I’ll tell you what my reaction was when I first saw Halle Bailey as Ariel in the trailer for The Little Mermaid. I thought, “Wow, she has a lovely voice.” Many people probably had a similar reaction, but some Ron DeSantis fanboys were apparently seized with irrational rage at the sight of a Black actress playing the role.
I almost feel sorry for those people. Not quite, though. Pure, uncut racism is the only possible objection to her presence in this movie. Yes, yes, Hans Christian Andersen
described his heroine as white, but if you’re gonna insist on fidelity to his short story, you should’ve lodged your complaint 35 years ago when Disney put in the animation and the musical numbers. I’ve seen Bailey’s performance, and it is the real deal. If someone starts to argue why she shouldn’t be here, turn around and walk in the other direction. It’ll save you some unnecessary grief.
Most of the changes to the original 1989 Disney film can be found around the edges here. Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) doesn’t go on ocean voyages because he thinks it’s cool but rather because he’s trying to help his island kingdom catch up with the technology of the outside world. He’s doing this against the wishes of his mother (Noma Dumezweni), so it makes sense that he and Ariel bond over their overprotective parents. Since the male heroes of those last-generation Disney musicals were always so dull, it doesn’t require too much work to make this one more interesting. Newcomer Hauer-King — he played Laurie in the BBC’s recent TV series of Little Women — even sounds listenable singing “Wild Uncharted Waters,” one of the new songs written for this remake by composer Alan Menken (a holdover from the original film) and new lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda from In the Heights and Encanto.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, but then again, Mary Poppins Returns) doesn’t bring the level of visual flair to the numbers that we’re used to seeing from him. His CGI-aided staging of “Under the Sea” undoubtedly boasts brighter colors and more varied undersea fauna, and yet it misses the sense of fun that the original had. None of the numbers from the original improves here in the remake, and Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle (voiced by Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina) look so photorealistic that their presence doesn’t register. It’s telling that the best piece of filmmaking here is during the shipwreck that almost kills Eric. The second best is during a dance number on the beach accompanied by a steel drum band. The film needed to take a few more chances — the last few years have seen wilder takes on the story like the Polish musical The Lure and the Chinese comedy The Mermaid.
Still, the main reason for this remake is the new performances. Melissa McCarthy turns Ursula into a glorious high-camp villain, and she makes a hearty meal out of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” (though her singing would be more of a surprise if those Booking.com commercials hadn’t been airing since the winter), and Diggs gives a sly and understated rendition of “Kiss the Girl.”
Best of all is Bailey, who’s better known to music fans as half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle. Even if her phrasing isn’t quite as crisp as Jodi Benson’s was in the original film, that soprano voice of hers offers some otherworldly colors that fit the character of a mermaid in ways that her predecessor’s voice couldn’t. (By the way, you can spot an uncredited Jodi Benson as a beach vendor here.) Bailey is hampered by a weak subplot about her rebellion against King Triton (Javier Bardem), and yet she still manages to carry this vehicle easily. This remake would sink without her star quality. If you want to know why Ariel is Black, there it is.
The Little Mermaid
Starring Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by David Magee, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story and Ron Musker and John Clements’
screenplay. Rated PG-13.