The Little Mermaid: Disney’s live-action remake should satisfy indulgent fans. The rest can scowl pointlessly into the void

Rob Marshall’s adequate maritime romance will drag caskets of sunken treasure to the surface

The Little Mermaid
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Director: Rob Marshall
Cert: PG
Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni
Running Time: 2 hrs

No, there is no point asking what or who these Disney remakes are for. Rob Marshall’s adequate maritime romance will drag caskets of sunken treasure to the surface. One is, however, still left wondering what the pseudo-live-action aesthetic brings to the experience. Once again, the anthropomorphic beasts lose all charm in the journey to photorealism. Sebastian is just a crab. Scuttle is just a gannet. Flounder is just a fish. Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay work hard at the respective voices but it is difficult to impose emotion, wit or intelligence on characters denied facial expression.

If you have been in trance since ... well, since 1837, when Hans Christian Andersen published the source story, be aware that the film concerns an unhappy, surface-jealous mermaid called Ariel. After she falls in love with the hunky Prince Eric, an evil sea witch grants her legs and propels her into the real world. The parallels with certain 21st-century culture wars are there if you want them but, happily, the screenplay leaves them in deep background.

What we do get from the new version is a spirited, sweetly sung – if overpolished – performance by Halle Bailey as a less doormatty Ariel. The usual gammons got themselves in the usual fits about the casting of a black actor in the role of a mythical being but, as it happens, the charming Afro-Caribbean ambience is here one of the great selling points. The old songs by Alan Menken still have a sparkle that helps clarify how the original film launched a new golden age for Disney. His new songs, including one unmistakably written with Lin Manuel Miranda, sound like the makeweight nominees you hear sung at the Oscars to barely polite applause.

What of the rest? Jonah Hauer-King, an old Etonian, in his biggest role yet as Prince Eric, is no doubt a talented young man but the part suggests nothing more glamorous than a striving sommelier in a suburban restaurant with ideas above its station. It feels as if Melissa McCarthy, perfectly cast as the cackling Ursula, should steal the show but the witch gets literally lost in the submerged weeds. Enclosed in stygian CGI gloom, McCarthy has little chance to exploit the potentials for high camp.


For all that, this version of The Little Mermaid does crack on at admirable pace towards its expected destination. It helps that the 1989 flick had a score to equal that of any contemporaneous Broadway hit. And, Bailey, who will surely profit from this opportunity, knows how to build the blowsier numbers through show-stopping crescendos. All that should be enough to satisfy indulgent fans. The rest can scowl pointlessly into the void.

The Little Mermaid opens on Friday, May 26th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist