Here’s the funny thing about “The Little Mermaid”: Ariel spends most of the film wishing she were human, wondering what it’s like to go walking around on those … what do you call ’em? But practically every girl who sees the movie dreams of swimming in the opposite direction — which is to say, they want to be mermaids … or else an animated Disney princess. “The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake,” as the song goes, and the most important thing about remaking this particular favorite for a fresh generation is maintaining the fantasy that any of us can be Ariel, when in fact, it takes a one-in-a-million talent like Halle Bailey to fill those flippers on-screen.
Every time Disney decides to redo one of its beloved library titles, a chorus of skeptics rise up to ask, “Why?” The advance pushback seemed especially strong with “The Little Mermaid,” which isn’t just any old Disney toon, but the one that launched the animation studio’s ’90s renaissance, kicking off a string of hits that included “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” nearly all of which have received the “live-action” remake treatment (never mind that some of these are every bit as animated as the films that inspired them — they’re meant to look like the cartoons have come to life).
At least half of Disney’s recent cover versions have been colossally disappointing, turning touchstones of Americans’ collective childhood into garish CG eyesores while threatening to tarnish our memories of the original. Well, good news in the case of “The Little Mermaid”: Halle Bailey is all the reason that any audience should need to justify Disney revisiting this classic. Director Rob Marshall found his Ariel, and together, they’ve made a keeper. Just wait till you hear her sing “Part of Your World,” delivered with all the conviction of Jennifer Hudson’s career-making rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” A star is born, and as if to punctuate our discovery, Marshall poses Bailey there on a rocky outcropping and smashes a giant wave against her back.
The story you know: Ignoring her father’s orders, teenage Ariel explores the forbidden parts of the sea, taking an interest in all things human. She keeps a cave full of thingabobs that fell overboard, even going so far as to rescue one such castaway — Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) — and swim him back to land. She likes his looks, he’s smitten by her voice, but the two are from different worlds. With a little help (and a Faustian bargain) from octopus-bottomed Aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), she has three days to receive true love’s kiss from Eric, with her soul as collateral and Triton (played by smart-choice Javier Bardem) sure to be upset.
There’s nothing “little” about Marshall’s “Little Mermaid.” Running nearly an hour longer than the 1989 toon, it’s a veritable sea monster of a movie, dramatically expanding the above- and below-water realms of the Caribbean-set original, while adding songs and characters (e.g., Noma Dumezweni as the Queen) like so many barnacles to the hull of the ship. It loses some, too, shedding the “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons” scenes. Personally, I’m not convinced that audiences want every blockbuster they see to feel bloated, but it certainly comes with the territory in these Disney remakes. (This one reportedly cost more than “Titanic.”)
Marshall takes a page from “Chicago” collaborator Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast,” letting the fairy tale play out in ultra-stylized widescreen vistas, digitally rendered to within an inch of their life, such that we’re practically drowning in detail. Ariel’s tail alone — rainbow bright and free-flowing as a betta fish’s fins — feels like it required more computing power than it probably took for Neil Armstrong to reach the moon. Early teases shown in trailers and shoehorned into the Academy Awards telecast gave fans of the original reason to be wary, as the footage looks fairly garish when taken out of context. Heck, it’s garish in context, too, but at least there, it feels like part of Marshall’s maximalist vision.
Through it all, Bailey’s face pulls focus from her elaborate surroundings. She’s got bright Bambi eyes, long butterfly lashes and a radiant princess smile, the uncanny combination of which suggests a live-action cartoon character. While that’s hardly a prerequisite for these remakes, it’s a nice contrast with Ariel’s more naturalistic animal companions — tropical fish Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), ghost crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and dim-witted northern gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina) — who look almost like the real deal.
Marshall makes the unfortunate decision to apply distracting visual effects to the deep-sea sequences, designed to fool our eyes into believing the actors did their work underwater: flowing CG hair, funny reflections and a lame “Snorks”-like filter, as if everything’s being seen through an aquarium. When the movie’s working, we don’t notice it, as for “Under the Sea,” a stunning sequence of Busby Berkeley-level complexity that suggests what a live-action “Fantasia” might look like. It’s audacious, but nowhere near as charming as “Kiss the Girl,” in which Marshall simplifies things, so we can follow how Sebastian and company are trying to bring Eric and Ariel together in this scene.
Eric gets a song all to himself with “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which is fine but unnecessary (if anything, Eric’s character has been reduced here, making him less of the alpha male hero, so that Ariel might rescue him on occasion). That number sounds markedly different from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s more traditional Broadway-style ballads, as does the fast-paced, spoken-word new song “The Scuttlebutt,” which finds Awkwafina spitting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapid-fire (and very funny) lyrics.
If Bailey is the film’s big discovery, then McCarthy is its no-brainer. Dolled up to look like Divine’s evil-stepsister in her glowing green lair, the comic star’s just delicious as the movie’s deep-sea villain. Her timing is impeccable, and though the part is virtually identical to the one Pat Carroll originated, she aces what’s demanded of these tricky remakes: Basically, McCarthy manages to hit every beat the super fans expect, while surprising with every pause and inflection. Between Bailey’s wide-eyed urchin and McCarthy’s over-the-top octo-hussy, the movie comes alive — not in some zombified form, like re-animated Disney debacles “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio,” but in a way that gives young audiences something magical to identify with, and fresh mermaid dreams to aspire to.