An important note for those venturing back under the sea for Disney’s new live-action “The Little Mermaid”: There’s no newt playing a flute, carp on a harp, or chub rockin’ a tub.
Those concerned about a fishy revamp of the animated 1989 classic have good reason to be skeptical. The recent rash of Mouse House reimaginings has been mixed at best. But directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) and featuring new songs by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the expanded "Little Mermaid" revamp (★★½ out of four; rated PG; in theaters now) is a different animal than the original, a family-friendly film that was only 83 minutes long. And while not everything goes swimmingly, Halle Bailey splendidly buoys this "Mermaid" as the naive underwater youngster with dreams of exploring the surface.
With her pals, loyal guppy Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and loquacious seabird Scuttle (Awkwafina), Ariel collects whozits and whatzits galore in her collection of human trinkets from the bottom of the ocean – for real, girl, no one needs 20 thingamabobs. She sings about wanting to see what’s on land, and Bailey wins hearts in the early going with a powerhouse take on “Part of Your World.”
In this version, though, there’s a divide between mankind and the merpeople. It’s why Ariel’s dad, King Triton (Javier Bardem), warns her about surface dwellers, and when it’s clear that her wanderlust isn’t going away, he tasks exasperated crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on her.
The love story at the heart of “Little Mermaid” is the same as it ever was: Ariel saves human dude Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a fiery ship incident and develops a serious crush. (So does he after hearing her gorgeous voice.) Enter Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), the conniving sea witch with designs on ruling her brother Triton’s kingdom. She strikes a wicked deal with Ariel to make her a human for three days, and the kid has to share true love's kiss within that timeframe or she’s Ursula’s forever.
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Ursula also takes her voice, but there's a different wrinkle to the spell in the new movie, which opens up the human world a lot more than the ’89 outing – and gives the prince an actual personality this time around, plus a song of his own (“Wild Uncharted Waters”). A welcome aspect of this retooled narrative is letting Eric and Ariel really get to know each other – even though she can’t speak – so that by the time of the romantic boat ride and Sebastian crooning “Kiss the Girl,” their feelings for each other ring true rather than haphazard.
Bailey is especially good at conveying her character’s evolving emotions with facial expressions rather than speech. That and the fact she can belt like a Broadway star will appeal to a new generation seeing “Mermaid” for the first time.
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Hauer-King is a solid Disney prince, who gets a helpful backstory in the updated film, but McCarthy is just OK as the sinister tentacled Ursula. The smoky-voiced performer is all over the place with a witches’ brew of styles, and her big number “Poor Unfortunate Souls" is missing the delicious camp of the animated version. (Also, while she’s still the main villainess, her antagonism feels muffled by the forced-in conflict between humans and sea dwellers.)
Get ready for a whole online discourse about the c computer-generated animal characters, though, for the most part, they blend better in the land and sea environments than their counterparts did in recent redos “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.” Sebastian doesn’t really look like any crab you’re likely to see on a beach, but Diggs gives him panache as Ariel’s supporting buddies have more to do here – even Scuttle gets a chance to rap some narrative exposition with the added tune “The Scuttlebutt.”
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Maybe it’s because Menken and Howard Ashman's 1989 numbers are so deeply entrenched in culture, but the new songs, while fine on their own, don’t totally jell with the original tracks. And the live-action element stymies a song like “Under the Sea” – not only have the instruments been taken from the fish, a certain joyousness is missing, too.
As excellent a “Little Mermaid” as Bailey is, it was better down where it’s wetter the first time.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Little Mermaid' review: Halle Bailey keeps Disney remake afloat