The latest in a growing line of live-action remakes, The Little Mermaid has been plagued by controversies since Halle Bailey, a black singer and actress, was announced to play the titular role. Then it was announced that changes would be made to “offensive” lyrics in the original songs, leading to further outcry.
Since its release, a flood of bad reviews to online film sites has led to cries of “review bombing” and a call for revisions to film database algorithms. But despite the controversies and reviews, the film opened to an enormous box office of nearly $120 million.
Overall, The Little Mermaid is a lackluster adaptation with a lot of issues. The CGI is a mess, and Javier Bardem as King Triton seems very out of place. Melissa McCarthy is campy in the most delightful way as Ursula the sea-witch, but a funny villain isn’t enough to save an uninspired redo.
Yet if you’re looking for something fun to watch to kickstart summer, I still think The Little Mermaid may not be such a bad idea. This film has at least one great thing going for it, and that’s Halle Bailey.
Halle Bailey’s Ariel Is a More Feminine and Nuanced Character – and a Much Nicer Daughter
If there’s one thing that has always bothered me about the original Little Mermaid, it’s just how disrespectful Ariel is to her father. She doesn’t just disobey his orders – she’s combative and seems bent on rebelling against him just to prove a point. “I’m 16 years old,” she says with a toss of her hair, “I’m not a child anymore.” She almost feels like a poster child feminist figure, rebelling against the patriarchy.
In the remake film, however, the tone is different from the outset. When Ariel first misses the Coral Moon meeting, she genuinely apologizes to her father for missing it. She disagrees with him about humans, but tries to do so respectfully. She is more innocent and less angry than her animated predecessor. Halle Bailey emphasizes all of Ariel’s softest, most feminine traits, and in turn, makes the character more endearing.
Throughout the film, Bailey also plays Ariel as a much more conflicted character, torn between her love for her father and family and her longing to know about the unknown world of humans. When King Triton storms at her for going to the surface, demanding a promise that she will never do so again, Ariel flinches in real pain. “I can’t. I can’t lie to you.” The situation is complex, and we can see both perspectives – always a sign of good storytelling.
All of this is without mentioning Bailey’s phenomenal voice, which is given as much screen time as possible with a new song by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which expresses Ariel’s inner thoughts when she first comes to the castle. Bailey’s vocal expression is superb, making the new song one of my favorite parts of the new Little Mermaid.
Eric and Ariel’s Romance Gets More Screen Time
From the moment Ariel sets eyes on Eric, the remake also develops the love story more deeply than the animated original does. As Ariel eavesdrops from a lifeboat, Eric argues with Sir Grimsby at the thought of being stuck at home and isolated from the world. “I want to be a different kind of leader,” Eric says with passion.
This is the moment when Ariel first falls in love with him, and it’s not just because they are both longing for adventure and “uncharted waters.” She becomes caught up in Eric’s vision of the way the world could be. She doesn’t just fall in love with his handsome face – she wants to become a part of the mission with which he lives his life.
Proving that Bailey is more than just a good singer, Ariel is just as strongly present after giving up her siren song. She and Eric bond over his secret room of treasures. She shows him new uses for the sea shells and rocks he has collected, and he teaches her the geography of the world above.
Much of the additional 50 minutes of runtime in the live-action remake is devoted to building the world on Eric’s island, and then allowing Eric and Ariel to spend time in it. In some of the most charming moments of the film, the pair travel to Eric's home island, where Ariel’s delight in even the most ordinary things teaches him a new way of seeing his homeland.
The updates to the famous “Kiss the Girl” number are relatively small, and instead focus on the need for Eric to take initiative in their relationship. In this version of the story, Ursula has slipped a forgetfulness potion into Ariel’s magic spell, and Ariel instantly forgets that Eric needs to kiss her in order for her to remain human. Ariel isn’t waiting for a kiss because she doesn’t have the voice to ask for one – she doesn’t know she needs one at all. This shifts the meaning of “Kiss the Girl” in a way I think is positive. Instead of a song about giving yourself permission to kiss a girl who likes you, it becomes a song about Eric taking responsibility for starting their relationship.
Hans Christian Anderson Is Still Missing in the Remake
If there is one big way that The Little Mermaid falls short, it’s for missing out on the chance to tie the film’s story closer to the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.
Anderson’s tale is much darker than the Disney animated film. In the fairy tale, Ariel gives up her voice for the chance of winning a human soul if the prince falls in love with her. But when he falls in love with another, Ariel is given a choice: She can kill the prince and return to her watery home or let him live and die herself. She chooses death instead of harming the man she loves and discovers that she will be given a chance to earn a soul as a daughter of the air.
The new film has a promising beginning, with a shot of billowing waves over which is superimposed a quote from the short story: “But mermaids have no tears and therefore they suffer more.”
Yet the promise of this quote – that this version of the story will be more Hans Christian Anderson than late ‘80s Disney – never finds its footing. Every major plot point of the new film follows the lead of the animated classic. There is no talk of human souls, or what happens to a creature without one. It’s no different from the animated film – but including more source material is a change to The Little Mermaid that I would have enjoyed.
Disney’s new The Little Mermaid has plenty of flaws, and fails to bring in more elements from the Hans Christian Anderson story. But by the power of a stellar performance from Halle Bailey, this story still holds power the second time around. With a more mature heroine and more mature romance, The Little Mermaid still reminds us that love is more powerful than our mistakes.
Support our cause and help women reclaim their femininity by subscribing today.