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Halle Bailey makes ‘The Little Mermaid’ her own

Disney’s remake of its 1989 animated classic is completely unnecessary. It’s also better than expected.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid."Disney

Disney’s remake raid on its properties continues with “The Little Mermaid,” a new version of the 1989 animated classic that kicked off the studio’s animation renaissance. “Chicago” director Rob Marshall’s film joins “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Jungle Book,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin” in the movie recycling bin.

Those retakes were of varying quality, but they shared one trait: They were all completely unnecessary.

Even “The Jungle Book,” a remake I thoroughly enjoyed, couldn’t shake the fact that it was a cynical money grab. Greed is good, as Gordon Gekko once intoned, and Disney is already preparing a new “Moana,” despite the original being barely seven years old. They’ll be happy to take your money — and your kids will make you give it to them.


This new “Mermaid,” in theaters Friday, hews so closely to the original that chunks of dialogue are lifted verbatim by screenwriter David Magee. The plot, taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s far more cruel story, still involves a mermaid who gives up her voice to a witch so she can pursue a really dull prince in the human world. All the Disney-created supporting characters return, from clueless bird Scuttle (Awkwafina) to worrywart crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs). And the songs you know and love are here as well, appearing exactly where you remember.

Except it now takes 52 minutes longer to tell the same story.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid."Disney

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made talking about Bruno a worldwide phenomenon in Disney’s “Encanto,” supplements the original Alan Menken and Howard Ashman song score with fresh material to help pad out the time. Most of his additions are below expectations; the new song given to Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), “Wild Uncharted Waters,” is staged like a cheesy Eurovision music video and belted as if the prince were auditioning for “American Idol.”


“OK that was bad,” I scrawled in my notebook once Prince Eric stopped yelling.

That was the sole truly negative thing I jotted down. For the most part, I had a good time at “The Little Mermaid.” The film is buoyed by its actors and some of its visuals. That latter element comes as a complete surprise; the clips Disney provided a few months ago were so dark that they made under the sea look like inside the septic tank. It’s no “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but Dion Beebe’s cinematography still pops with color.

Ariel is now played by singer Halle Bailey, one half of the sisterly R&B duo Chloe x Halle. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the torrent of racism that filled the Internet when she was cast. If the film performs below expectations, her casting will very likely be blamed for it.

Bailey is quite good. She has presence. Her face beams whenever she thinks about the human world, and you feel Ariel’s longing. It helps that she has one hell of a singing voice. Her version of “Part of Your World” is a knockout. Unlike the great Jodi Benson, who voiced 1989′s Ariel, Bailey is given more music to perform and an interior monologue that we hear once she gives up her voice to mean ol’ Ursula the Sea Witch.

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid." Disney

You can tell Melissa McCarthy is having a good time as Ursula. She’s funnier than Pat Carroll, but less threatening. Though her performance of the showstopping “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is memorable, it lacks the venom of the original (the drag queen influence is also missing, which was Ursula’s visual calling card). Disney’s decision to censor an entire section of the song, including Carroll’s immortal line “and don’t underestimate the importance of baaaaahdy language!,” dilutes McCarthy’s performance.


Removing Ashman’s lyric “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man” makes Ariel’s rash decision to sign away her voice inexplicable. There are other snips to lyrics in “Kiss the Girl” that aren’t as obvious, but they all seem like an overreaction by Disney.

The “Kiss the Girl” number is expertly staged, with Scuttle and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) providing humorous backup vocals. Alvin Ailey dancers were used to choreograph “Under the Sea,” the film’s best musical number. Diggs does a spectacular rendition of both songs. In fact, his Sebastian is the movie’s true star. Sure, the crab looks terrifying, but Diggs has comic timing and charm to spare.

Halle Bailey as Ariel and Javier Bardem as King Triton in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid." Disney

Adding to the star power, Javier Bardem plays King Triton, Ariel’s father. With his bare chest, majestic flowing beard, accented voice, and the suggestive way he holds his glowing trident, Bardem feels imported from an R-rated movie. It’s too bad Miranda and Menken didn’t give him a song.

The duo did give Awkwafina a song — a rap song, no less, with backup by Diggs. It’s called “The Scuttlebutt.” I pity you poor, unfortunate souls who hear it — because it will remain stuck in your head for eternity. You can decide if that’s a blessing or a curse. As for “The Little Mermaid,” it’s one of Disney’s better remakes. But don’t throw away your DVD of the original.




Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by David Magee, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen and the 1989 screenplay by Ron Clements and John Musker. Starring Halle Bailey, Daveed Diggs, Melissa McCarthy, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem. 135 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. PG (on the whole, the film’s a saint)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.