As a kid who grew up in the fantastical world of Disney movies, when it was finally announced that the animated feature The Little Mermaid (1989) from the Renaissance period of the House of Mouse will get a 2023 remake from the same studio, I was, in all honesty, without a doubt, enthralled and ecstatic despite the infamy of live-action adaptations.
Unlike the other Disney fans and skeptics of the mainstream audience, I have always dreamt of my favorite animated characters if they were to enter our world.
However, indeed, it should meet a certain amount of balance between realism and enchantment—one that achieves the subtlety of colors to achieve that hyperrealistic tone but without losing the life and fun of the original; as well as more intricately designed worlds and set pieces which should still feel grounded in its 3D-drawn counterpart.
So, the question is, did Rob Marshall’s 2023 version starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, and Jonah Hauer-King, meet the expectations of a six-year-old Raphael who lived and breathed the magic of Disney?
Disclaimer: This is my own review based on my own feelings and knowledge about film, influenced by my love for Disney since I was a kid (being called a Disnerd even as an adult). If our opinions differ, it is definitely normal.
Here is my take on The Little Mermaid 2023 and how it lives up to the 1989 classic
The cast lives up to the expectations led by the undeniable charisma of Halle Bailey
Without a doubt, the muse and centerpiece of the cast of the live-action adaptation of the beloved 1989 film based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, Halle Bailey, manifests everything you love about her 3D counterpart and more…
She embodies the innocence in the eyes of the red-haired beauty and her adventurous nature. Halle’s subtle gaze holds that sense of wonder and the delivery of her lines indeed captures Ariel‘s fascination of the human race.
I find myself smiling from time to time due to her impeccable charm and beauty. Not to mention the way she speaks reminds me of every young but powerful woman that I have met in my life, perfectly blending a spirit of both innocence and vigor as she develops into a fine and admirable female figure.
We will discuss more about the improvements that they have done with her character later in this article when we get to the overall changes in the film.
Well, the question in everyone’s mind is if Melissa McCarthy fulfills the huge persona of one of the most well-known and adored villains of all time—your favorite sea witch Ursula. How do I start with this…
Even after the cast was announced, I was already having my doubts when it comes to Melissa’s capability to play the octopus woman. Nevertheless, I kept my hopes up.
First of all, she is not terrible in the role as she still remained respectful of the character, staying true to the antagonist’s very drag-gy nature. She stated in an interview that she acknowledges the drag queen Divine who is the inspiration behind the original character.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, despite the sweetness of this and the fact that she is a fan of the 1989 film, her performance is lackluster compared to the larger-than-life Ursula played by Pat Carroll.
Although she delivered a decent job as the movie progressed and I wouldn’t say that she did an awful job, it didn’t fully live up to the icon that Pat made the character to be.
On the other hand, Jonah Hauer-King truly is a pleasant surprise since, just like Melissa McCarthy, I was not completely thrilled when I saw him in the lineup considering how fan casts seem much better than what he appeared to be.
In the trailers and in the leaked photos, he looked very bland and didn’t seem to have that charm of Prince Eric who has captured the hearts of many growing up. Oh boy, I was wrong.
Jonah indeed held that same charismatic pull that Halle possessed. He expanded on Eric’s love for adventure which perfectly mirrored the pop star’s version of the little mermaid. He appeared to be different as he acted in the movie, exuding that heartthrob persona of his animated equivalent.
In addition, to everyone’s shock (and delight), despite people saying how “unattractive” he is before the showing of the film, he indeed appeared to have that same allure that Eric had in the Renaissance version.
As I was viewing the film with a huge audience in the advanced screening, I could hear people gasping and in awe whenever he had moments that are clearly targeted at those who are attracted to men.
So, if you will, watch this if you are interested in that.
Then, of course, we have our CGI-infested besties of Ariel, namely, Flounder, Scuttle, and of course, Sebastian.
Honestly speaking, I didn’t have any strong feelings about them like everyone else on the internet. When I saw their design, I didn’t really feel angry or horrified.
However, I completely understand those who felt dismayed due to how drastic the differences were in terms of the character designs in the original, which we will dive into later.
Flounder was really cute in spite of his very “ready-to-eat” character design. Jacob Tremblay who voiced our favorite fish bestie truly did a wonderful job in his voice acting. You will adore him in this.
Meanwhile, Scuttle was really funny with the undeniable comedy chops of Awkwafina who gave life to her. I’ll make the bold claim to say that I enjoyed the bird more in this movie compared to the 1989 version because the actress really humored me with her bimbo-esque nature. Although it isn’t perfect and, at times, appears to be cringey and has jokes that fall flat, it didn’t diminish the bird’s funny persona.
And lastly, in our CGI friend lineup, Sebastian scared me a little in the beginning as I found him to be ineffective in his efforts to be funny. Fortunately, as the movie progressed, Daveed Diggs brought the crab to life. I was particularly amused by his comedic timing and effortless delivery.
I found his tough love for Ariel to be endearing which perfectly encapsulates Samuel E. Wright’s performance in the animated film. Not to mention his amazing musical numbers which we will tackle later.
King Triton and Queen Selina
Of course, Javier Bardem‘s Triton and Noma Dumezweni’s Queen Selina as the tough but loving single parents to Ariel and Eric are not overlooked. Clearly, their performances gave an edge to the movie as stern and loving figures.
Special mentions are Ariel’s sisters who I wished to see more considering the interesting changes they did with their characters. And of course, Vanessa played by Jessica Alexander had a brief showing in the movie but undeniably did an awesome job as she resembled the animated version closely as well as her effortless ludicrous parts.
The romance between Eric and Ariel worked very well
I am excited to talk about this because it captivated me as one of the loveliest things that I have noticed in the film. The chemistry between Halle and Jonah is undeniable as soon as they laid eyes on each other.
In the scenes between Ariel and Eric, everyone in the cinema felt extremely alive as the romance on the screen made us feel delightful sparks that are present in the air. The twinkle in Ariel’s eyes and the sense of being charmed in Eric’s own orbs are undeniable whenever they interacted. My favorite moment truly was the recreation of the two character’s exploration of the town as Eric showed Ariel around.
Even offscreen, on red carpets, and at press screenings, Halle and Jonah had something that just makes my heart flutter and skip a beat. For me, it is one of the reasons why the movie worked.
The musical numbers
Certainly, fans of the 1989 film and Disney, in general, look forward to the musical numbers helmed by the original composer in the animated classic (as well as other Disney staples) Alan Menken and newcomer but truly talented and successful Lin-Manuel Miranda (who created the songs for Encanto and Hamilton). These two joining forces felt unreal.
Part of Your World
The favorite ballad of every “fish out of water”, Part of Your World is, beyond a doubt, a musical perfection. Its classic arrangement, with a few tweaks made to it, together with Halle Bailey’s exceptional, powerful, and magical voice is surreal. Despite hearing snippets of it before the advanced screening, seeing it onscreen still felt really special.
Seeing Ariel’s treasure trove as she sang was enchanting in a realistic setting as the youngest daughter of Triton swam around and moved her mystical tail in circles.
The song has two reprised versions, with the first one being in the original movie and the second one created to better fit and express the emotions of the little mermaid in the final moments of the 2023 live-action. All three iterations are breathtaking and will definitely tug at your heartstrings.
Under the Sea
With the amazing delivery of the very talented Daveed Diggs complemented by, to everyone’s delight, the support of Halle’s runs, the song lived up to the expectations. In spite of people’s mockery of how it looked in the trailers, with them saying that the live-action version lacked the colorful and fun nature of the animated classic, the song to convince the little mermaid to stay under the sea was extremely entertaining.
“Under the Sea” in the live-action remake of ‘THE LITTLE MERMAID.’ pic.twitter.com/zR0uzKNlum
— Disney Animation Promos (@DisneyAPromos) April 13, 2023
The movie grounded in realism strayed away from the campy and comedic elements that you can usually do in animation. Fortunately, they made up for it with the wonders of the real world and how they really look under the sea, incorporating new things such as the bioluminescent creatures in a cave as well as the lining up of turtles as they paved their way on the ocean floor.
Truly, people who criticize the movie for this have never seen it and just based everything on what they saw online.
Kiss the Girl
Just like Under the Sea, Kiss the Girl, if it not improved on the original, then made the 2023 version was as magical as it was. The same things I have said about the preceding musical number apply to this one as well, still making up for the comic elements in the cartoon for a more realistic but astonishing number.
They also still made use of some awe-inspiring lights with creatures that utilize their luminous abilities as they surrounded Ariel and Eric in the boat in the lagoon.
Continuing on about the fact that the two lovebirds’ romance fantastically blossoms, one of the most fun and actually romantically exciting things in the movie is a scene preluding this musical number where Eric tries to figure out the little mermaid’s name.
It is obvious that they had fun doing this, expanding on the scene already established in the animated version as they did something different in the 2023 live-action. The audience in the theater, myself included, chuckled and giggled as it happened and I think it is one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Eric’s solo Wild Uncharted Waters
Just like in Beauty and the Beast with Prince Adam’s Evermore, Eric belted out a ballad in this movie as he tried to figure out her feelings for Halle’s Ariel. In my opinion, as a person who enjoys slow-tempo Broadway-esque songs, Jonah Hauer-King did a decent job in the delivery of Wild Uncharted Waters.
It was not perfect, however, especially with how obvious it is that he is not a trained singer with the lack of power in his voice. Nevertheless, it did its job by delivering the feeling of distress and heartbreak. I love singing to this kind of song so it still holds up as one of the bops in the soundtrack.
Ariel’s new solo For the First Time
What made my heart light up while immersing myself in this fantastical movie in the theater is this new song from Ariel. What’s remarkable in this new addition is how it gave that depth to the sea princess’ character as she left the ocean.
In the original, her transition from sea to land was never really explored and it seemed like she easily adjusted to it as if she didn’t just turn her back on the only home she knew since she was born.
In this live-action iteration, they made sure to fix that with a fish-out-of-water song that flawlessly transitioned into an emotional one as she started to doubt her decisions. Here, you will notice the heaviness of feeling alone in a new world just to pursue what she wants and if the choices she made along the way were the right ones. Truly relatable.
Not to mention the fun montages of her dressing up in human clothes as Halle’s mystical voice sang every lyric of this song beautifully.
This song, I don’t really have to expound, as it is just a fun track for kids to sing along to with Awkwafina’s whimsical performance. It is weird sounding but it is cute. One thing I don’t like about this though is how annoying it gets stuck in your head.
The improvements in the storytelling
Talking about the improvements that they did in the story aside from the ones that I have touched on earlier, there are many.
Ariel has been criticized in the 1989 classic, being dubbed as “boy crazy” for leaving their world for a boy. Rob Marshall tried to make up for that here by giving the youngest daughter of Triton a more reasonable motivation. Instead of just using her treasure trove as a hobby, collecting human artifacts became her passion as they highlighted the mermaid’s adventurous nature.
Yes, she was still attracted to Eric, but that is just a fraction of why she chose to trade her tail for a pair of feet. Her decision was justified as the prince just represented her love for the human world. Eric is a culmination of what she loves about the surface.
This leads us to our next point where they tried to marry Eric’s love for exploring with Ariel’s love for adventure. Both of them love their collection as, here, the prince has a collection of his own that resembles Ariel’s trove.
This actually made more sense since it gave both of them a reason to be attracted to each other than the superficiality presented in the original movie—they have a common interest that made them gravitate towards each other.
In turn, this fierce and passionate nature of Ariel prompted her to be the hero in her own story. It was not an “in your face” feminist moment for the conservatives out there. In this version, it just so happens that Ariel had the ability to save herself and not be a damsel in distress, not because the story forced it to happen, but because she can. I loved to see it.
Also, a heartwarming change that Rob decided to add to the 2023 movie is the wonderful father-and-daughter relationship between Ariel and Triton. In the first film, Triton was presented to be a sweet old man who was shown as powerful but very emotional.
Meanwhile, with Javier Bardem’s interpretation of the character, he wonderfully made Triton feel more like a king who had the ability to suppress his emotions in order to make better decisions. He had a tough exterior that felt very realistic and not a caricature of a stereotypical father who rule with an iron fist. Instead, he felt more controlled paired with the innate power of the sea king.
Hence, his relationship with Ariel was established beautifully, showing how Ariel loved but feared and respected her father. There was love but the respect and the distance between them was apparent.
That’s why it was more satisfying to witness how, in the end, Triton was able to bring down this wall that he built as a king and exhibit the love of a father who cared about her daughter.
Finally, to talk about it briefly, it is interesting that they changed the names of Ariel’s sisters. At first, of course, it was shocking and you might ask yourself why but there is actually an explanation for this. And it is that they represent the seven seas as each daughter of Triton’s name and race corresponds to the regional body of water she rules.
(Check out this article by YouLoveIt.com to know more about this)
Did the realism ruin the appeal of the film?
Well, to answer that, honestly, to an extent yes, but not really. The CGI ” mess” that some love to call them, pertaining to Ariel’s sea creature friends, was, in a way, disappointing. And I understand where the criticisms are coming from.
The team could have improved the design of every animal. The expressiveness of their face was still non-existent so I guess they could have fixed this by infusing the design of the original with realism just like how Sony did it with Sonic the Hedgehog and what Nickelodeon did in the Spongebob movies. The texture is there but the iconic design that makes the character iconic is still there.
Unfortunately, on the other hand, this would birth a weird atmosphere since this type of animation would clash with the realism of the film, especially the detailed scenes underwater. The creatures would look like a mutation in our world because, unlike the characters that we mentioned, these animals truly do exist and do not reside in the realms of fiction (Sonic is a Mobian and the creatures of Bikini Bottom are legit mutations inspired by Bikini Atoll). I guess, Disney should think of a way to make a solution for this.
Despite this problem, however, for me, it didn’t really take away from the magic of the movie because the efforts of the actors who gave voice to these characters paid off. Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina, and especially Daveed Diggs gave amazing performances that made up for the realistic animals that we saw onscreen so it wasn’t really a hindrance.
Audiences and critics alike should give props to Disney for making up for problems that usually arise in live-action adaptations.
These problems include the dark tone of the movie, which, for me, adds that magical realism that truly transports us to another world that looks like our own but contains these amazing creatures and fantastical elements. The darkness creates depth and separates it from its animated counterpart.
Also, the criticism about the darkness and the lack of color that people like to talk about in this type of film is misplaced because they are present but exist and improve the visuals in another form. As I mentioned in the musical numbers, the production value is still as special as the original ones but they enhanced it by removing all the campy elements of the cartoon and replacing them with an approach that is grounded in reality which is still too mystical to be truly real.
That is not to say that camp is bad and the fun factors that make the 1989 classic so special should be set aside. Nonetheless, we need to see and understand that creating the live-action films is meant to be different than the animation and that we can always come back to the original one if we seek that kind of escape from reality.
One doesn’t have to be diminished by the existence of the other because they are separate entities meant to be enjoyed depending on what mood you’re in or what your preference dictates.
In my opinion, though, the 2023 version is still a wonderful escapism—a fun getaway full of adventure, magic, and all the elements that I loved in the animation as a kid, but with a hint of the realistic but alluring beauty of our world.
The Little Mermaid 2023 remained respectful to its predecessor, introducing some effective changes in the storytelling that gave a meaningful message to the original film which is to not be frightened by indifference. It is just like how Jodi Benson’s and Halle Bailey’s Ariel found love between the two distinct versions of the character that each mirrors the values of their time.
I suggest you watch it and see it for yourself. I highly recommend it.