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The Little Mermaid review! An African-American mermaid? Halle Bailey shuts the debate once and for all – Beyond Bollywood

Loyalists will have their say, but director Rob Marshall creates a beautiful, mesmerizing live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1989 cartoon film, which was inspired by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s literary classic.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✨️ (3.5 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

Is creative liberty justified if one digresses from the original? Disney faced the heat as The Little Mermaid loyalists didn’t warm up to the idea of an African-American mermaid. It didn’t take long for the #NotMyAriel to trend on social media. Hollywood must get rid of this woke culture. We heard that even in India.

Sitting seven seas away, this reviewer, too, initially was puzzled by the sight of a redhead African-American mermaid. We confess to walking in to the press show with some cynicism. Few hours later, we’re wondering what’s all this fuss about? The critics need to be reminded that Hollywood, Disney itself had made a sea change to the original Danish fairytale. Writer-playwright Hans Christian Andersen’s original 19th century classic is a poignant tale. Disney’s first adaptation, the 1989 cartoon film took great liberties.

Over three decades later, Disney have their first live-action adaptation of their 1989 classic.  The principal plot is pretty much the same. Director Rob Marshall, writer David Magee are wise in adding the African-American, certain Caribbean flavour to the mix.  The Little Mermaid is essentially a love story between ‘unequals’. It is about two worlds (land and water) that are never meant to meet. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is an ideal metaphor for bridging any divide. So, there can’t be a better mermaid than a black woman.

Within moments, Halle Bailey compels you to swim along with this Ariel. It’s never the color of the skin, but the soul that counts. It’s our introduction to Bailey and the American actor-singer impresses with her beauty, innocence, voice. Bailey truly imbibes Ariel’s inquisitive, child-like spirit. She speaks little, but charms us with her (singing). Once Ariel loses her voice, after a deal with the Sea Witch Ursula [Melissa McCarthy], our little mermaid has the child-like exuberance as she explores the human world.  Even through the final conflict, you seldom see any anger, vendetta to Bailey. How can anyone not be attached to this Ariel? Bailey’s virtuoso effort shuts the black mermaid debate once and for all.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid [2023]

As in the original, Ariel’s story is about a mermaid who is keen to explore the land.  In her young life so far, she’s often told by her six sisters, father King Triton that humans [mostly white sailors] are evil. Ariel never subscribed to that view, and often stressed that not all of them are bad. Here’s a black mermaid, rooting for humans, mostly white. How can Bailey not be the ideal mermaid? Ad nauseum, so be it! Meanwhile, Jodi Benson, the original Ariel, makes a miss-and-blink appearance.

Marshall adds more diversity through King Triton’s daughters of the SEVEN SEAS. It’s only natural to have names like Indira, Mala, Caspia, Tamika here.

Prince Eric [Jonah Hauer-King], too gets a new backstory. Here’s a white man, who was saved as a boy by the black queen Selina [Noma Dumezweni]. She raised him as her own. Hauer-King epitomizes your prince charming. There’s a certain desperation to Eric in finding the woman who saved him from drowning.  Hauer-King is fairly competent in his act.  If you are a stickler for chemistry, then maybe there is something missing between Jonah and Halle. How can one fall in love someone who you haven’t seen? Note, Eric was unconscious when Ariel saved him. Well, that’s why we have fairy tales.

Of all the characters, it’s Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula who has the most dynamic presence in the live-action film. McCarthy is sinister in her designs, and powerful in her singing of the Poor Unfortunate Souls.

Javier Bardem seldom disappoints as he shines as King Triton. The principal characters are classy, but Marshall’s reimagining of Sebastian [Daveed Diggs]. the crab and Scuttle [Awkwafina], the dimwit gannet is intriguing. Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder [tropical fish] are much more adorable in the 1989 cartoon film, but there is no dearth of humour in the Rob Marshall film. The CGI Scuttle in particular looks too hairbrained.  Live-action brings realism to such characters but the innocence, cuteness of the cartoon characters is somewhat lost in Marshall’s film. Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina, though, are mightily impressive in the voice performance. Diggs and Awkwafina’s duet Kiss the Girl is a total delight.

Alan Menken returns to score the soundtrack for Marshall’s film. Menken and co-producer Lin-Manuel Miranda have reprised classics like Part of Your World, Under the Sea but also added four new songs. Diggs’ Under the Sea is a Calypso cracker. Awkwafina’s Scuttlebutt is a new age rap. The Little Mermaid fans though will miss Rene Auberjonois’ Les Poissons from the original, this after Marshall cut out Chef Louis from his adaptation.

Disney gives you a more immersive visual experience, especially the final conflict. The IMAX, 3D version will only further enhance that experience. The production design, cinematography is top notch.

Back in 1989, the original had ended a slightly dry spell for Disney. The production giant now has a variety of content. Maybe fairytales aren’t quite the top draw, but Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid [2023] is a far better experience than Disney’s recent live-action adaptations of other classics – Aladdin, The Beauty and the Beast.

The Little Mermaid is set to be released in theatres worldwide on 26 May.

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