Director Rob Marshall reimagines Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and Disney’s own 1989 animated musical as a 2023 live action-animation version that bows deeply to diversity. Javier Bardem plays the widowed sea king Triton who is shepherding his five mermaid daughters. Ariel, the youngest, is desperate to leave her father’s watery world and experience the upper world—that of humans. Her want becomes even more urgent when she sees and immediately falls in love with a prince who she rescues from his wrecked ship and soothes with her voice, leaving before he awakes.
Halle Bailey plays the pubescent Ariel whose melodious voice haunts prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). The goodhearted Eric directs his soldiers to go out and find the mysterious girl who rescued him. Ariel goes against her father’s wishes and makes a pact with sea-witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) who replaces her fin with feet and takes away her voice. Bailey’s face speaks effectively as the mute Ariel who also seems to be suffering from temporary memory loss as she forgets the three-day time limit on Ursula’s wish fulfilment plan.
After a few tuneless songs are sung, the twain do meet, but only with a little help from Ariel’s friends Caribbean crab Sebastian (voice of Daveed Diggs), seagull Scuttle (voice of Awkwafina) and a fish called Flounder (voice of Jacob Tremblay). The one fun and spirited tune is Scuttle and Sebastian singing ‘The Scuttlebutt’.
As lovely as Bailey’s voice is, Marshall’s realisation of an underwater world feels largely borrowed from the Finding Nemo drawing book. Having said that, the sea world is far more interesting than the live action sets which are downright flat and feel like stage sets. This two hour-plus film is a lifeless bottom shelf remake that doesn’t push along conversations of identity, belonging or choice. In this safe reboot, the riskiest thing is the casting of the mermaid.