Halle Bailey glows in Disney’s ambitious live-action Little Mermaid remake

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Often cited as the film that kicked off the “Disney Renaissance” (a golden age for Walt Disney Animation that produced hits like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast), The Little Mermaid is without question one of the studio’s most beloved classics. It was only a matter of time, then, until Ariel and her above-water adventure got the now-customary live-action remake treatment. Though the handful of additional songs is the textbook definition of a “mixed bag”, Halle Bailey’s luminous performance and a few key story changes make The Little Mermaid one of Disney’s strongest live-action remakes yet.

Starring Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem, and Melissa McCarthy, The Little Mermaid follows curious, land-loving young mermaid Ariel (Bailey), the free-spirited daughter of mermaid King Triton. After saving human prince Eric’s (Hauer-King) life during a shipwreck, Ariel becomes fascinated with the human world, making a deal with her conniving aunt Ursula (McCarthy), a sea witch who grants Ariel legs in exchange for taking her voice. With three days to get a true love’s kiss from Eric, a voiceless Ariel discovers the beauty (and the heartbreak) of the human world.

With all Disney live-action remakes, there’s always an inherent question of whether or not revisiting a story that’s already been told (and told so well) is justifiable outside of its capacity to bring home big box office bucks for Disney. Though the vast majority of films in this vein (2019’s Aladdin and The Lion King) never really justify their existence, The Little Mermaid is unique in its willingness to add new material to a familiar story, and even make changes where necessary.

While the 1989 animated film clocks in at just over an hour and 20 minutes, this new reimagining adds a whopping 40 minutes worth of new story: most of which follows the blossoming relationship between Ariel and Eric once Ariel has her human legs. Remarkably, the addition of nearly an hour’s worth of screentime doesn’t bog the film down—instead, allowing for some much-needed time to explore the Ariel/Eric dynamic that was absent in the ‘89 film.

The Little Mermaid
Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

In the original, Ariel falls head over heels for Eric—classic love at first sight—but in this new version, her interest in him is much more tied to his humanity and what he represents—adventure, the human world, a taste of something new. By tweaking Ariel’s interest in Eric from romantic infatuation to adventurous curiosity, we’re allowed to explore her not just as a lovesick teenager, but as a clever young woman looking to explore an unfamiliar world and quench her thirst for the unknown.

It’s a common theme across the live-action remakes to update the gender politics of the original films, and while it at times can come across as unnecessary or obvious (some of the lyric changes in “Poor Unfortunate Souls” omit references to men on the human world like women who don’t speak), this reframing of Ariel makes her a much more interesting character than her animated counterpart, and a much more active protagonist in her own story. Her new agency is best exemplified by a key change in the finale—while it’s originally Eric who drives a sunken ship into Ursula, delivering a killing blow, it’s Ariel at the wheel of the ship in this new version, and her desperate, almost brutal clawing to get to the ship’s bow is one of the most memorable sequences.

While the changes in the script are undeniably a huge component of why Ariel feels like so much more of an active character, the true magic comes down to Halle Bailey, whose turn as Ariel is intensely charming and brings some much-needed depth to an iconic character. Her Ariel is still the free-spirited, sometimes absent-minded young girl we met in the original, but Bailey brings mischief and self-awareness (especially once she’s on land, and has to let her face do the talking for her) to the playful character that often makes her feel wise beyond her years.

Her chemistry with Hauer-King is also undeniable—Eric himself gets an interest in collecting oddities on his travels to parallel Ariel’s grotto, and though they eventually develop into romance, it blossoms from a friendship and a mutual interest in the unknown. Disney romances (especially in Princess films) tend to feel a little sanitized, but again, between Bailey’s mischievous charm and Hauer-King’s wide-eyed infatuation with this mysterious silent girl, there’s a palpable tension and a very refreshing, believable connection.

Granted, it isn’t a perfect reimagining, by any means. Though Eric’s new solo song “Wild Uncharted Waters” is a much-needed beefing up of his character, and “For the First Time” is a wonderful way to glean insight into Ariel once she’s mute, the Lin Manuel Miranda rap-infused “The Scuttlebutt” is a ghastly and glaringly out-of-place addition that clashes utterly with the rest of the film’s sweeping, fairytale, classic Broadway-style music.

Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula is another unfortunately underwhelming aspect—though she’s perfectly serviceable, all of her comedic moments are pulled beat-for-beat from the original, and come nowhere near eclipsing the wit and charisma of Pat Carroll’s original vocal performance. The flatness of the Ursula character is indicative of a larger trend across the film—though it soars when engaging with the new material, virtually every element that tries to directly recreate a shot or beat from the original tends to fall short.

At the end of the day, The Little Mermaid isn’t *quite* strong enough across the board to call a true success. But thanks to Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, and some key changes in the script, it’s undoubtedly one of Disney’s most interesting, ambitious remakes yet, and an undeniable step in the right direction.

Next. Halle Bailey gets stamp of approval from Jodi Benson. dark