Everyone who grew up watching Disney animated films has their starting five. Aladdin (1992) will always be my number one, followed by A Goofy Movie (1995), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Alice in Wonderland (1951). All but one of my favorite Disney animated films have been turned into live action adaptations with The Little Mermaid being the latest. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale first published in 1837, Disney made The Little Mermaid a household name when they released their animated feature film in 1989 starring Jodi Benson voicing the red-haired mermaid princess Ariel who yearned for life on land and love with Prince Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes).
Over Memorial Day weekend, the live action The Little Mermaid directed by Rob Marshall premiered in theaters on Friday, May 26. With an estimated 4-day box office domestic gross close to $120M, The Little Mermaid is the fifth-best opening for a movie over the holiday weekend, but this triumph wasn’t met without some controversy.
Back in July 2019 when Halle Bailey was announced as the actress who would star in the coveted live-action role, it was met with mixed reactions. Many praised the studio’s decision to add another Black Disney princess to their roster – Princess Tiana, played by Anika Noni Rose, from the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog and Halle’s Ariel are the only ones. Others were raising Twitter wars because they didn’t want to see a non-White actress taking on the role. Halle’s past acting credits include Last Holiday (2006), House of Payne (2007), and Disney’s Let It Shine (2012), but she’s mainly known for playing Sky Forster in Grown-ish from 2018-2022 alongside her sister Chloe Bailey – who make up their Grammy nominated R&B duo Chloe x Halle. I hadn’t watched Halle in anything, but I was confident enough that she had the voice to portray Ariel being a fan of her music.
As other cast members for the 2023 The Little Mermaid were announced I started to feel weary. Jonah Hauer-King would play Prince Eric, Javier Bardem would play King Triton, Melissa McCarthy would play Ursula, and Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, and Jacob Tremblay would play Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder respectively – all pivotal roles in the film. The announcements seemed like a bunch of actor’s names were placed in a hat and picked at random, and that’s unfortunately what the ensemble felt like when watching the 2023 film. Individually the performances weren’t bad. Melissa’s take on Ursula paid homage to Pat Carroll’s brilliant animated portrayal but was able to make the character her own in a way that was fun to see come to life. Jacob’s Flounder was an idyllic best friend to Ariel, and Halle brought an innocent and profound depth to Triton’s youngest daughter.
The Little Mermaid live action plot remained close to the animated version. Early on it’s made clear how different Ariel is compared to her sisters Perla (Lorena Andrea), Indira (Simone Ashley), Mala (Karolina Conchet), Tamika (Sienna King), Karina (Kajsa Mohammar), and Caspia (Nathalie Sorrell), who are a diverse group of mermaids. Ariel longs for life on land and circumstances bring her to meet and fall in love with Prince Eric. After making a deal with the disgraced sea-witch Ursula, also Triton’s sister in this one, she has three days to get true love’s kiss from Eric to remain human or she’ll be enslaved to Ursula. With this spell, Ariel loses her voice and memory of needing to get that kiss.
When you lose your voice halfway through a movie, an actor’s feat to deliver a convincing performance becomes challenging. All your emotions now must be explicitly conveyed on your face, and while Halle did excel in some moments, I needed her to be more expressive in others. The CGI was good especially when you see the behind-the-scenes footage of what it took to bring life under the sea to live action and how effortless Ariel’s locked red-hair moved. Jessica Alexander as Vanessa, Ursula’s doppelganger created to prevent Ariel from achieving her task, was excellent even though she had about five minutes of screen time.
The original music in Disney animated films has always been one of the aspects that make them so beloved, and luckily Alan Menken and Howard Ashman returned to work on the music for this film with some help from Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ariel’s big song, “Part of Your World,” was released before the film came out so viewers already knew what to expect, but watching it on the big screen was a delight. Halle delivered a show-stopping number that became elevated when she performed the reprise of the track later in the film. I literally got chills when the 23-year-old hit that crescendo note and the wave of water crashed against her back reminiscent of the 1989 animation.
Halle also performed an original song written specifically for this film called “For the First Time” where she sang about experiencing land. Although she sounds beautiful, that track wasn’t for me. Jonah Hauer-King also got an original song called “Wild Uncharted Waters” where he traversed his land searching for Ariel and sang about wanting a life of exploration. This original song I loved. It combined Ariel’s iconic siren song with Jonah’s adequate vocals and it’s been stuck in my head ever since I saw the movie on Friday.
Three other staple songs of The Little Mermaid are “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” lead with vocals by Sebastian played by Daveed Diggs in the 2023 live action and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sang by Melissa McCarthy. These are probably my favorite songs of The Little Mermaid, so I was listening to them with a very critical ear so much so that I went home and listened to various versions of the songs back-to-back to hear what was missing in the live action versions. I listened to the 1989 original soundtrack, then the 2023 live action, followed by the 2019 ABC live TV version, and concluded with the 2008 Broadway Cast recording.
With some lyric changes to all the song, Melissa’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” remained supreme. She was able to take Ursula’s familiar cadence but revamp it to capture the sultry and hypnotizing essence of the song. I wish the “and don’t underestimate the importance of body language” lyrics remained in the song because I would have loved to see how Melissa channeled that. With “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” a background chorus was really needed. Without those additional vocals the songs were lacking, and it took away the Disney magic for me. It made the songs feel small when indeed they are two of my favorite scenes from the 1989 animated film.
The ending of The Little Mermaid is slightly different but nothing too major that it would upset hardcore fans of the film, and it’s to keep in mind that this film has an extra 52 minutes compared to the animated version pushing the running time from 1 hour and 23 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes. I don’t think the added time was needed because all the extended moments didn’t elevate the plot, but it gave Ariel and Eric more time to get to know one another and show viewers how much they had in common. However, I didn’t feel the chemistry between Halle and Jonah like I’ve seen other fans boast about and my theater screen lacked the vibrant colors I was hoping to see. So for me, the 1989 animated The Little Mermaid is far better than the updated live-action counterpart and that’s okay. A new generation is getting their first splash under the sea meeting Ariel, the curious and precocious little mermaid, and Halle Bailey was the best choice to bring the character to life.
The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.