underwater, a mermaid holds up a fork to a fish and a bird
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The story goes that 1989’s The Little Mermaid saved Disney Animation from near demise and kicked off an era known as the Disney Renaissance, producing movies that are now considered House of Mouse classics, from Beauty and the Beast to The Lion King. Rob Marshall’s live-action adaptation attempts to do the same for the live-action Disney era that has divided audiences and critics with some hits and some misses. The 2023 retelling faced almost immediate backlash in the casting of Black American actress Halle Bailey as Ariel, our titular mermaid who has pale skin in the original but is still, for all intents and purposes, literally a fish without a race. Nevertheless, the film’s director has continuously sung her praises, and Bailey truly shines in a movie that is otherwise drowning in familiarity. 

In the 15+ live-actions Disney has made, some opt to stray from the original plot of their predecessor, and it’s tough to know how audiences will react: 2020’s Mulan was received well by critics, but fans mourned the loss of Mushu, the hilarious dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. The Little Mermaid remake follows the original almost beat for beat. There are a few new songs very obviously courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Prince Eric (played charmingly by relative newcomer Jonah Hauer-King) is rounded out with more backstory that’s implied in the original. And although the newly diverse casting is welcome (including Ariel’s multicultural mermaid sisters, whom we don’t see enough of), the movie doesn’t do much to modernize a story with an  implicit message that still involves a woman giving up her voice for a man. 

And yet, it can’t be denied that the movie is fun from start to finish. Bailey, who rose to stardom as half of the duo Chloe x Halle, has a voice that was made for a Disney princess. Her range is incredible, soaring across high notes with an ethereal tone that sends chills down your spine in her rendition of “Part Of Your World.” And considering that she doesn’t speak for at least a third of the movie, Bailey’s acting remains engaged and expressive. The surrounding cast (Awkwafina as Scuttle, Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula) hold their own, though the uneven pacing gives them less to work with, and the Jamaican American woman next to me in the theater scoffed at Diggs’s attempt at a Caribbean accent. 

Overall, it’s a visually gorgeous film, buoyed by a strong ingenue in Bailey with enough laughs for the kids and the nostalgic adults—just don’t expect anything new. PG, 135 min.

Wide release in theaters