There is a moment near the end of The Little Mermaid, the latest in Disney’s ongoing series of live-action (or “sort of live-action”) remakes in which King Triton (Javier Bardem) emerges from the deep to impart a message to his mermaid daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey). This is supposed to be the mighty god of the sea, but Bardem’s outfit of armored scales looks cheap in the sunlight—a fact previously hidden by watching it in mostly dark scenes—and the actor appears to be standing in about three feet of water in a pool.
It feels like director Rob Marshall just wanted to get the shot in the can and say the hell with it, let’s move on. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of 2023’s The Little Mermaid feels just as perfunctory. And damn long as well. The 1989 original was 83 minutes in length; this one is 135 minutes, nearly an hour longer, and feels like it stretches another hour beyond that because it lacks much of a pulse.
Marshall, a Disney go-to guy in recent years who’s helmed such middling efforts as Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, simply can’t summon any real energy onscreen for most of this film, which goes through its paces with all the magic and excitement of watching your ride roll through the local car wash. The basic story is intact, with a few songs both added and omitted, and some of the character arcs are updated (a good thing), but only a few things really pop. Otherwise, this once-colorful tale has been drowned in muted blues and shrouded in darkness.
The story (based on an 1837 tale by Hans Christian Andersen) finds Ariel yearning to venture to the surface world and see what humans are like despite stern warnings from dad to keep away. But venture she does, falling instantly in love with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and rescuing him when a storm wrecks his ship. When her enraged father forbids her from going to the surface again, Ariel is lured to the lair of the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who takes Ariel’s voice and changes her into a human for three days, during which she must get Eric to kiss her or else she’ll revert back to her original form and belong to Ursula.
One thing that does pop is Bailey’s performance. Shutting up the toxic trolls once and for all who complained about her skin color when she was hired for the role (because those idiots lead such feeble, empty lives that they have to find something to complain about), Bailey is sincere, heartfelt, and possessed of an innocent sweetness that does its damnedest to light up an otherwise murky film. She is a warm presence onscreen and has the voice of an angel, giving her all to “Part of Your World.”
The other performance that stands out, or rather, all but leaps out of the screen, is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula. Watching her swan around in the deep with her octopus body and tentacles is a delight, as are McCarthy’s vampy, robust, full-throated antics. She delivers “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” like she’s in a Broadway theater playing to the top of the house, and her presence also livens up an often moribund movie.
As for the rest, Ariel’s sea friends—Sebastian the crab (voiced by Daveed Diggs), Flounder the fish (Jacob Tremblay), and Scuttle the bird (Awkwafina)—are a fun trio, even if a new song written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Sebastian and Scuttle, a semi-rap called “The Scuttlebutt,” is something of an anachronistic misfire. Bardem is rather sleepy (that laughable final scene notwithstanding) while as Eric, British actor Hauer-King joins the long line of Disney’s romantic yet vacant young male leads who fade from memory the minute they’re off the screen.
Bailey, McCarthy, and the voice actors do a lot of good work to keep the interest level up, but they can’t disguise the fact that this Little Mermaid feels like it is swimming against a current too powerful to withstand. With the exception of the musical numbers mentioned before, and a nicely choreographed “Under the Sea,” the film just oozes from scene to scene like a puddle of water creeping slowly across a floor. It doesn’t help matter that so much of it, especially the underwater material, is shot so drably, and that the heavy CG in the film is inconsistent.
One effect that is impressive is the final battle with Ursula, in which she becomes the size of a mountain and rises out of the waves like Godzilla himself. Even though the scene is confusingly handled by Marshall and DP Dion Beebe, Ursula’s emergence brings to mind Triton rising from the sea in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, with The Little Mermaid finally stirring up a little bit of awe and wonder. Otherwise, the movie benefits from the fine work by its lead actresses, the nostalgia of hearing those great old songs, and the familiarity of the brand itself. The rest feels like it came off a conveyer belt, and that’s not any world we should want to be a part of.
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters on May 26.