Disney has come a long way since Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971. The days of two-dimensional toons and hand-drawn backdrops are gone, replaced by CGI wizardry in the post-Avatar world. Rob Marshall’s new adaptation of The Little Mermaid, following James Cameron’s Way of the Water, achieves the once-impossible feat of a technically brilliant underwater musical. While it may not be as exceptional as David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, Marshall’s Little Mermaid is a fun film and a timely release for Summer at the cinema.

The film’s greatest asset is Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel. She brings a startling truth of feeling to the role, surpassing the emotional honesty of Emma Watson’s Belle and Mena Massoud’s Aladdin. When Bailey sings Part of Your World, her pitch-perfect vocals and gut-wrenching integrity leave a lasting impression. The racist backlash to Bailey’s casting now seems ludicrous to all but the most questionable of critics.

If anything, the only misstep in the casting is Jonah Hauer-King. He is undoubtedly a talented actor, and his portrayal of Prince Eric is charming and a good match for Bailey’s Ariel. However, the film fails to adequately justify the presence of a white, European prince in a Caribbean kingdom. Noma Dumezweni and Art Malik also deliver strong performances as Queen Selina and Prime Minister Grimsby, respectively.

The script briefly touches on issues of race, but it follows the same approach to diversity as Bridgerton. Some have criticized the casting of Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, as they believe a drag performer would have been a better choice. However, McCarthy delivers a strong performance with an energetic delivery that is some of her best work in years, despite the clunky exposition in the first half of the film. There may have been a missed opportunity with the original animated design based on queen Divine, but it’s hard to fault McCarthy’s performance.

Although an initial quote from Anderson suggests a darker retelling of the classic tale, the movie itself stays true to the 1989 original with some added elements. Ariel is portrayed as the youngest daughter of King Triton, played by Javier Bardem, who dreams of a life beyond the sea. Despite resistance from Sebastian, the calypso crab voiced by Daveed Diggs, Ariel is determined to pursue her dreams, especially after meeting a charming prince with added personality. The film emphasizes Ariel’s agency in making her own choices, and Eric’s role is limited to the sacrifices she makes. The mermaid’s song is portrayed as a powerful symbol of individuality, which Ariel gives up for a chance at a human life.

The movie also includes three new songs by Menkin and Lin Manuel Miranda, including a power ballad for Eric and a showcase for Ariel’s lighter side. The standout performance is by Awkwafina, who voices the quirky gannet Scuttle in a rap number that will appeal to younger audiences. Miranda’s influence is evident in the film’s oceanic tone and vibrant visuals, with an array of colorful sea creatures and bioluminescent tentacles on Ursula. The island life scenes are also beautifully portrayed, without a cartoon lion in sight. Bardem’s performance as King Triton is the only lackluster aspect of the film.

By Lucy

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