The Little Mermaid
Scuttle (left, voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

The Little Mermaid is one of Disney’s most loaded fairy tales, notably for celebrating a 16-year-old girl who gives up her voice to win a prince. In the years since the animated film’s 1989 release, critics have been vocal about the message the movie sent to young girls—one of silence, obedience, and willingness to do anything, including bargain with a sea witch, to get married. Famously, actor Keira Knightley said in 2018 about the film: “I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello.” And, try as it might over the past decade or two, Disney has never really modeled women’s empowerment; their princesses are typically White, Barbie-thin, and incredibly feminine, and there’s a straight love story at the core of almost every story. 

So how much can a live-action remake change? That’s the question that’s been rooting around in my brain since Disney announced a Little Mermaid remake. The answer, it turns out, is complicated. 

Maybe I should have opened this with a different disclaimer: I’ve loved The Little Mermaid since it was released on my fifth birthday. The defiant Ariel has always been my favorite Disney character, and there was a year of my life where I watched the animated version on repeat. (I’m sorry, Mom and Dad.) Like Knightley and thousands of other millennials, I’m torn. I love it and I’m very critical of it. 

So when the waves broke against the screen alongside a quote from Hans Christian Andersen’s original tragic tale—“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more”—I was nervous: What if I love this? What if I hate it?

Rob Marshall’s live-action version has been in the works since 2016. Most of the cast signed on to the project in 2019, which might explain the underutilization of Bridgerton’s Simone Ashley. That summer, it was announced that R&B singer Halle Bailey would play the titular Little Mermaid. Bailey made headlines: A Black Ariel had been cast, which caused a wave of racist trolls and troglodytes to storm the internet with their outrage over the race of a made-up creature who’s part fish. (Bailey is, in fact, the perfect Ariel, equal parts free-spirited, strongheaded, and enchanted by the human world.) Filming was meant to begin in early 2020, but COVID, of course, delayed production, allowing tension and anticipation for the film to bloom like algae. 

Finally hitting theaters this week, Marshall’s Little Mermaid, however, achieves everything you want from your basic fairy tale. It hews close, if not nearly identically, to the animated plot: Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton (hello, serious actor Javier Bardem), is obsessed with land and falls for Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), a human prince obsessed with the sea. As the song goes, she longs to be part of his world, but her dad isn’t having it, so an evil witch (who knew Melissa McCarthy was born to play Ursula?!) gets involved, spells are cast, voices are taken, and drama ensues. 

If you’re looking for a different story, you’ve come to the wrong theater. But some plot details and character traits have been retooled. Bailey’s Ariel has more agency in Marshall’s remake, her fascination with the human world being almost as strong as her feelings for Eric. Is she the ideal model for women’s empowerment? Certainly not. But from the opening notes of “Part of Your World,” it’s obvious why Bailey was not only cast but always the frontrunner for this role. The 23-year-old hits all the notes like a Broadway star, adding in moments of modern pop flare, but never veering far enough off course to irk the loyalists.  

This film also gives Eric a storyline—and a new song—that makes him a more complete character. As the White, adopted son of a Black queen (Noma Dumezweni), Eric is fascinated with the ocean and less interested in ruling; like Ariel, he “wants more.” This character development, for both Eric and Ariel, lays the groundwork for why and how they would be drawn to one another. And the connection they slowly form is subtle, sweet, and believable, even if she is voiceless.   

Halle Bailey as Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For anyone who’s ever raised an eyebrow at Sebastian’s Jamaican accent in the original, this film doesn’t change that either (Daveed Diggs lends his voice and pipes to Ariel’s cranky crab guardian). Instead, Marshall and screenwriter David Magee seemingly attempt to contextualize Sebastian’s accent by setting the above-land portion of the film in what appears to be an unnamed, semi-fictional Caribbean island nation. But it still raises an eyebrow. The townspeople have Caribbean accents, while Dumezweni’s queen has a distinctly British accent—as does Eric’s adviser, Grimsby (Art Malik)—but Eric’s accent is seemingly American. (Meanwhile, under the sea, Triton’s daughters from the seven oceans are a racially diverse gaggle of mermaids, including Ashley.) 

It’s an applaudable attempt at diversity—playing fast and loose with accents, and nationalities so that it feels like make-believe—but on screen it made me pause: Are Eric and his family colonizers? It’s unclear. But hey, at least both parents agree, in the end, that they’ve incorrectly judged the other species based on nothing but ignorance.

Visually, this Little Mermaid is stunning. It’s actually mind-boggling that Ariel is so hung up on land. Sebastian’s “Under the Sea” scene alone makes the mermaids’ world look like a technicolor paradise of bubblegum jellyfish and lush vegetation. 

Parts of the film are saccharine—like when Triton tells Ariel, “you shouldn’t have had to give up your voice for me to hear you”—but they’re trying to address the plot’s biggest critique, and, lest we forget, this is still a kid’s movie. And speaking of its status as a kid’s movie, there are also several new songs in the film. Written by the 1989 composer Alan Menken with lyrics from the overly earnest, often underwhelming Lin-Manuel Miranda, they don’t land as well as the originals. Eric’s sounds a bit like an Ed Sheeran deep cut, and “The Scuttlebutt” was clearly written to torment the current generation of parents who will be forced to watch this film on repeat. The song is sung/rapped by Awkwafina, who otherwise gives a hilarious performance as Scuttle the seagull. “Scuttlebutt” is an atrocious addition, an assault to ears everywhere, and a song I pray I never hear again.

So how much can a live-action remake change? Enough that I left the theater smiling. As I said, if you’re looking for a version where Ariel keeps her voice, you’ve come to the wrong place. But her agency isn’t tied to her voice and the argument could be made: What if we listened to what women wanted more often? Maybe then black market bargains wouldn’t be made. On the other hand, let’s not pretend Hollywood depicts healthy relationship goals. Not in fairytales, not in dramas. Instead, The Little Mermaid is a two-hour escape into an enchanted world. 

YouTube video

The Little Mermaid opens in theaters nationwide on May 26.