Review by Daniel Blackaby May 25, 2023
The Little Mermaid (Christian Movie Review)
Verdict: With enough of the original’s charm, some new additions that don’t distract too much from the familiar tale, and a more-than-capable lead actress, the live-action remake is an enjoyable return to under the sea.
About The Movie
By now, you probably already have an opinion on whether Disney’s decision to remake their classic animated films is a fun reimagining or a corporate cash-grab (or both), so we don’t need to waste time rechurning that sea. The live-action remakes have been largely hit or miss. With some drab-looking trailers and press tour quotes that seemed to counter-productively focus on the apparent bad or harmful aspects of the original, my personal anticipation for Little Mermaid was resting firmly on the ocean floor. Yet, with enough of the original’s charm, some new additions that don’t distract too much from the familiar tale, and a capable lead actress, the live-action remake is an enjoyable and worthy return to the sea.
Halle Bailey is our new Ariel. Any concerns or doubts about her casting are quickly put to rest. She easily captures the charming inquisitiveness of the finned princess. Where she really shines, though, is with her powerhouse voice. The way she belts out “Part of That World” will quickly have any skeptics surrendering their critical voices to Ursula the Sea Witch.
Speaking of the music, the classics return and remind us why they are classics. Although, the shift to live-action does alter their presentation. In the animated version, during “Under the Sea,” the anthropomorphic sea creatures play instruments and perform in amusing ways life-like fish cannot. The movie does its best to work within this limitation and mostly succeeds, although it does surrender some of the whimsical fun. There are also several new songs that won’t be classics, although they are fine additions. One musical number takes place inside Ariel’s head, a clever way to keep Halle Bailey’s vocal presence in a story in which she has no voice. The one exception is a song called “Scuttlebutt,” which is so painfully obnoxious that it almost single-handedly derails the film.
Visually, the “live-action” depiction of life under the sea is occasionally a captivating spectacle, although the colors don’t pop with the vibrancy of the 2D animated version, and some of the CGI blending is noticeable and unconvincing. Flounder, Ariel’s previously adorable fish companion, now looks like a being from the depths of my nightmares, although the new take on Sebastian surprisingly works, and he is as delightful as ever.
For all the concern about “modernizing” a classic, the movie remains mostly faithful to the original. Most viewers likely won’t even notice the small lyrical changes. The story additions add rather than detract, such as making Eric a more developed character, even if the film’s runtime feels about 20 minutes too long.
Overall, Little Mermaid is a competent and enjoyable reimagining of the classic Disney tale. It likely won’t convince anyone already philosophically opposed to these remakes, but for audiences looking to experience a classic story in a new way, the movie has enough to draw them in with Halle Bailey’s alluring siren-like voice.
On the Surface
Language: Several rude insults (“you idiot”).
Violence: None. A villain is killed in the same way as in the original, but it is not graphic.
Sexuality: Although the mermaids (and mermen) are actually more modestly dressed than in the animated version, the shift to live action does mean that there is more real-life human flesh on display. It’s nothing more than can be seen at a pool, but some viewers might find it a bit more sensual than in the original. Melissa McCarthy made headlines for declaring that her take on Ursula was “inspired by drag,” but there is nothing noticeably different in her portrayal than was evident in the original (which was already largely drag-inspired). During one song, she adjusts her breasts. Her garments are somewhat suggestive, but not overly concerning.
Other: There is plenty of magic in the film. Ursula is a sea witch and does magic using her caldron. Human characters talk of the “sea gods.” There is also plenty of child rebellion, as both Ariel and Eric frequently defy their parent’s wishes.
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
The story was already a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers from two different worlds, but the live-action version doubles down on this element. There is more backstory and character development for Prince Eric, which positions his own desires as a sort of mirror for Ariel. Both characters struggle to fit into their “worlds” and resist the prejudices of their parents/guardians. Even casting a black actress to play Ariel lends a more real-world connection to this theme, with the film intentionally showing how the “youth will lead the way” in overcoming old biases and forging new relationships between different people groups.
Classic Tale in a Modern World
Some of the worldview seeps through in how the classic tale is reimagined for today’s world, something especially evident in the choice to change some of the lyrics.
A verse has been removed from “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” in which Ursula implies that women don’t need a voice because men don’t care or value it. Obviously, that message is unacceptable in today’s world. But even in the original context, it was clearly a case of a villain manipulating Ariel with lies, making the alteration feel like an overreaction.
The lyrics in “Kiss the Girl” were also altered, making it more appropriate in a #MeToo world. The original song includes these lyrics: “Yes, you want her / Look at her, you know you do / Possible she wants you too, there is one way to ask her / It don’t take a word, not a single word / Go on and kiss the girl.” The live-action version has been altered to emphasize the importance of consent: “Use your words, boy, and ask her / If the time is right and the time is tonight / Go on and kiss the girl.”
Another difference is that part of Ursula’s curse on Ariel is that she has no memory that she must kiss Eric within three days, thus removing any element of manipulation. It does feel a bit contrived, but it adds maturity to their romance. Yes, it is still a fairytale in which strangers fall in love at first meeting, but there is also an element of the relationship that is built on trust and enjoyment of each other’s company rather than pure infatuation.