A Next-Gen Fish Tale

Going ‘under the sea’ with Disney’s latest live-action version of an animated classic

The Little Mermaid
Starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Jonah Hauer-King and Javier Bardem
Directed by Rob Marshall
Rated PG

In theaters Friday, May 26

Disney’s beloved fish-out-of-water tale makes a splashy return in this highly anticipated live-action, all-star remake about a spunky aqua teen who longs to be part of the human world.

Like its 1989 animated predecessor, it’s based loosely on a 19th century Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. But mermaids—half human, half fish—were swimming around the far-flung pools of pop culture for centuries before that, and the new movie taps into the ancient fantasy and fascination with these alluring mythical creatures and their addictive siren song, which can supposedly lure sailors to doom and death.

It becomes the latest in Disney’s modern-era march of revisionist cinema since the 1990s, putting live actors alongside hi-tech digital effects for remakes of its “cartoon” movies, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Mulan.

And it also becomes one of the best.

Newcomer Halle Bailey is Ariel, fascinated with what goes on above sea’s surface, a place she is forbidden to go by her hyper-protective father, King Titan (Javier Bardem). But when curiosity gets the best of her and she pokes her head out of the waves for a peek, she ends up rescuing a young prince (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning during a dramatic nighttime shipwreck, hauling the unconscious seafarer onto a beach and serenading him before disappearing again into the water.

That sets things into high gear, as Prince Eric tries to reconnect with the alluring mystery creature that saved his life and Ariel makes a deal with the conniving sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to trade her tailfin for feet. But there’s a catch: Ariel must give up her enchanted siren-song voice and share a kiss of “true love” with Eric within three days, or she’ll be consigned to the depths of the ocean forever.

Melissa McCarthy is Ursula

Comic relief is provided by the flappy, yappy seagull Scuttle (voiced, in a gender switch from the previously animated role, by Awkwafina) and the crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), a loyal attendant in the royal court of King Triton. Jacob Tremblay (from Room) is the voice of the little sidekick fish Flounder.

Scuttle the seagull is voiced by Awkwafina

Broadway virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda (one of the film’s dozen producers) wrote three new songs and tweaked the lyrics of a couple of others (“Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls”) for the new movie, reflecting a commendable next-gen sensitivity to issues of female empowerment and consent. But unless you’re a Little Mermaid superfan, and you’re paying super close attention, you might not even notice—or care that a couple of other tunes in the animated version (“Les Poissons” and “Daughters of Triton”) got the hook.

But you will thrill to the movie’s well-known, iconic soundtrack standouts, given tremendous new zap as underwater, computer-enhanced, razzly-dazzly production numbers—reflecting not only Miranda’s buoyant Broadway roots, but also those of director Rob Marshall, a former theatrical producer and choreographer who went on to make music-filled movies including Chicago, Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns. “Under the Sea” is a joyous, calypso-flavored aqua chorus line, with dozens of dancing, prancing sea critters; “Part of Your World” gets new emotionally enhanced wallop and human resonance.

And you’ll be rocked by the stupendous performance by 23-year-old Halle Bailey. The Grammy-nominated pop singer and TV actor (from Grown-ish) gives a star-making movie turn as a splendid Disney princess-to-be who makes you feel the heartfelt tug of her big dreams of discovering what’s out there—and up there. Melissa McCarthy practically steals the show as Ursula, hamming it up with a flourish of florescent octopus tentacles, cackling over her bubbling cauldron of sinister spells and plotting to take over the undersea world. English actor Hauer-King has a bit of resemblance to Ryan Gosling, making me drift away for a couple of fanciful moments thinking about The Little Mermaid going ashore in La La Land. And Javier Bardem, so menacing in No Country for Old Men, looks regally right-on as a bearded, bad-ass, big-kahuna submariner.

Javier Bardem is King Titan

It’s about a couple of young people falling in love, of course—in a risky, forbidden, boundary-crossing inter-species relationship, with disapproving parental figures. Think Romeo and Juliet, tossed in the tide and spritzed with ocean mist. The new Little Mermaid leans into its timely theme of cultural differences and societal riffs, as both merfolk and humans inherently distrust, and even hate what’s on the other side of the thin membrane of “border” that separates them.  

Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel.

But hey, let’s don’t get heavy. Dive into this new Mermaid, a delightful, thoroughly entertaining, refreshingly impressive upgrade, a terrific new take on an animated classic, respectful to the Disney original but with vibrant new jolts of movie magic, drama, danger, spectacle, joy, yearning, wit and romance.

Plus an important mega-message for little girls and young women everywhere and anywhere: In the water, on the land, in a seashell or a castle—like Ariel, if you can dream it, you can do it.

This summer, is everything really “better down where it’s wetter”? So far, yes, it is!

—Neil Pond

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