THE LITTLE MERMAID …IS IT SEE WORTHY ?

Halle Bailey plays Ariel, a mermaid who wishes she could be part of the human world, in the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

I haven’t really been a fan of Disney’s recent live-action remakes of its most beloved animated titles — a practice that may make commercial sense, but feels increasingly like an artistic dead end. Even so, I tried to keep an open mind when I heard that The Little Mermaid, one of my favorite movies in the Disney canon, was getting the do-over treatment.

This kind of retread may be unnecessary, but unnecessary doesn’t have to mean unenjoyable. And with that brilliant Alan Menken score and those ingenious Howard Ashman lyrics — and yes, I can sing the whole thing from start to finish — really, how bad could it be?

The answer is: not that bad, but also not that good. Like a lot of its fellow Disney remakes, this Little Mermaid too often feels like a dutiful cover version rather than an inspired reimagining. The story hasn’t changed much: The good King Triton, played here by Javier Bardem, has forbidden all mermaids and mermen from visiting the ocean’s surface, warning them that humans are dangerous. But that hasn’t stopped his youngest and most free-spirited daughter, Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, from becoming deeply fascinated with the human world, which she learns about by collecting artifacts from shipwrecks.

When Bailey’s casting was announced last year, she received a torrent of abuse online, slamming her and Disney for recasting Ariel as a Black mermaid. It was a sad reminder of how angry some people get when a remake or reboot doesn’t cater perfectly to their childhood memories, and also how easily some can couch their racism as nostalgia.

Speaking as someone with no small attachment to the original Little Mermaid myself, I’d say Bailey’s casting is one of the few instances in which this new movie actually demonstrates some fresh thinking. Her singing voice is as lovely as the role demands, and while she’s not always as vivid in her non-musical moments, she keeps you fully absorbed in Ariel’s journey.

The other actors are more of a mixed bag. As Eric, the hunky human prince whom Ariel saves from drowning and falls in love with, Jonah Hauer-King toggles between dashing and drippy. Bardem is a great actor, but even he can’t do much with the solemnly bearded King Triton, who’s saddled with some of the movie’s more fake-looking CGI. Melissa McCarthy puts a wickedly mischievous spin on Ursula, the many-tentacled sea witch who transforms Ariel into a human for a very steep price. Too often, though, she goes for easy laughs at the expense of real menace.

But the characters who fare the worst this time around are probably Ariel’s faithful critter friends. In the role of Scuttle, the raucous seagull, a little of Awkwafina‘s goofball shtick goes a long way. And Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame, struggles to make an appealing sidekick out of Sebastian, the worrywart crab who tries to keep Ariel out of trouble. That has less to do with his acting and singing than with just how unappealing the character designs are. What made Sebastian and Ariel’s fish friend Flounder so memorable in the original film was their glorious cartoonishness; here, they look creepy and dead-eyed.

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