Halle Bailey’s Triumphant Performance Lifts Up Live-Action ‘The Little Mermaid’ – Review

“Watch, and you’ll see, someday I’ll be part of your world.” –Ariel

As Disney continues to throw their funds behind their live-action remakes, their latest, The Little Mermaid, has enormous shoes to fill. It’s one of Disney’s most beloved animated masterpieces and, as such, would be challenging to recreate. So, can the live-action The Little Mermaid replicate the charm of the animated original? The easy answer is sometimes.

The film begins much like the animated one, with our protagonist Ariel (Halle Bailey), having her thoughts clouded by sea foam and the idea of the surface world. Despite her father, King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) warning about the humans being dangerous, Ariel cannot stop her fascination. Collecting items from various shipwrecks, including the Scuttle-declared dinglehopper (fork), Ariel aims to learn as much as she can about the surface dwellers as she ponders, “How can a world that makes such wonderful things be bad?”

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. (Courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Unbeknownst to Ariel, she’s being closely watched by Ursula (Melissa McCarthy). Ursula has a bone to pick with King Triton and sees Ariel as a “prawn” in her game to usurp Triton’s power. The sea witch gets her opening when Ariel saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), and it’s love at first sight. After a fight with her father about reaching Eric, Ursula quickly preys upon Ariel’s vulnerability, promising the young mermaid that she can give her legs to traverse the surface world. However, there are just a few stipulations: Ariel and Eric must share true love’s kiss within three days, and Ariel’s payment must come in the form of her voice. If these are not met, Ariel will belong to Ursula. As desperate times call for desperate measures, Ariel agrees to the sea witch’s terms and by the power vested in Ursula, she becomes a human. This leads to Ariel trying to navigate the human world and falling in love with the prince in three days as Ursula continues her plot for power behind the scenes.

Director Rob Marshall does his best with The Little Mermaid. As said earlier, trying to recapture the wonder of something so beloved would be difficult. Still, Marshall’s keen eye for detail can be seen throughout the film, particularly during the musical numbers. The colours pop, and the choreography is on point (but that’s to be expected from the man who both directed and served as a choreographer on Chicago). With all of these Disney live-action movies, there’s a balance that has to be made between pleasing the nostalgia seekers and building something new for the latest audience. And while The Little Mermaid tries to do just that, it doesn’t always stick the landing. Much of the time, the film relies heavily on recreating the scenes from the animated movie instead of creating new eye-catching imagery. Although there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, it lends to one of the film’s pitfalls in that try as it might, it cannot reach the heights of its predecessor.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. (Courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

However, the film has bright spots that match the animated version: Bailey’s performance as Ariel. As the titular character, Bailey not only has big fins to fill, but this is her first leading role in a major studio film. The thought of it seems daunting, but Bailey was up to the task. Not only did she make Ariel her own, but she also brought in all the characteristics that made Ariel a fan favourite. She sang each song and reprise with ease as if they were meant solely for her, and she maintained that bright energy, naïveté, adventurousness, and kindness that makes Ariel so lovable.

“Part of Your World” is one of Disney’s best character songs, thanks to Howard Ashman’s genius and Jodi Benson’s performance. Ashman’s brilliant lyrical ability gave listeners a song that can characterize Ariel so well, and what Bailey does with her rendition is beautiful. Her changes from Benson’s are subtle, making Bailey’s take on the character much more endearing. There is a sense of hesitancy, as she is torn between worlds, and the sigh of emotion from Bailey at the end of the song will strike a chord with even the biggest doubters. Honestly, this remake likely would have floundered under its enormity without Bailey. Bailey grounds the film with her remarkable and sincere performance. No lie is told when people say, “Halle is Ariel.”

Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. (Courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

In addition to Bailey, Hauer-King makes a great Prince Eric. His chemistry with Bailey is otherworldly, and he effortlessly embodies the role of a charming prince. Stubborn, well-travelled, and wise beyond his years, Hauer-King’s Prince Eric is the perfect companion to Bailey’s Ariel. As you watch the movie, you understand why the pair would bridge the gap between their respective people. Speaking of Ariel’s companions, it would be impossible to forget Ariel’s bestie, Flounder. Voiced by Jacob Tremblay, the timid fish is just as endearing as he is in the original. Always there for Ariel when it counts (despite his fears and anxiety), Tremblay does a great job of bringing the sea creature to life for a new generation of viewers. Honestly, I wish we had a chance to see more of him, although that wasn’t meant to be since the audience spends more time with Ariel’s friends, that are able to side-step on land and flit about in the skies.

Ultimately, this is unfortunate because Sebastian and Scuttle are two of the film’s most-glaring drawbacks. While Awkwafina’s version of Scuttle does elicit a laugh here and there, this Scuttle is not as wacky as the original, which takes away some of the more humourous aspects. Although this could be chalked up to Awkwafina putting her own spin on the character, she is, again, just playing herself. There is little to differentiate between her performance as Scuttle and her last voice-acting job as Ms. Tarantula in The Bad Guys. Adding this to the “rap” Scuttle performs with Sebastian (Lin Manuel-Miranda will pay for his crimes), it did not make for an enjoyable experience with some of the most fantastic Disney characters.

Daveed Diggs as Sebastian and Awkwafina as Scuttle in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. (Courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

For me, the true villain of The Little Mermaid was Diggs as Sebastian. Sebastian is one of the most memorable characters in Disney’s pantheon of animated characters. While Diggs has decent comedic timing as the red Caribbean crab, the Caribbean is nowhere to be found within Sebastian. And herein lies the crux of the problem. For a film that prides itself on its diversity in terms of casting, there was no reason that the voice actor behind Sebastian couldn’t be someone of Caribbean descent.

Diggs said in an interview that for his “research,” he spent time in Jamaica and Trinidad, where both people have distinct accents–neither of which seemed to inspire Diggs’ performance after hearing it for two hours. To those unaccustomed to these accents, you’d likely believe it’s okay and wouldn’t find any issues with it. Still, I can tell you as someone of Jamaican descent, Diggs’ accent seemed more joke-like rather than just a poor imitation. The essence of Caribbean culture permeates the film, from the musical numbers to the island Prince Eric and Queen Selina rule, so it is a highly missed opportunity not to cast an actor from somewhere in the Caribbean to portray Sebastian.

Aside from this, it primarily affected the vocal performance of the songs. Instead of being able to focus on singing iconic songs like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” Diggs is forced to keep up the façade of his Jafaican or Trinifakian accent to the detriment of the tunes. While it wasn’t as noticeable in “Kiss the Girl,” “Under the Sea” undoubtedly lacked the vivaciousness of Samuel E. Wright’s rendition from the animated movie. Even Titus Burgess (who didn’t have the best accent himself as Sebastian) gave a grander performance in the original Broadway cast recording of The Little Mermaid. Simply put, I would have rathered Sebastian end up in Chef Louis’ pan if it were to save me from hearing Diggs sing another unseasoned version of the original songs.

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. (Courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Last but certainly not least, we must discuss McCarthy’s performance as Ursula. While I don’t think the version will be for everybody (I think some might feel like McCarthy played it safe), I personally loved her Ursula. Not as over-the-top as the original voiced to perfection by Pat Carroll, McCarthy brings her personality to the sea witch that makes for some of the film’s funnier moments. Whether angrily searching for ingredients for a witchy brew or testing Triton’s patience, McCarthy always puts her best tentacle forward. The “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sequence was well-done, with Ursula’s lair and pet moray eels Flotsam and Jetsam just as creepy as the original. McCarthy also brought pipes to the occasion giving us an entertaining rendition of the villain’s cherished song. McCarthy and Bailey worked well in the scenes they shared, and it was clear that McCarthy was probably having the most fun out of any of the cast members. It was a great way to up the ante of the movie, and between McCarthy and Bailey, the film is worthwhile.

I never thought to say this about a Disney live-action remake, but I look forward to seeing it again and on the biggest screen possible. The more significant musical numbers, while only sometimes performed to the best of their ability (Bailey’s songs aside), looked great both in water and on land. For the most part, it does the original animated movie justice while trying to make a new name for itself. While it doesn’t surpass the 1989 film, as there is much more you can do with animation as a medium you cannot do in live-action, Bailey’s spirited performance more than makes up for any missteps (yes, even the awful accent). The Little Mermaid is one of Disney’s better live-action remakes, up there with Cinderella, and I hope this is a sign of things to come as more live-action renditions from the House of Mouse are around the corner.

The Little Mermaid Swims Into Theatres on May 26.

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