Disney Breaks the Live Action Curse With The Little Mermaid
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The 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid has remained one of Disney’s most beloved movies, cementing its place as a magical fairytale classic for the ages. The film follows the naive redheaded mermaid Ariel after she makes a deal with the evil sea witch Ursula to become a human so she can be with Prince Eric, her human love interest. The film explores Eric and Ariel’s love story, the dynamic between Ariel and her controlling father, King Triton, and Ariel’s curiosity for the mainland as she explores her identity as a mermaid-turned-human. Fans can now see Ariel and her friends back on the big screen with the 2023 live-action film The Little Mermaid.
Over the past few years, Disney has unsuccessfully attempted to convert many of their classic animated characters into live-action, with notable examples being The Lion King (2019) and Peter Pan and Wendy (2023). However, The Little Mermaid has finally broken this curse. This fun, whimsical story, starring singer and actress Halle Bailey as Ariel, is brought to life through stunning visual effects, powerful performances, and nostalgic songs. Though Bailey’s casting received much criticism due to her race, she provides a terrific performance as the red-haired mermaid: her vocal performance is one of the highlights of the film. Through her rendition of “Part of Your World,” Bailey cements herself as a vocal powerhouse. Prince Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, is fantastic as well; Hauer-King’s portrayal is far more likable than his animated counterpart. The actors have undeniable chemistry, and through slight tweaks and a few added scenes to the original, their love story feels more organic than the stereotypical Disney fairytale. However, Disney missed the mark with the casting of Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle (Awkwafina). McCarthy’s portrayal of Ursula lost all the charm of her animated counterpart. Sebastian and Flounder both look different from their original characters. Flounder comes off as a whiny sidekick while Sebastian is missing his signature charisma; these shortcomings culminate in a disappointing performance of the larger-than-life song “Under the Sea.” Awkwafina’s Scuttle is by far the worst change from the original, with all her jokes falling flat. Though the film itself is enjoyable, it is evident its success relies heavily on the two leads.
Most of the film is kept true to the original story. As would be expected from a more modern film, Ariel’s curiosity for the mainland is the driving force behind her desire to be human, rather than her crush on the Prince. The Prince’s character has a few changes as well, one being that he is adopted, though it serves no major change to the plot. Ariel's sisters are also represented as being of different ethnicities, with each sister hailing from one of the seven seas. The most “controversial” change is Disney's choice to portray Ariel as African American, which received unwarranted backlash when it was made public. However, Ariel's race plays no importance to the story and ultimately does not matter plotwise—Bailey still resembles the animated Ariel with her flowing auburn locks and shimmering green tail. Despite having no influence on the plot, Bailey’s casting is incredibly powerful, allowing Black girls around the world to see themselves represented in Ariel.
The movie itself is stunning, from the high definition shots of the majestic ocean to the colorful sea creatures. The CGI is impeccable, with the mermaid tails’ shimmering scales and lifelike fluid motion capturing the magic of the original animation. The film features every sea creature imaginable, from the giant pink squids that Ariel rides during “Under the Sea” to the mysterious black eels that serve Ursula. Ursula’s tentacles, however, are lackluster. Though they look decent and somewhat realistic, they are much shorter than in the animated version, losing the wild, unhinged dark magic of the original. Additionally, the film's attempt to make everything photorealistic has removed much of the nostalgia and childlike wonder the original evoked. However, the soundtrack has maintained the same feel, keeping classics like “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” while also adding new tracks like “For the First Time.” Bailey’s voice is truly incredible, capturing Ariel’s naiveté at the start of the film and her gradual maturing—she is the enchanting embodiment of a Disney princess.
Despite Disney’s many failures to adapt their animated movies into live-action, The Little Mermaid hits the mark, delivering the classic tale to a new generation. Bailey’s Ariel adds new depth to the character, leaving the audience adoring Ariel more than ever. Perhaps the future of live-action princesses will end in “happily ever after” after all.