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REVIEW: 'The Little Mermaid' live-action remake deserves to be part of your world

By Marielle Fatima Tuazon Published May 24, 2023 8:00 am

At some point in our lives, we’ve thought about wanting to become a mermaid. Disney Princesses were the celebrities of our younger years, too—and Ariel was both.

The 1989 animation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, derived from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, has cemented its iconic status across generations, especially with an Alan Menken score that won him two Oscars and a Grammy as well as Howard Ashman lyrics that are haunting our memories. Jodi Benson’s voice as Ariel was powerful as it was comforting. The light-hearted, vibrantly colored animation with the giddy mermaid-human romance plot had the makings of an undisputed classic.

My Little Mermaid bed sheets were a huge part of my childhood as they served as a source of comfort, especially during my low moments. I believe it was from the nineties, maybe already in the family before I was even born in the last year of that decade: the pattern had white and blue swirls, Ariel sitting on the sand with Sebastian and Flounder with King Triton and his kingdom right behind them. I’ve had it for so long that it still exists somewhere in our storage room, torn and faded, a relic of what it means to be loved and changed. Even without looking at a picture, I can picture it in my head—there is satisfaction upon seeing photos of it after a quick Google search. Nowadays, a new wave of The Little Mermaid merchandise can be purchased, and it makes me excited for kids to have the same experience. 

Despite my love for the original, I wasn’t apprehensive about a live-action remake. Halle Bailey’s voice alone was enough to convince me of its promise. Seeing her in full Ariel glory with the long auburn hair in the previews felt right. Lin Manuel-Miranda also got on board to help birth a few new songs for this version. Upon hearing these new additions like The Scuttlebutt, Hamilton and Encanto fans would easily recognize the mind behind this semi-rap song. New music also helped with the characterization of both Ariel and Prince Eric, but I’ll let you discover those on your first watch.

Still from The Little Mermaid live-action remake

The casting is phenomenal, too: Javier Bardem as King Triton and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, a gorgeous Prince Eric in Jonah Hauer-King, and voice acting from the likes of Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, and Awkwafina as Scuttle. The Rob Marshall-directed film, despite the naysayers, felt destined to inspire awe among new and old fans of The Little Mermaid. Seeing the film on IMAX, with the gorgeous underwater experience that only a live-action film can capture, was a visual treat.

While the animated version focused on the love story between Ariel and Prince Eric after that shipwreck rescue, which made her desire to be on land driven by sheer infatuation, the live action gave me a more nuanced take. Bailey’s Ariel was stubborn yet fiercely independent, wanting freedom and knowledge that the world above water holds aside from the affection of the prince.

Hauer-King’s Prince Eric, meanwhile, wasn’t just royalty that the palace wanted to marry off to a princess from a faraway land. He longed for the same things that Ariel did, giving us more foundation and grounding a love-at-first-sight story into real compatibility. Individually, they were both adventurous dreamers who felt slightly out of place. They also both loved collecting, and trading in the animated version’s dinner scene for a night of looking at maps under the candlelight was a welcomed change. Instead of Ariel being on land for an idealized love, she was also learning to stand on her own two feet, literally. She recognizes the yearning in his eyes as her own—not just for romance, but also for growth.

Halle Bailey's Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King’s Prince Eric on The Little Mermaid live-action remake

The community scenes beyond the palace walls were also a good addition as they gave us a glimpse of Prince Eric’s humble ruling and Ariel’s fascination with humans. McCarthy also proved to be a versatile actress as Ursula, this being the first time I ever saw her be a villain despite being known for her comedic roles. A twist in Ursula’s binding agreement with Ariel about not remembering her purpose of getting a true love’s kiss from Prince Eric made the much-awaited Kiss the Girl performance hilarious. It left us holding our breaths even when we already knew the kiss wasn’t happening that soon into the film. 

Melissa McCarthy's sea witch Ursula on The Little Mermaid 

One difference from the animated film was that Sebastian’s passion for being a composer was set aside, and Ariel’s sisters weren’t able to do the Daughters of Triton performance in the beginning. If I were to change something about the movie, I would have loved to see more of the sisters as they were a beautiful and diverse bunch with Lorena Andrea as Perla, Simone Ashley as Indira, Kajsa Mohammar as Karina, Nathalie Sorrell as Caspia, Karolina Conchet as Mala, and Sienna King as Tamika. Showcasing their talents, as the animation did, would have given the movie the pop of color it needed, and a closer look at the family that Ariel was leaving behind so the weight of her decision gave viewers the opportunity to think twice.

The live-action version felt a bit more serious emotionally and visually that we almost forgot that Ariel was just a sixteen-year-old mermaid enamored by a handsome man, a fact made apparent in the animation. Really, though, I get it. Like Ariel, I would also cross oceans for someone I love, if I didn’t live in a world that makes choosing love over anything that's just as important feel like a mistake. 

This sense of reality and maturity, which is often the curse of live-action remakes, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. The coming-of-age depiction of Bailey’s Ariel was the push that the story needed to steer it toward the direction of healing; a father letting his daughter go for her own happiness. In the end, it wasn’t just for a man. Ariel had a bigger purpose: to leave home, have her own adventures, seek knowledge, and have merpeople and humans live in harmony—all with the love of her life by her side. It’s a good reminder that it doesn’t always have to be one thing or the other. Ultimately, there is always room for love in whatever spaces we take up, may it be land or sea.

Halle Bailey as Ariel on The Little Mermaid live-action remake

The Little Mermaid live-action remake will hit Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, May 24. Watch the official trailer below.