“The Little Mermaid” is better than the vast majority of these movies, in that it stays true to the core of what people loved about the 1989 original while also expanding the story and characters in necessary ways. The literal fish-out-of-water tale of a mermaid who makes a Faustian bargain to explore the human world and pursue true love feels a little archaic in retrospect. Ariel is an inquisitive and rebellious teenager, but she basically goes from being a king’s daughter to being a prince’s wife. The classic Howard Ashman and Alan Menken tunes, which provide the heart and the backbone of the film, mostly remain intact here, including the insanely catchy, Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.” But in director Rob Marshall’s version, Ariel has greater depth and complexity, and the young woman chosen to play her more than rises to the challenge.
Halle Bailey is radiant in the title role: Expressive, energetic and infinitely likable, with a mixture of girlish sweetness and womanly spine. She finds refreshing new avenues into songs, story beats and even specific lines of dialogue that longtime fans have cherished from the original. And her rendition of “Part of Your World,” a tune we’ve all heard countless times, is unexpectedly stirring. Bailey is up for everything this role demands of her, both physically and emotionally, and she deserves to be a major star.
She benefits greatly from the fact that this “Little Mermaid” offers deeper character development for both Ariel and Prince Eric, which makes their relationship make actual sense beyond a quick, superficial attraction. (This expansion also results in a film that’s nearly an hour longer than the original, but it moves at a decent clip.) David Magee’s script provides parallels in how they’re both trying to break free of their protective parents’ expectations and assert their own identities and ambitions. As Eric, Jonah Hauer-King even gets his own “I Want” song, and there’s more to him than the typically blandly handsome Disney prince.