The Little Mermaid Review: Halle Bailey’s Siren Song Not Enough To Make This Live-Action Part Of Our World

Sink or swim?

As a Piscean, I can totally relate to Ariel’s relationship drama. She crosses worlds and makes some pretty big gambles that almost cost her her family, all for a pretty boy she’s just met. Feel you, Red. I do have a soft spot for witches too—their villainy a fallout of patriarchy—and Ursula fascinates me. I mean, I used to write Little Mermaid fan fiction, in which she was just a misunderstood woman! But even I found it a little hard to stick with one of my favourite Disney princesses in Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid live-action.


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You know this story, yes? A teenage mermaid princess, the favourite daughter of her father, the Sea King, dreams of the above world. And on a trip there, falls for a human prince. She saves his life, rebels against her Pop’s wishes, strikes a bad bargain with a Sea Witch, and almost loses her agency. But true love’s kiss does save the day, and they live happily ever after. Well, that’s the Disney version of the story anyway. The real Dutch version is darker. The Little Mermaid features Halle Bailey as Ariel, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Javier Bardem as King Triton, Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, Awkwafina as Scuttle, Noma Dumezweni, and Jude Akuwudike.

After James Cameron showed us a whole new world underwater with Avatar 2, every other attempt at bringing the ocean to life seems to pale in comparison. But does that mean we don’t keep an open mind? Of course not. However, the Atlantica of this Little Mermaid, though based on the Disney animated version, doesn’t elicit wonder and only comes to life during that one carnival-inspired song ‘Under The Sea’, which is quite the bopper. Sure, it’s all very real, I know this is how oceans must look IRL, and they’ve taken as much liberty as they could’ve. But erm, this is Disney, not DC? The underwater world in some of the latter scenes looks straight out of Aquaman. Javier Bardem, well-cast as King Triton, fits right in with that vibe, and could very well be Arthur’s kin. His kingdom feels devoid of the charm that a Disney movie is supposed to have gallons of. No wonder Ariel wants to leave, yo!

The kingdom where Prince Eric lives is a fun tropical resort island with a castle plonked in the middle of it. I like it, at least it has some colour. When Eric takes Ariel out for the day, some joy returns into our lives and I am like a sunflower turning in the direction of the sun. Their date is easily my favourite part of the movie. And the almost-kiss on the lake in the night looks magical. The end, with Eric and Ariel rowing to their happy ending, is perfectly lit and pretty. And so it makes you wonder, why doesn’t the whole movie look this… charming?

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There has already been enough meme-ing and trolling about the hyper-realistic Sebastian the crab and Flounder the fish. What makes it worse is the voice acting. No, hear me out, Awkwafina as Scuttle (not a fish, an aquatic bird), Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, and Jacob Tremblay as Flouder are actually quite good and not the problem. It’s their voices, so full of life and peppy and saying the funniest things, that feel jarring dubbed on these flat-looking creatures. You want us to believe these creatures can talk, and that mermaids and Sea Witches exist underwater, but when it comes to their design, that’s when you decide, “Hmm, say, how real can we go?” Sir, is this a Disney movie or an Attenborough documentary on National Geographic?

So here’s Disney’s biggest problem with live-action that it hasn’t been able to crack, alright? It wants to bring the animated Disney magic to the real world it’s creating with the same old story. And okay, fair, we’ve got the technology, why not try it? But why are they making all the wrong modifications? The core elements of both these worlds just end up clashing like a bright orange hat on a flaming red mane!

Take, for example, some of the subplots, like Ursula being Ariel’s aunt, Prince Eric’s parentage, and the painful reason behind King Triton’s disdain for humans. They’re all introduced with such promise, and you think that finally, all of this realism that the makers are trying so hard to infuse in this story is in lieu of a more complex, layered take on The Little Mermaid. But ultimately, none of them really take off. So we’re going from little mermaid to teenage dark-colour-palette, slow-paced mermaid for nothing? Then why couldn’t you just let me have my plump and bright yellow Flounder and a grumpy-looking but rip-roaringly funny Sebastian?

Not all the changes are bad. I like the new songs, and Halle Bailey really is a splashing star. She looks great, sings incredibly well, and has this innocent wonder (if not a certain impish disobedience that the animated Ariel had). The cast mostly works for me. Yes, even Melissa McCarthy; she really tries to bring camp to Ursula but can’t match up to her superior cartoon counterpart. While I do complain about the visuals, in some scenes, it really does come through. And if you love The Little Mermaid, and know all the songs, you will mildly enjoy it. Though whether you sink or you swim depends on how you handle its whale-like slow pacing.

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Listen, can I have an existential crisis on Disney’s behalf?

I do not comprehend the purpose behind these live-action incarnations of its animated classics. They’re not charming enough to bewitch a new generation of audience. The older audience who holds the animated ones on a pedestal will just shrug it off and go rewatch the version they grew up with. In my case, it’s the 90s Hindi dubbed version of The Little Mermaid that came during Disney Hour on Zee TV, in which Sebastian the crab spoke Mumbaiyya Hindi.

Rob Marshall’s live-action take on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale is pretty, but also pretty dark looking; real but a bit too real; languishing but way too slow. It swims half the way with its casting of Halle Bailey as the little mermaid. But her enchanting siren song isn’t enough to bring us all the way to the shore and make this version an unforgettable part of our world. That seat is taken.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid is currently swimming in cinemas.

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Jinal Bhatt

A Barbie girl with Oppenheimer humour. Sharp-tongue feminist and pop culture nerd with opinions on movies, shows, books, patriarchy, your boyfriend, everything.

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