Do we really need a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” the 1989 animated Disney musical beloved by generations? Probably not. But is the new movie, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Halle Bailey as the titular mermaid Ariel who wants to be a human girl, nonetheless adorable? Absolutely. And did I, too old to have grown up with the original and presumably too jaded to be moved by singing mermaids, tear up a bit at the end? Well, yes, but you can blame Javier Bardem, who can do the gaze-of-a-loving-father thing to perfection, even when decked out with a merman tail.
Marshall and Disney have, not surprisingly, employed an enormous budget for this endeavour, and the result is a film that feels far bigger, sometimes uncomfortably so, than its predecessor. (The animated film is 82 minutes; the new one is 135, despite having basically the same plotline.) The aquatic CGI is gorgeous and colorful and kind of a lot; it feels miraculous at first, with the mermaids’ floating hair and the iridescent fishtails, but after a while you start noticing that too many of these scenes are a bit murky, even for underwater. One glorious exception: “Under the Sea,” everyone’s favorite jam from this movie, rendered with Daveed Diggs’ joyous vocals as Sebastian the crab, and performed by an enchanting rainbow of sea creatures.
But technology can only take you so far; what makes a Disney film work is heart, and Marshall’s found that in his impeccable cast. The voice trio of Diggs, Awkwafina (as Scuttle the sea bird) and Jacob Tremblay (as Ariel’s fish friend Flounder) are funny and charming; particularly Diggs, who brings world-weary wit to lines like “I’m an educated crustacean!” Bardem, without a lot of screen time, has a majestic presence as Ariel’s father, King Triton, as does the elegant Noma Dumezweni as a newly created character, the Queen. Melissa McCarthy, her voice pitched to a bottom-of-the-sea register and her eyebrows impeccably arched, deliciously vamps it up as the evil Ursula, having a ball with lines like “I’ll use her as a prawn in my little game.” (Did we know that McCarthy can sing like nobody’s business? She tackles Ursula’s signature song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” like she’s been waiting all her life to do so.) Jonah Hauer-King, a handsome fellow with a big singing voice, is the perfect romantic charmer as Prince Eric.
And ultimately, the film rests comfortably on the artfully scaly shoulders of Bailey’s Ariel, a sea princess who needs no human male to save her, but who nonetheless pines for a life in the sunshine. Bailey gives a glowing performance of effortless starshine; her singing voice has both sweetness and power, and her smile is the sort on which dreams dance. Watching her gracefully somersaulting through the water — her silvery tail towed, at one point, by Sebastian’s tiny pincer — you can’t help feeling something not present enough on screens these days: joy. Maybe we did need this movie after all.