The Little Mermaid: shipwreck or rescue?

On 24 May 2023, The Little Mermaid hit cinema screens for the second time. Directed by Rob Marshall, the live-action film is a re-adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tale, as well as Disney Studios‘ animated film The Little Mermaid (released in 1989).

I didn’t go with any particular expectations, having been disappointed by the latest live-action films (Cruella, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, etc.). However, I went out with a smile on my face and stars in my eyes: I was 4 years old again and I was rediscovering the story that had moved me so much on VHS. Admittedly, it’s not a great auteur film, and that’s just as well… Because that’s not what you ask of it. But the fact remains that it’s a lovely, enjoyable film… Let me explain! Warning: this review contains a few spoilers…

The Little Mermaid: Technical details

  • Original title : The Little Mermaid
  • Directed by : Rob Marshall
  • Soundtrack : Alan Menken 
  • Running time : 135 minutes

Writing and script

There’s no need to go back over the pitch, because everyone knows the plot by heart. The film remains faithful to the cartoon story while incorporating a few subtleties.

First of all, it opens with a quote from the original fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen : “A mermaid has no tears, so she suffers all the more.”

This sentence is far from insignificant, as it reactivates the tragic aspect of the Little Mermaid character that was lost in the cartoon. And indeed, an attentive viewer will not see a single tear roll down Halle Bailey’s cheeks until she becomes human.

Ursula‘s Pact also offers a major surprise. When Ariel transforms into a human, she instantly forgets the sine qua non for keeping her legs: kissing prince Eric. So the princess is indeed in love with him, but all her intentions are innocent and unselfish. It’s a clever subtlety of writing that makes the relationship between Ariel and Eric so much more authentic.

What’s more, the love between the two characters is much more fully developed here. They share real moments of complicity and are much more alike than in the animated film. In fact, like Ariel, Eric is a curious young man, eager to make discoveries and embark on adventures. The only slight flaw in the script is the introduction of a new character: Eric‘s mother (absent in the animated film). Her interventions add nothing to the plot, except to accentuate the Romeo and Juliet side of our lovers.

Score : 4/5


The production is effective, with very few overlong scenes and plenty of action. What’s more, many of the shots are identical to those in the animated version, much to the delight of fans of The Little Mermaid.

When the teaser was released, the film was the subject of much controversy, particularly the criticism that the seabed was too dark. Personally, I didn’t feel that way. The atmosphere is dark and scary when it serves the plot. This is the case when Ariel visits Ursula‘s castle. The latter, incidentally, is even more macabre than in the first version, with a mermaid skeleton on the floor. On the other hand, the sequence for the song ‘Under The Sea’ is festive and colourful.

The only drawback is the quality of the special effects, which is not always very pleasing. In fact, some of the cheap shots break the magic of the cinema. This is also the case for Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle, who appear bland and artificial… And what about a bird that can breathe underwater? Yes, for me, Ariel’s companions are the big failure of this film. It’s a shame because the Scuttle/Sebastian duo work rather well and act as a comic spring. On the other hand, the role of Flounder is reduced to nothing.

Score : 3/5


Now we come to one of the aspects of the film that has caused so much digital ink to flow on social networks. Let me remind you, for all intents and purposes, that Andersen‘s fairy tale describes the Little Mermaid as having transparent skin. So there’s no real or fake Ariel here. End of discussion. There’s no question of reopening this sterile debate.

Halle Bailey shows undeniable talent. She manages to bring to life the CGI characters who accompany her in the many scenes where she is alone with them. Without shedding a single tear (since mermaids are incapable of doing so), she conveys a whole range of emotions, notably through her warm, crystalline voice.

Ursula, in the guise of Melissa McCarthy, is terrific. She is the vibrant embodiment of the character we so love to hate. Her alter ego, Vanessa, is also brilliantly played by a cruel and dangerous Jessica Alexander.

Javier Bardem is a credible King Triton. He wears his authority and his beard rather well.

Jonah Hauer-King‘s performance as Eric is… okay. His acting isn’t stellar, especially opposite Halle Bailey. But his eyes and open shirt are sure to draw the audience’s attention.

Score : 3/5


The film features most of the songs from the animated version. So we’re delighted to welcome back :

  • ‘Part of your World’ – Ariel 
  • ‘Under the Sea’ – Sebastian and Ariel
  • ‘Poor unfortunate souls’ – Ursula
  • ‘Kiss the girl’ – Sebastian 

Only the song of the recital by Ariel‘s 6 sisters and that of the cook Louis (absent from the film) do not feature in the live-action version.

The songs are beautifully performed and I found it hard not to sing along to the lyrics at the cinema! The only downside was the slower, jazzier ‘Poor unfortunate souls’, which I didn’t enjoy as much.

But that’s not all! The surprise is the creation of new songs :

  • Fathoms bellows – Eric and his crew 
  • Wild uncharted Waters – Eric 
  • For the first time – Ariel 
  • The Scuttlebutt – Scuttle and Sebastian 

While Eric’s song and the (admittedly rather kitsch) performance in ‘Wild Uncharted Waters’ sent a friend and I into uncontrollable fits of laughter, I fell under the spell of ‘For the First Time’ and ‘The Scuttlebutt’. The former evokes the tunes of Broadway musicals, while the latter pits Sebastian and Scuttle against each other in a frenzied hip-hop beat. There’s no doubt about it, this is the modern style of Lin-Manuel Miranda, acclaimed for his work on Encanto.

Score : 4/5 

In a nutshell,

To sum up, the film is a success in the sense that it transposes the magic into our real world. It’s a pleasure to come back to our songs and our characters. Longer than its big brother from 1989, the film extends the magic and delves deeper into the characters. Admittedly, it could have been even better with the closure of all the narrative arcs mentioned, better quality CGI and a less slick prince Eric. However, the contract is kept and this live-action film ranks among the best (behind Cinderella and Aladdin, in my opinion). So, if there is a shipwreck, it’s only the hearts of the spectators that capsize (and the memories for the oldest grown-ups among us).

Overall score : 14/20

Passionate about writing and the world of fairy tales to the point of making it the subject of my thesis, the magic of Disney touched my cradle and never left me. From the enchantment of the princesses to the most incredible adventures, it is this pinch of dreams that has imbued my pen. Today, surrounded by a team of experienced Disneyans, I am happy and honored to extend the magic to everyday life.