Like princesses, villains, Marvel, and 'Star Wars', the Disney Remakes are becoming a new brand for the Walt Disney Company to push. Since the 2010s we have seen 16 titles reimagined, with 2019 being a monumental year for the brand, both 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King' grossing over US$1 billion dollars worldwide, and also 'Lady and the Tramp' becoming the first remake to be released as a Disney+ original. Then 2020 happened and changed distribution forever - now premium content was available instantly in your home for no extra cost and the way we consumed media changed. Blockbusters were no longer reserved for the cinematic experience - and along with this, the tune with the love for the remakes was changing with the public discourse. While 'The Lion King' is the most financially profitable, and is currently the 7th highest-grossing film of all time, it was a breaking point. The corporate "greed" was showing and the nostalgia cash grab was falling apart, with audiences wanting more. With 'Beauty and the Beast', 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King' out of the way there was one obvious omission, the one that re-birthed the studio in 1989 - 'The Little Mermaid' - but where would it stack up in the remake line-up?
Mainly following the plot of the animated film, Ariel (Halle Bailey, 'Last Holiday', 'Let it Shine') is a mermaid who wants more - she wants to be where the people are. Her dad, King Triton (Javier Bardem, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales', 'Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile') is against this and fears the world above the surface - but that doesn't stop her interest in that above world. One night, she locks eyes with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, 'A Dog's Way Home', TV's 'World on Fire'), and saves him from a shipwreck. The two instantly fall for each other. Now with his connection to the human world, tension grows stronger between Ariel and her dad, so she turns to Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, 'Spy', 'Ghostbusters' (2016)), a sea witch, who gives her legs in exchange for her voice. Now she has three days out of the sea, voiceless, and must seal a true love's kiss from Eric to stay human or Ursula owns her. Sebastian (Daveed Diggs, 'Hamilton', 'Soul'), a crab, takes care of Ariel along with her other friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay, 'Luca', 'Wonder'), a fish, and Scuttle (Awkwafina, 'Raya and the Last Dragon', 'Crazy Rich Asians'), a bird, but as Ursula's true plan is revealed - taking over from king Triton - Ariel struggles to find her voice.
SWITCH: 'THE LITTLE MERMAID' TRAILER
There is no denying how much of a landmark the animated counterpart is - it saved Disney, it reinvented the animated film, it brought on one of the most historic eras of the 'Disney Renaissance', it's a powerhouse. One thing I think director Rob Marshall can tell is that 'The Little Mermaid' has a huge legacy and so to standout and has to feel different, it has to be a new take, otherwise what's the point? Yes, the film has shot-for-shot moments, but they aren't as egregious as previous remakes. The whole film feels more loving and handled with so much more care than anything we have seen from the remakes before.
Quickly, the bad. The CGI, especially in the opening underwater period, is rough. Every time the hair looks good, there are 10 more moments it doesn't. You've all seen it - Flounder, Sebastian and Scuttle got the 'Beauty and the Beast' approach and are more realistic. In the context of the film it works, especially Sebastian. The film is also two hours and 10 minutes compared to the one hour 23 minutes animated film's runtime. You can certainly feel the length in parts, mainly because we know the story and we are waiting for it to hit certain points, but for the most part, the longer run time did work. I wish some of the extended runtime was put into the underwater moments, since both the original and this feel as though we don't get the best sense of the Kingdom of Atlantica. As for the changes, honestly most worked - there are things that stand out like how in 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' she doesn't sign a scroll and instead, it's a blood pact. 'Under the Sea' is a duet between Ariel and Sebastian, and outside of the previously mentioned animals no other sea creatures talk like in the animated film.
We only have two removed songs - 'Daughter of Triton', due to the name change of the daughters from all 'A' names to them now being literally the seven seas, and 'Les Poissons', which I was gunning for that to be the Lin Manuel Miranda cameo, but sadly not. 'Fathoms Below' is moved from the opening, now 'Part of Your World' is the first song about 20 minutes in. 'Fathoms' is now more of a sea shanty and performed just before the shipwreck that Ariel saves Eric from. Additionally, we get three new songs, all written by Miranda - an Eric ballad 'Wild Uncharted Waters'; 'For the First Time' a new Ariel song about her first time on land; and, oh boy, 'The Scuttlebutt', a rap song from Scuttle. The first two songs are fine additions that go back and forth between fitting in with the original soundtrack and feeling too modern. 'The Scuttlebutt' is the worst part of the film; it's Awkwafina rapping 'Hamilton'-style and doesn't land.
The best part, for once, is the cast. Melissa McCarthy is giving her all to Ursula, and we finally have a live-action Disney villain that is actually bad and not like Jafar in 'Aladdin'. Daveed Diggs as Sebastian is another standout, really fun in the role and a perfect extension of the animated version. The standout is Halle Bailey - what a force! She is the heart and soul of the film; you feel every emotion, every beat. You've heard her voice in the trailer, and every time she sings it's jaw-dropping and so full of emotion. You instantly fall in love with her Ariel, and there is no denying she is the perfect choice for the role.
On the weaker side of the cast is Javier Bardem. His King Triton is much more understated than his animated version, he just had less of a presence. His fear and worry for Ariel is still there, it's just a different take that didn't completely land.
Rob Marshall is the only director since maybe Kenneth Branagh with 'Cinderella' to actually care; you can feel his passion oozing through the whole film, but that was a much easier beast. 'The Little Mermaid' more than other fairytales is so intrinsically tied to Disney and the nostalgia of 90s kids. This was never going to be an easy remake regardless of the general audience's attitude towards them right now - it's a huge task. Marshall loves musicals, and you can see that energy and care in every number. The 1989 film is shorter and we have been consuming it for over 30 years. We all know it inside and out, and that film will always exist. The new version isn't here to replace that nostalgia, you can always go back to it, but where the 2023 succeeds is that it feels worthwhile. The experience is a movie rich with characters, songs and heart - it's a love letter to what came before but is also fresh enough for a new generation.
'The Little Mermaid' is one of the only Disney remakes to understand the original's legacy and is so loving. The run time is the biggest downfall, but from the music actually being good to Halle Bailey completely falling into Ariel, to be able to leave a remake crying tears of joy and not pain was delightful.