Review: The Little Mermaid clears low bar to be best Disney live-action remake

The first half of The Little Mermaid remake is phenomenal, breathtaking and renewed my faith in Disney. Second half's not bad.

I'm assuming most people are at least somewhat familiar with the story of The Little Mermaid at this point. Ariel is a mermaid whose, if I'm being honest, size is never really focused on and she longs to explore the human world. Of course due to a decades-long hatred between merpeople and humans, their worlds can never meet.

She goes around her father's back and makes a deal with the sea-witch Ursula to become human for three days and has to seal true love with a kiss in that time or else return to the sea and be subservient to Ursula forever.

Aside from the obvious mermaid features, Ursula also takes away her voice, leaving her to woo a prince while mute.

I've always found the second half of The Little Mermaid to be weaker. Once she ventures up on to land there's only really one good song after that point (I'm not talking about Les Poissons) and I've never found the climax all that remarkable. The difference in quality between the two halves is made staggering in the remake. So staggering in fact that I'll split this review in two.

The first half:

About half an hour into the film, around the performances of Part of Your World and Under the Sea I was shocked to find myself absolutely loving the film. I went into this very cynical, the trailers tended to emphasise how "realistic" everything looked, but unfortunately "realistic" just means drab and dreary.

The colour palate was so much brighter and more vibrant than the trailers let on. Any changes were either minor or actually improved the film. The new song in the first half, Wild Uncharted Waters is well, it's fine but it didn't detract from the film.

Melissa McCarthy's performance of Ursula was a breath of fresh air for what's been a run of pretty lifeless Disney live-action villains. Finally a villain who captures the campiness of the original!

Part of Your World is the best song to ever feature in a Disney film and Halle Bailey's version is now the definitive version as far as I'm concerned. In fact her performance across the entire film is the absolute highlight of the film.

The entire plot of The Little Mermaid is predicated on Ariel having an incredible singing voice and Halle Bailey couldn't fit that more. Maybe I'm getting softer in my older years but hearing her sing is the first time I've ever been moved to tears by a vocal performance. It's a star-making performance for Bailey who will be seen later this year in the musical adaptation of The Colour Purple.

Also I might be in the minority but I think that live-action Sebastian the crab is cute.

The second half:

As soon as Ariel ventures on to land, the pitfalls of Disney live-action remakes start to show themselves. We get a brand new song which Ariel sings in her head about how excited she is to be in the human world. It's not a bad song, but it feels shoehorned in at a time where we're supposed to be grappling with the fact she's lost her voice.

The staging of musical numbers becomes less interesting on land, any egregious additions to the runtime (the film is about 45 minutes longer than the original) are all in the second half and the new song Scuttle performs is one of the worst things I have ever heard.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote four new songs for the film as well as some new lyrics to the original songs. Lin is a once in a generation talent and I'm usually a fan of his, but when you're adding music to stand up next to the works of Howard Ashman who did the music in the original, it's going to be very difficult to stack up.

Ashman's songs are woven into the narrative and the man understood the language of musicals like very few before or since. You can't really just pop in a new song without it feeling like you're adding one in for the sake of it.

I'm maybe not as negative on the Disney live-action remakes as some. Other than a few I've found them to be mostly passable blockbusters and the latter half of The Little Mermaid is a mostly passable blockbuster.

Director Rob Marshall was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Chicago which went on to win Best Picture so he knows a thing or two about how to bring a musical to the screen which is a key element many of the directors of the live-action remakes seem to forget.

Guy Ritchie can shoot the heck out of an action scene, but when it comes to doing musical numbers in Aladdin, it was just wide shots on a sound stage with none of the kinetic energy or pace of the original or what we see in The Little Mermaid.

Overall the good definitely outweighs the bad, but I couldn't help feeling let down after the first hour of the film wrote so many cheques the second hour couldn't cash.

Also, cannot stress this enough... The Scuttlebutt should've been left on the cutting room floor. Just an awful, awful song.


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