
Rob Marshall’s retelling feels very relevant because of this and it provides an important message to its audience, without being too preachy, in a time when people are more divided than ever before. Where the film shines, though, is with its lead star.
Bailey is sensational as Ariel, her renditions of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s music are powerful, and she has a commanding presence onscreen even when she’s unable to speak.
When her casting was first announced there was significant racist backlash, but those naysayers will be eating their words when they see how well Bailey embodies Ariel.
Read more: Halle Bailey addresses racist backlash over 'The Little Mermaid'
The actor brings new depths to her as a character, and she does a fine job of taking the lead in an iconic story. Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina also bring a lot of great comedy in their respective roles as Sebastian the Crab and Scuttle the seagull.
Watch the trailer for The Little Mermaid.
Where the film struggles is with its CGI, which varies in quality throughout the film. It is at its best during the song Under the Sea (which is arguably better than the original), but feels inferior in other places. Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), for example, seems pretty lifeless in comparison to Sebastian and Scuttle.
What other critics thought of The Little Mermaid:
Digital Spy: The Little Mermaid is Disney's best live-action remake (4-min read)
The Wrap: Halle Bailey’s Star Performance Anchors Rob Marshall’s Dark Disney Remake (6-min read)
USA Today: Halle Bailey keeps Disney's live-action remake from being all wet (4-min read)
The film’s new songs, featuring lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also aren’t as powerful as Menken and Ashman’s original score, but it was certainly nice to see Eric get a chance to sing.
The new version of The Little Mermaid is one of the few Disney remakes to not feel like a soulless copy of the original. This version feels timely and features a fantastic cast led by Bailey, all of whom give captivating performances to the screen.
It breathes new life into a well-known story and is almost certainly the best remake the studio has made thus far.
The Little Mermaid will be released in cinemas and on IMAX on Friday, 26 May.