Movie Review: The Little Mermaid

Disney's latest reboot is overstuffed, but a remarkable performance from its leading mermaid keeps it afloat.


Some good songs and one sublime singer save “The Little Mermaid.”

The (kinda) live-action Disney reboot is somehow both threadbare and elegant, with exquisite craft and design stretched to the breaking point by the Mouse House’s worst tendency: bloat. Part of the success of the Disney Renaissance films in the 1980s and ’90s was their urgency; songs arrived every few minutes, key scenes lasted a minute or two, the plot constantly moved.

Here, there is no speed. Often no movement, in fact, as the 1989 film’s 83 minutes of plot has inconceivably been stretched to 135. Everything is slowed down; even the songs are brought to a more languid tempo. 

Consider that: Nothing of note is changed in the story, yet Disney somehow found an extra 52 minutes of business. You’ve gotta work pretty hard to be that indulgent.

Fortunately, “The Little Mermaid” has Halle Bailey. The 23-year-old performer plays Ariel, the type specimen of Disney princesses. While her domineering father (Javier Bardem) would have her dutifully puttering around his submarine court, she’s got a fascination with the surface world and darts about in search of human relics.

After she saves the life of a dashing young sailor/prince (Jonah Hauer-King), daughter and dad have a row. The enraged mermaid cuts a deal with her wicked aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), trading her voice for a shot at the terrestrial life; she’ll have to wordlessly win the prince’s heart with the help of a trio of talking critters (Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder and Awkwafina as Scuttle).

Subtly but clearly, Disney teases out a message that was hidden at best in the original film, one of cross-cultural understanding, acceptance and inclusion. Many Disney films contain quiet messages of tolerance; here, director (and Pittsburgh native) Rob Marshall makes that lesson the point. The focus of this “Little Mermaid” is no power struggle between underwater demigods; rather, it is on Ariel’s insistence that instinctively fearing unfamiliar groups is foolish and ignorant.

If only it weren’t so damn long. While Marshall’s kaleidoscopic, intricately choreographed direction is engaging, the script — by middling scribe David Magee (“A Man Called Otto,” “Finding Neverland”), who can’t tell a story in less than two hours — is a repetitive, demonstrative slog. Four new songs are added, and while one at least offers some humor, most blandly restate emotions our characters are obviously feeling. Gotta get that Best Original Song nomination, I suppose.

Yet the classic songs — particularly “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World,” two of the best in the Disney canon — are undeniable. And with Bailey’s remarkable talent and heavenly voice, the film can’t fail. No wonder Ursula wanted that voice so badly; it can even keep a bloated blockbuster afloat.

My Rating: 6/10

“The Little Mermaid” opens in theaters on Friday, May 26.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner