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Is The Little Mermaid Neat?

How many wonders can one cavern hold? Just one: Halle Bailey. Photo: Disney

Halle Bailey is great, this much we can agree on as a society, as a people, as a group of critics. The rest of The Little Mermaid … who knows? The reviews for Disney’s new live-action adaptation of its 1989 film The Little Mermaid, in theaters May 26, seem like Halle Bailey as the little mermaid herself is everybody’s favorite part. Meanwhile, the visuals are consistently derided, while the added songs are considered unhelpful at best and worthy of outright condescension at worst. Melissa McCarthy as Ursula is divisive, as is whether or not a remake is even a worthwhile task to begin with. Some reviewers championed the idea that the film’s newfound diversity (mainly through a Black Ariel and her diverse set of sisters) could be inspirational to the children seeing the film, while others did not find that to be reason enough for a (worse) remake of a classic film. Below, find a collection of reviews that wonder: Is it neat?

“The sonic and visual dimensions lack the elastic flair of John Musker, Ron Clements, Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken’s earlier creation. The 1989 movie was a seamless, frothy confection. The 2023 remake is a ragged mess. (Though perhaps not quite as visually muddled as trailers and clips would have you believe.). The night scenes and a good portion of what occurs underwater is in fact hard to parse out in its visual details, as if a coating of dishwater has been placed upon every frame; there’s no visual levity. And while this Little Mermaid begins in more colorful fashion, the vibrancy is leached from the movie as it marches on, checking off the beats of the original while adding nothing to justify a revamp. Its biggest misstep is the decision to make the once animated animals creepily photorealistic, exiling the movie to an uncomfortable uncanny valley where the dead eyes of Ariel’s aquatic friends attempt to ferry the story along. The musical approach is egregious, too, the tweaks made to the featherlight originals feeling laborious more than anything else. (Where’s that great bodyyy language line from ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’?) What’s added to the life of the film — like Prince Eric’s time waste of a song and the aforementioned Awkwafina rap — brings no joy.” —Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture

“Marshall’s The Little Mermaid resembles a lot of recent Disney offerings: It’s sentimental, at times uneven and padded to weather controversy. There’s a nagging sense of risk-aversion — narratively, at least — and that wariness makes the fun it does have feel sanctioned. Like other live-action remakes, The Little Mermaid is a neatly packaged story ribboned with representational awareness. There’s enough in it to fill an evening, but it doesn’t inspire much more than a passing sense of déjà vu.” —Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter

“What is marvelous is this more diverse world of characters and a new Disney princess in Bailey. Her Ariel is so radiant that she seems to possess the properties of bioluminescence, absolutely glowing in every scene. Like the screen actors of the past who began as silent creatures, conveying the panoply of human emotion with looks and gestures rather than dialogue, Bailey has a similar task for a portion of the film when Ariel gives up her voice. It’s engrossing to watch how much story she can tell with only her eyes or the tilt of her head. It’s a type of performance and incumbent stardom we rarely see anymore.” —Maureen Lee-Lenker, Entertainment Weekly

“If these films are to have any purpose beyond being nostalgia-powered cash-ins, it must be to allow all children — not just the white ones — to see themselves as Magic Kingdom denizens. But almost everything else about this flops about like a dying fish on deck. Most significantly this applies to the trio of comic-relief characters: Sebastian the crab, Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seabird. This is no fault of the talented voice cast: Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina, respectively. It’s just that things that are cute or funny when done by an anthropomorphised cartoon cuddlies are no longer cute or funny when done by computer-generated sea-life approximates with no recognisable facial expressions.” —Ellen E. Jones, The Guardian

“If Bailey is the film’s big discovery, then McCarthy is its no-brainer. Dolled up to look like Divine’s evil-stepsister in her glowing green lair, the comic star’s just delicious as the movie’s deep-sea villain. Her timing is impeccable, and though the part is virtually identical to the one Pat Carroll originated, she aces what’s demanded of these tricky remakes: Basically, McCarthy manages to hit every beat the super fans expect, while surprising with every pause and inflection. Between Bailey’s wide-eyed urchin and McCarthy’s over-the-top octo-hussy, the movie comes alive — not in some zombified form, like re-animated Disney debacles Dumbo and Pinocchio, but in a way that gives young audiences something magical to identify with, and fresh mermaid dreams to aspire to.” — Peter Debruge, Variety

“‘Poor Unfortunate Souls,’ Ursula’s seductive, brassy number, is undercut by the same lack of visual thoughtfulness. The original pays special attention to the character’s lips, teeth, and her heft to give the song and the character unflinching menace. In Marshall’s recreation, McCarthy sounds grand, but her CGI’d kraken body is almost flimsy. There’s no spookiness, no slither. It also doesn’t help that the scale of her lair seems to shift with the beat of the song. At one point she floats away into a speck. Eaten up by the enormity of her cavern, and Marshall’s choice to avoid McCarthy’s face, Ursula almost feels a little harmless.” —Alex Abad-Santos, Vox

“Yes, it’s often as dark and murky as early previews have let on (listen, we get it, it’s under the sea, but can’t we take some creative liberties for a story that’s also about mythical sea creatures?). Yes, most of the musical sequences are cribbed directly from the 1989 animated feature, and are less effective, moving, and emotional when translated to live-action moviemaking. (Both ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Kiss the Girl’ are bangers, fun and beautiful, but their live-action rendering will likely only make audiences want to run home and cue up the animated versions post-haste.) Yes, Flounder’s newly flattened fish visage is truly terrifying. (One winner in the glowed-up animal pal sweepstakes: Daveed Diggs’ Sebastian the crab, who remains the supreme sidekick in both versions.)” —Kate Erbland, IndieWire

Is The Little Mermaid Neat?