The seaweed is actually greener this time.
(L-R): Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When it comes to thingamabobs, Disney's got plenty, but as far as saving graces go, one tale rises to the surface.

In 1989, when The Little Mermaid made its initial box office bow, it reinvigorated Disney animation and launched what has been dubbed the Disney Renaissance. It marked the studio's first animated feature-length hit since 1977's The Rescuers and their first animated fairy tale since 1959's Sleeping Beauty, helping the floundering studio reestablish itself as a leader in the space. What's more, the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman brought Broadway-style structure to the animated film, evolving the movie musical.

Nowadays, Disney is once again at a crossroads. The streaming bubble is bursting, the theatrical model remains in flux after the pandemic disruption, and an un-slaked thirst for quarterly profit growth is pushing the company to rely ever more heavily on provable IP. Disney has come under fire for a reliance on its own properties, the regurgitation of its animated hits in live-action remakes and lackluster churn of Marvel and Star Wars product. But a red-headed mermaid is here to save the day once more with a new take on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid'
Halle Bailey wants to be part of your world in 'The Little Mermaid'
| Credit: Photo courtesy of Disney

This iteration of The Little Mermaid is the studio's freshest catch since it kicked off this live-action trend with 2015's Cinderella, featuring refreshing storytelling that captures the magic of the original. Director Rob Marshall at last has found material that fits him as well as 2002's Chicago, his splashy theatrical style merging with the tropes of musical comedy and something darker around the edges. He even finds a spot for his "they're happening in someone's head" approach to numbers in new track "For the First Time," giving a voiceless Ariel a musical inner monologue.

As the titular mermaid yearning for a life beyond the sea, Ariel is at the heart of this. In Halle Bailey, Disney and Marshall mint a new star. Bailey is breathtaking as Ariel. Her rendition of "Part of Your World" (the best "I want" song ever written) transmogrifies the already classic tune into something as otherworldly as undiscovered sea life. But it's her altogether human performance that makes it impossible not to fall in love with her. Her Ariel is less a tempestuous teenager with a crush than she is a blossoming and curious young woman.

While Ariel's interest in the human world beyond Prince Eric was always implicit in the story, David Magee's screenplay and Bailey's visible hunger for a world beyond her gilded net makes it abundantly clear that Ariel's fascination with life on land isn't driven purely by interest in a man. Instead, she and Eric (a dashing Jonah Hauer-King) are drawn to each other because of their mutual curiosity for worlds beyond their own. A new, quietly drawn scene where Eric shows the voiceless Ariel the wonders of his own trove of treasures untold fills in this point of connection between them with subtlety and beauty. 

(L-R): Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo by Giles Keyte. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid'
| Credit: Photo courtesy of Disney

Much has been made of the film's attempts to erase any potentially problematic content, changing a lyric in "Kiss the Girl" to address consent concerns and eliminating the "body language" section of "Poor Unfortunate Souls." While they are unnecessary edits, they're not glaring and pass so quickly that unless you have sung this soundtrack from start to finish in the shower for most of your life, you will scarcely notice them.

What is marvelous is this more diverse world of characters and a new Disney princess in Bailey. Her Ariel is so radiant that she seems to possess the properties of bioluminescence, absolutely glowing in every scene. Like the screen actors of the past who began as silent creatures, conveying the panoply of human emotion with looks and gestures rather than dialogue, Bailey has a similar task for a portion of the film when Ariel gives up her voice. It's engrossing to watch how much story she can tell with only her eyes or the tilt of her head. It's a type of performance and incumbent stardom we rarely see anymore.

Eric is given more depth here, as well, his status as a shipwrecked orphan and interest in the world beyond sturdily grounded in Hauer-King's performance. His new song "Wild Uncharted Waters" — from Menken and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda — puts Eric's journey in parallel to Ariel's. Hauer-King elevates the character beyond a bland handsome face, while never pulling focus from Bailey's star turn.

(L-R): Halle Bailey as Ariel, Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Sebastian the Crab as voiced by Daveed Diggs in 'The Little Mermaid'
| Credit: Photo courtesy of Disney

Besides, Bailey's true foil isn't Hauer-King, it's Daveed Diggs as the voice of Sebastian, the put-upon crab tasked with watching over her. Diggs rose to fame as the original Lafayette and Jefferson in Broadway's Hamilton, but he's parlayed that breakout into a range of roles. Where Lafayette and Jefferson were egotistical bombasts, Diggs' Sebastian is a neurotic crustacean with a heart far softer than his shell. His vocal performance is both funny and tender, lending the overwhelmed crab more dignity and humanity than his animated predecessor. He delivers his feature number, "Under the Sea," with glee and precision, resulting in a riotous air of celebration.

"Under the Sea" is the film's high-water mark — featuring choreography from more realistic sea life, including schools of fish, sea stars, and jellyfish, executing Broadway-level dance moves. The film credits the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the number evokes the Black joy and culture of the legendary dance company in a visual expression of the Caribbean timbre of the tune. It's a visual feast for the eyes, a veritable seafood buffet with swirling tableaus rife with vibrant coral and flashy fins. This chromatic kaleidoscope of sea life is a work of art unto itself, an irresistible backdrop for the film's iconic score and dazzling performances.

As sea witch Ursula, Melissa McCarthy is as enrapturing as her tentacles. She reels back some of her signature gross-out schtick and instead goes full drag-queen fabulous in a performance that feels like Drag Race by way of Norma Desmond. Marshall contains McCarthy's chaotic energy, allowing it to burst out in measured moments. Her Ursula is equal parts villainy and glamor, becoming something truly terrifying in her climactic transformation.

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid'
| Credit: Photo courtesy of Disney

Magee's screenplay gives Ursula a more fleshed-out backstory as Triton's sister, but it could go further, as we never fully understand the tension and relationship between the two. That is partly the fault of Javier Bardem, who is the film's weakest link as a rather one-note King of the Sea, relying on his general air of menace. It's a disappointing turn from him, particularly given that Triton's arc should be one of the story's most compelling.

Awkwafina is appropriately grating as Scuttle, but in that, she's too reliant on her acting persona to take the place of character work. The new songs, from Menken and Miranda, largely fade into the background, overshadowed by the original score's classics, but "The Scuttlebutt," a rap number for Scuttle and Sebastian, is a standout. Miranda's signature style is abundantly evident and both Awkwafina and Diggs get to showcase their chops. (Though, it would've been nice for Diggs' extraordinary prowess and speed as a rapper to receive more of a showcase throughout the song.)

On the whole, The Little Mermaid does what past live-action remakes haven't: justify its existence beyond a blatant cash grab. It's not the new songs or even the dazzling visuals breathing new life into this watery world that do it. It's Bailey, her singular performance as Ariel, and the opportunity to give the world a Disney princess for a new generation, with all of the Mouse House whimsy on one side of the scales, and a depth and humanity that feels neither preachy nor performative on the other.

The human world, it's a mess, but with Halle Bailey, life under the sea is better than anything Disney live-action has done in nearly a decade. A-

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(L-R): Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The Little Mermaid (2023 movie)

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