Don't worry: The Little Mermaid nails the songs, and that's what matters

 Ursula performs magic in The Little Mermaid
Ursula performs magic in The Little Mermaid

Each time Disney reaches back into its vast animation archive and says “let’s live action… this one!” to add to its roster of Disney Plus movies, there’s often a collection of groans online. Why? What’s the point? And just because you can, does it mean you should? The results are extremely varied  – for every Jungle Book (2016), there’s a Pinocchio (2022) – and would seem to point in the direction that perhaps some charming animated adventures are better off just staying in that format.

So hats off to director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), for undertaking perhaps one of the trickiest Disney films to translate into “real-life”: the underwater musical about singing mythical sea creatures. He told TechRadar that, on a scale of 1 to 10 of how daunting the project was at the beginning, it was an “11”, but through four years worth of CGI, puppetry, live-action acting, stunts and other movie magic, he’s made the underwater world come alive, just as the original 1989 The Little Mermaid imagined.

There’s always the fear that, like Tom Hooper’s 2019 film of Cats, these anthropomorphized creatures, in the flesh, will be incredibly creepy. But these mer-people are truly a staggering sight to behold, flipping, swimming and diving around in apparent zero-gravity underwater, while the story around them unfolds.

Halle Bailey shines as the titular lead, Ariel, who is essentially a classic rebellious teen who wants to go and hang out with boys, except she lives 20,000 leagues under the sea and is a different species; plus her dad – the mighty Javier Bardem, adding his heavyweight acting chops to proceedings – is King Triton, who doesn’t want her having anything to do with those nasty humans, particular since we think they may have killed Ariel’s mother.

Ariel sings while laying on a rock in The Little Mermaid
Ariel sings while laying on a rock in The Little Mermaid

When Ariel sings her siren song, or any of the original tracks by Alan Menken, it’s instantly obvious why Bailey (one half of the Chloe X Halle musical duo) landed the role: her incredible vocal skills. It’s a joy to hear her soar on 'Part Of Your World', and Menken’s collaboration with Hamilton and Moana hotshot Lin-Manuel Miranda has helped update the other classics, as well as freshening things up for the new-gen with three new songs. Here, Scuttle the seagull (played with gusto by Awkwafina) gets her own snappy song, while the heartthrob Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King) is given a chance to flesh out his character as an intrepid explorer with 'Wild Uncharted Waters'.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Disney without the arrival of a malevolent family member hell-bent on the downfall of others. Step up Ursula the sea witch, brought into full grotesque glory by Melissa McCarthy. She leans fully into the camp villain role, slithering around her sunken sea lair, tentacles creepily curling around, as she makes her famous devil’s pact with Ariel.

McCarthy lends the air of darkness that’s needed to counterbalance the sweet, cutesy nature of the bubbling love story, which culminates in quite a frightening and ferocious battle between good and evil. As the somewhat heavy handed moral of the story seems to suggest, ultimately we should be more accepting of people who are different to us, even if that means making good with mythical creatures under the sea.

Where the film excels is the recreation of some of the classic songs-as-spectaculars. The 'Under The Sea' (sung by Sebastian the crab; the highly entertaining Daveed Diggs) sequence is the stand-out, as well as being a great rendition of probably the most famous song of the film (and possible the whole Disney canon).

While Digg’s version is spot-on, it’s the matching visuals of the song that will truly blow viewers away: colorful blooms of sea creatures dancing around; shoals of tropical fish exploding across the screen like deep-sea fireworks.

King Triton looks menacingly at something in The Little Mermaid
King Triton looks menacingly at something in The Little Mermaid

The out-of-water scenes are a little less enthralling, and the spell slightly gets broken towards the end when the merpeople rise above sea level. Out in the harsh daylight, the costumes and accessories appear slightly cheapened, as opposed to the shimmering majestic appearance underwater.

And with the film clocking in at two hours – almost 40 minutes more than the original animation – it might have a few people, especially kids, itching for it to end a little sooner. That space hasn't been filled with more jokes or extra-fun touches, despite the additional songs – much like The Lion King (2019), it just seems to have ballooned.

But for fans of the original and for a new generation of viewers, the movie works as a fantastical new journey into one of Disney’s most loved stories.

  • The Little Mermaid is in movie theaters in the UK and US on May 26, 2023.

  • It is expected to arrive on Disney Plus later in 2023