Live-Action ‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: Welcome to That World, Halle Bailey

in Disney, Entertainment, Reviews

little mermaid 2023 review halle bailey and jonah hauer king

Credit: Disney

One of the most highly anticipated movies is finally here. The live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid is in theaters, and we can finally see how it stacks up to the original 1989 version.

This new update to the famous Disney fairy tale replaces Jodi Benson with Halle Bailey, Christopher Daniel Barnes with Jonah Hauer-King, Samuel E. Wright with Daveed Diggs, and the late Howard Ashman with Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was announced in May of 2016, and now, seven years later, the results seem stellar.

So, does the 2023 The Little Mermaid live up to the hype? Find out below in our live-action Little Mermaid review.

(If you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t worry – we’ll warn you before we get to the spoilers.)

Spoiler-Free Highlights for the Live-Action ‘The Little Mermaid’

Halle Bailey as Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid'
Credit: Disney

All the important story beats were there in this new film and paid exactly the close attention one would hope. If you see it and expect to see one particular moment from the animated Little Mermaid play out in “real life,” you will likely get your wish.

Unsurprisingly, director Rob Marshall did such a fantastic job on this one. Between his origins on Broadway and the fact that he saw the original in theaters when it opened, the story was in the right hands.

The casting may have been his biggest coup, though. The acting in this film was phenomenal – easily the best aspect. Every single actor was perfectly chosen.

Every piece of advanced material we saw was correct: Halle Bailey is Ariel. She simply is. There was plenty of backlash and hand-wringing over her appearance, namely her skin color. Still, Ariel, like any Disney Princess, is more of a spirit than a person – and Halle Bailey is that curious, fiery, joyful spirit incarnate.

Not to mention, her vocals left more than half the theater in tears.

halle bailey and jonah hauer-king as ariel and eric in the little mermaid 2023
Credit: Disney

Related: Halle Bailey Manifested Her ‘Little Mermaid’ Role Years Before Being Cast

Jonah Hauer-King was excellent as well. His voice is big enough for Broadway, and his lighthearted charm was the perfect match to expand on the mold that made the original Eric.

We can see why Harry Styles was on the shortlist for this role – the boyish smile, the restless spirit that seems to match Ariel, those were all there – but Halle Bailey chose Jonah Hauer-King, and she chose well. Their chemistry was perfect, unmatched by any other live-action Disney couple.

However, it was Melissa McCarthy as Ursula who stole the show – which is especially impressive considering just how perfect Bailey was. The actress’s origins in Drag, including impersonations of the famous 80s performer Divine, the character Ursula was based on, clearly paid off. Her face, voice, and movement perfectly encapsulated Pat Carroll’s original performance, but still in her own way. What was most impressive, however, was her singing.

melissa mccarthy and her tentacles as ursula in the little mermaid live-action
Credit: Disney

“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a huge Disney Villain song; getting it perfect was important. Melissa McCarthy went beyond perfect. She hit every important beat and paid tribute to every important moment. Some actors make the mistake of over-singing or over-acting, not getting the balance right in a song like this, but not her. Her makeup left a little bit to be desired, but this is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.

Honestly, there wasn’t a single miss in the acting category. Jacob Tremblay was adorable as Flounder, of course – there’s a reason they simply pulled him from the original Broadway cast and didn’t ask questions.

Awkwafina did better as Scuttle than most people expected – Scuttle is a challenging role to nail and can quickly become annoying in the wrong hands. Still, Awkwafina’s patent brand of slightly confused, brash awkwardness was perfect for the scrappy seabird.

Daveed Diggs got the most laughs of anybody in the theater; his comedic timing as Sebastian was perfect and would have made Samuel E. Wright proud.

However, Javier Bardem’s performance as King Triton was one of the most moving. He was a little wooden in the opening scenes. Still, we must attribute that to the limiting effects of acting in a CGI environment more than anything else because his performance exploded from there.

Javier Bardem as King Triton in The Little Mermaid
Credit: Disney

For a character with so few lines, he certainly did have an outsized impact on the film’s emotional climax, and a different actor wouldn’t have brought nearly as much gravitas as he did. He truly seemed to understand the complex and tense relationship between Triton and Ariel, and his face told more of the story than his lines did.

Special props also have to go to Prince Eric’s crew on the ship, who seemed to bring the whole set to life, and to Jessica Alexander, who played Ursula’s alter ego, Vanessa, to malignant, mad-woman perfection. We look forward to seeing more from her in the future – perhaps in a horror movie.

There was a lot of worry about the special effects after the first Little Mermaid trailer dropped last year, and we can’t say the concerns were unfounded. While the sets on land were vibrant and transporting, highlighting a truly magical, beautiful kingdom, there was something about the underwater shots that just seemed a little bit…off.

Halle Bailey playing Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid' (2023)
Credit: Disney

Unfortunately, we couldn’t move out of the Uncanny Valley and fully into Atlantica with our CGI technology. There were instances where the actors didn’t seem to be quite looking at the thing they were looking at, or else like they were looking at nothing – and there was something about all the movements that just seemed a little…wrong.

Still, it was an awe-inspiring feat that they even got close, especially knowing some of the methods they had to use to get the shots – like having eight dancers play Ursula’s tentacles. All in all, the visual effects probably won’t hold up incredibly well. Still, short of Avatar: The Way of Water, they’re probably some of the best underwater visual effects that exist right now.

WARNING: There will be spoilers for The Little Mermaid (2023) beyond this point.

How Were The Little Mermaid’s Four New Songs?

the little mermaid live action
Credit: Disney

One of the things there was a lot of buzz about ahead of The Little Mermaid’s premiere was the whopping four new songs written primarily for the film. Original composer Alan Menken enlisted the help of Disney’s newest Golden Boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to fill in the lyrics where his late writing partner Howard Ashman would have.

Some of these songs were excellent additions, while others left much to be desired – and some Broadway fans were wondering why those songs weren’t good enough.

Wild Uncharted Waters

Let’s start with a positive: “Wild Uncharted Waters,” Prince Eric’s new song, was absolutely beautiful and, if Twitter is to be believed, a major fan favorite. The song was comparable to Eric’s song “Her Voice” from the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid, both in music and in lyrics. The music was a little simpler and perhaps not quite as pretty, but the lyrics made much more substance and added far more to Eric’s character in context.

halle bailey and jonah hauer-king as ariel and eric in the little mermaid
Credit: Disney

Jonah Hauer-King could have sung either song anyway – his voice is stellar, and he is going places.

For The First Time

Now for a song that was a little more lukewarm: “For The First Time” was a cute song, but the execution in the film was a little off.

The lyrics seem out of place – she’s not running or jumping when she says she is. Also, it doesn’t make sense to me that she would know about corsets and busting seams enough to say, “Some women choose this, I guess,” while it was being laced onto her. We didn’t need to know that part was uncomfortable for her – we would have been able to see it. The lyrics could have been telling us something else.

“Beyond My Wildest Dreams,” the song from the Broadway musical that went in the same spot and served the same purpose, did the job of setting the scene better. The lyrics were ambiguous, so staging the montage scene would have been much easier.

The Scuttlebutt

Scuttle awkwafina live action little mermaid the scuttlebutt
Credit: Disney

“The Scuttlebutt” was probably the worst addition to the film, but we say that with a major caveat.

In truth, it was a really fun song, and it advanced the plot way more than “Human Stuff” did in the musical. It was catchy and humorous. (“I’ve seen a lot of really fat pigeons” now pops into my head whenever I see a fat pigeon, which is often.) Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs did a great job together, and it was so clear that they enjoyed working on the track.

All of that being said: That song did not belong in this movie. It just didn’t fit. Lin-Manuel Miranda has a wonderful, distinctive style of writing lyrics and rap, but it doesn’t belong everywhere and certainly doesn’t blend in with the rest of the music in The Little Mermaid. The song sticks out of the soundtrack and the story like a sore thumb.

There was one other new song written for the film that we’ve heard about but have not seen, and that’s “Impossible Child,” a song that was written for King Triton but ultimately cut because director Rob Marshall said that it robbed the emotional climax between him and Ariel at the end of the film.

Based on Javier Bardem’s performance in the rest of The Little Mermaid, however, we desperately want to hear this number because it seems like it could be the best one based on everything else.

What Else Did They Add to the Live-Action ‘The Little Mermaid’?

Halle Bailey as human Ariel petting a dog in The Little Mermaid
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Another thing that everyone expects from their Disney live-action remakes is that it adds to or transforms the original story somehow. There is more room for nuance in live-action films, which are granted longer runtimes and more comprehensive scripts in keeping with an older intended audience.

There were a lot of plot holes and issues that people had with the 1989 Little Mermaid, and this version of the film addresses most of them. First, the film does a much better job of explaining what Ariel and Eric have in common. In the original, it is simply charm and happenstance that brings them together, but in the live-action Little Mermaid, the two are true foils to one another.

They’re both collectors, explorers, and fish out of water, under pressure to be something they are not – Eric’s story was expanded to include the fact that he was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby and raised as the Prince, so he feels like he doesn’t belong on the throne. However, his father’s untimely death has his mother trying to pull him away from his explorations on the sea and back toward the throne.

prince eric and his mother the queen in live action little mermaid
Credit: Disney

Yes, that’s right, Eric’s mother, Queen Selina (Norma Dumezweni), was a new character added to the film, one of the many ways they built on his character. They also did this by building out the setting around him – making it known that his kingdom is one in the Caribbean, beset by shipwrecks and consequently cut off from the rest of the world.

Neither Eric nor Ariel is afraid of changing how their parents are – Eric’s mother is afraid the Sea Gods are angry at them and causing shipwrecks. At the same time, Triton believes humans are purposefully trying to destroy their kingdom. This creates a kind of Romeo and Juliet dynamic between the pair, who bond over their love of random knickknacks and constellations.

(The scene where she helps him figure out her name, using a combination of constellation pointing and face-smushing, was utterly adorable and way better than Sebastian just whispering it.)

The deal-making scene between Ariel and Ursula makes more sense in the live-action Little Mermaid. Ursula empathizes with Ariel, clarifying that she’s family, and Triton did this to her too – they have so much in common.

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula
Credit: Disney

It makes far more sense that Ariel, in her vulnerable state, might take a deal from an estranged aunt who seems to understand her.

They also don’t have Ariel physically sign a scroll; she inks the deal in blood, which closes up a fairly large plot hole about her ability to communicate through writing.

There were a few changes made. However, that seemed unnecessary. For example, Ursula added the secret clause that Ariel would not be able to remember that she had to kiss the Prince – whenever Sebastian or Flounder would try to remind her of this, her eyes would go blank and far away. This necessitated that they do all the work to try and get them to kiss.

We’re not entirely sure what this detail’s point was, aside from mitigating any complaints that Ariel might simply be “using” Eric for a kiss. That aspect, however, was already more or less covered by the “true love” clause in the deal because “true love” seems to include “don’t use them” as part of the package. The constant mentioning of the new detail only served as a strange reminder that this was not, in fact, the original movie, and it also sort of takes away some of Ariel’s agency in the process.

Halle Bailey as Ariel talking to Scuttle (Awkwafina) in live-action 'The Little Mermaid'
Credit: Disney

They also changed the ending, although it was only slightly. We’d like to thank them for keeping Ursula’s original, gruesome death by boat stabbing in place because there was always a chance they would try to redeem her or bring her to some kind of less-violent end. The slight change is that Ariel saves Eric from her in the end, not vice versa.

There was already balance in the who-saves-who department in the original Little Mermaid; Ariel saves Eric from drowning, and Eric saves Ariel from a giant angry sea witch. This switch wasn’t necessary. However, it was very cute to add the minor detail that Ariel knew how to do it from watching Eric steer his ship earlier on, so it’s not really a point of complaint either.

They also expanded on Triton in little ways, although most of it was likely just Javier Bardem’s acting, as his actual lines more or less remained the same.

However, the lines they did add for him at the end, in his goodbye to Ariel, were possibly the most heart-wrenching in the whole film – especially for anyone who has ever had a similar relationship with a parent.

Javier Bardem as King Triton in The Little Mermaid (2023)
Credit: Disney

Related: ‘The Little Mermaid’ Live-Action Could Shine Light on King Triton’s and Ursula’s Family Dynamic

The lines were simple. Ariel says:

“Thank you for hearing me.”

And Triton replies:

“You shouldn’t have had to give up your voice to be heard.”

For what it’s worth, this is precisely the conversation most therapists would probably say these two needed to have. Triton needed to learn to listen to his daughter as an adult, not just protect her as his child. While his transformation of her communicates it without words, this is one of those instances where the words themselves are still incredibly important.

(It’s nice to see that Disney stays true to their new mission to address generational and family trauma.)

What They Took Away from The Little Mermaid (1989)

Halle Bailey in Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' playing with fish
Credit: Disney

As far as them taking out details prominent in the original Little Mermaid, our complaints are very few. They did remove “Les Poissons,” the cartoonish can-can in which French chef Louis attempts to cook Sebastian for dinner. Still, it wasn’t much of a huge loss – as Rob Marshall said, it adds nothing to the story, and it relies so much on the animated nature of the original film that doing a live version could never do it justice anyway.

There were almost no other notable removals, only small changes – like the changes to the lyrics in “Kiss The Girl” meant to modernize the song and make it a little less forceful sounding. Even those who didn’t have an issue with the song don’t have much reason to complain because “use your words, boy, and ask her” isn’t that different from “there is one way to ask her.”

However, there was one major thing missing from the music, and it deflated a couple of the biggest numbers quite significantly.

Ariel and Eric "Kiss the Girl" scene, leaning in on boat, from The Little Mermaid 2023 remake
Credit: Disney

The lack of a traditional, old-school-style Disney chorus is probably not something anybody thought audiences of the live-action Little Mermaid would notice; the company hasn’t utilized them in the same way since the original Little Mermaid. However, their absence in the music of this movie was quite evident, especially in Sebastian’s numbers.

It was no secret that Daveed Diggs needed a lot of help with the musical numbers in this film from the beginning – the actor thought he was up for the role as a formality for the longest time, citing his lack of formal vocal training when pitted against the illustrious Samuel E. Wright.

Had they kept the same caliber of backing vocals on “Under the Sea” and “Kiss The Girl,” the songs would have been perfect. Diggs’ struggle with keeping the accent while singing the notes (he needed to keep the sound concentrated at the back of his throat) would have been more forgivable if it had been accompanied by dozens of other voices singing harmonies and interjections.

Sebastian from the live action The Little Mermaid in Under The Sea played by Daveed Diggs
Credit: Disney

Unfortunately, those vocals were not there. The choral parts in both of these songs – and, indeed, in most of the film – were pared down in many places and often removed altogether, and the effect was incredibly noticeable. The songs felt hollow, like something – or a bunch of somethings – was missing.

Not to mention the lack of a chorus also meant a lack of animated fish playing instruments during both sequences, which was another thing that the film severely lacked. Aside from the main characters, the only other underwater creatures you seem to see are other mermaids, dancing invertebrates, a bunch of fish caught in nets, and a shrimp eaten by Ursula moments later.

The newt, carp, plaice, bass, chub, fluke, ray, lings, blackfish, scout, sprat, and yes, even the blowfish were all nowhere to be found, and that made all of the other impressive visual work fall more than a little flat. We needed more fish playing instruments.

Overall Impressions of The Little Mermaid (2023): A Truly Magical Movie

Halle Bailey executing the iconic Little Mermaid hair flip
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Overall, this new, live-action take on The Little Mermaid was deeply impressive. Rob Marshall kept nearly all of the important heart of the original, bolstered it with perfect casting and loving direction, and placed all story additions with great care and intent. Even those who memorized the entire film as children will most likely be thrilled with the result.

The CGI was a little uncanny in places, but still impressive given the current limitations of the medium. Any visual critiques end when the world above is introduced, as the film’s physical sets and settings are gorgeous and filled with character and personality. Everyone on the set, from the leads down to the unnamed dancers, was immersed entirely – even the extras were on top of their game.

The music was near-perfect. The added songs were more of a boon than a distraction, which is saying something for movies like this – especially when it already had a beautiful Broadway soundtrack to contend with. Even the one song that didn’t belong in the film was still a good song; the only music not performed to perfection were the numbers that used to feature the traditional Disney chorus – the lack of which was probably the most glaring issue with the film.

Littler Mermaid
Credit: Disney

The Little Mermaid (2023) took the task of making an animated film work with real people and creating a new model for other attempts to follow. They cast their actors for heart and chemistry, paid close attention to the film’s most memorable visual beats, and expanded on a simple children’s love story to create one that the modern adults who grew up with the film could connect to just as well as the children watching it for the first time.

The hype was right: The Little Mermaid is, almost certainly, Disney’s best live-action remake yet. We highly recommend seeing it in theaters before it grows legs and walks over to Disney+.

What were your thoughts on the live-action The Little Mermaid? Comment down below!

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