The live action remake of “The Little Mermaid” begins exactly the way you think it would. Rolling, raging waves gush as a Hans Christian Andersen quote appears in white froth: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
The opening scene’s severity braces the audience for emotional strain, something dark and dire that treads deeper than the original film’s conflict. Yet, the film swims through ordinary expectation, fishing through basic needs and leaving shells unturned. Halle Bailey as Ariel shines from the trenches, eyes curious and wide, but her part in “The Little Mermaid” is best defined as a pearl in the rough.
The classic 1989 animation depicts the journey of mermaid princess Ariel, who, to her father’s aversion, wants nothing more than to explore the human land. Bailey earnestly captures not just Ariel’s curiosity, but also the honest depth of her yearning — thankfully, under her guide, the film is imbued with at least some level of urgency.
From bursting, majestic fireworks to Ursula’s eerie lair to a glimmering lagoon, the movie’s CGI triumphantly submerges viewers in Disney’s classic magic. Distractingly, however, “The Little Mermaid” switches between classic cinematic smoothness and an unsteady handheld gaze, making for rocky transitions that end up distancing viewers.
The narrative goes mostly unchanged, expository nostalgia shallowly washing the film with radiance. As tension with her unyielding father (Javier Bardem) escalates, Ariel rashly decides to make a deal with the tentacled sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), her vengeful, estranged aunt, to become human and win over Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) on land. McCarthy offers a winsome performance, sinisterly bewitching and melodramatic to the extreme — an excellent foil to Bailey’s charisma and kindhearted captivation.
While Bailey whirls through the deep blue with a passionate wonder, Jonah Hauer-King doggy-paddles as Eric, committed to a performance that floats as surface-level. As entertaining as it is to see him do halyard gymnastics and insist on stormy sailing after a massive head injury, Hauer-King’s charm fizzles in comparison to Bailey’s natural starpower. Really, dimples are the deepest things about his character.
Brought to Eric by a fisherman, Ariel is welcomed into the castle with open arms, with the (completely insignificant) “twist” that she doesn’t remember her risky pact; if she fails to kiss Eric within three days, she belongs to Ursula. To help guide her forgotten mission, her cutesy oceanic ensemble rises up: Say hello to the opinionated crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), squawking seagull Scuttle (Awkwafina) and scaredy fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay). Ariel’s troupe brings some suitable appeal to the thick of the plot, though their charisma doesn’t always meet comedic marks. (Another sore point: the absence of Sebastian’s fabulous escape from Chef Louis).
Along with bumpy attempts at comedy, the hit-or-miss alterations to Alan Menken’s beloved soundtrack can’t be ignored. Brimming with longing, Bailey’s immaculate rendition of “Part of Your World” spotlights the singer’s vocal chops, and McCarthy essentially nails the over-the-top, engrossing “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” On the other hand, the initial allure of “Kiss the Girl” is interrupted by Awkwafina’s screech as Scuttle, and songs like the aggressively off-putting “The Scuttlebutt” (courtesy of, yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda) excruciatingly detract from any leftover cinematic enchantment.
“The Little Mermaid” hits the water May 26 — just in time for summer — and while it swells with nostalgia, it doesn’t rock the boat enough. With too little turbulence and only Bailey’s charm as its saving grace, the film rides a glossy wave of predictability, making it surprisingly airy and riskless. Rather than scaling up, “The Little Mermaid” barely makes a splash.