Admirers of the beloved 1989 animated classic “The Little Mermaid” are justified to approach the new live-action adaptation with trepidation. As Disney has systematically raided its archive for intellectual property to repurpose (and, more to the point, remonetise), the results have been wildly uneven: For every better-than-expected “Jungle Book” and “Cinderella,” audiences have been subjected to far more misfires on the order of “Aladdin.”
This outing, which stars the incandescent Halle Bailey in the title role, would never qualify as a disaster, although at a padded-out two-hours-plus, it occasionally feels like an unnecessarily heavy lift.
Director Rob Marshall knows his way around a spectacle, but it bears recalling that even his “best” film, the 2002 musical “Chicago,” is a choppy, over-edited mess.
Here, his judgement is similarly uneven: Enlisting Bailey as the adventurous, headstrong mermaid Ariel was his most controversial decision, but also a stroke of pure inspiration; other casting choices, however, don’t work nearly as well. If you need a few new songs to play well with the work of the great Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who wouldn’t give Lin-Manuel Miranda the gig?
Here, the gambit mostly works, except when it decidedly doesn’t.
And so it goes with an on-the-other-fin mixed bag of a movie that honours its source material with a big, colour-saturated production, while never precisely proving that it ever needed to exist.
Perhaps, though, introducing Bailey to a mass audience is reason enough. After a preamble in which we meet Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), a dimpled sailor who also happens to be a prince, “The Little Mermaid” introduces us to Ariel’s watery home, where she lives with her sisters under the oppressive eye of her father, King Triton, portrayed by a virtually unrecognisable Javier Bardem.
As the movie gets underway in earnest, so do the original’s best production numbers: “Under the Sea,” performed by Sebastian the crab (delightfully voiced by Daveed Diggs), as well as the classic what-the-girl-wants song “Part of Your World.” It’s here that “The Little Mermaid” reveals the truth: This isn’t a live-action film as much as a CGI extravaganza featuring sentient human beings manipulated to look weirdly two-dimensional even when they’re not.
In Bardem’s case, the results are forbiddingly cold and inert, and Awkwafina wears out her welcome quickly in a screechy, strident vocal turn as Scuttle the seagull. (Her big number, a rapid-fire rap song co-written by Miranda, is sure to divide audiences.) Although Hauer-King has the film’s most thankless role as the blandly handsome Prince Eric, he sells the character’s new power ballad in his what-the-boy-wants scene. Melissa McCarthy similarly makes the most of her scene-stealing turn as Ursula the evil sea witch, belting out her big number (“Poor Unfortunate Souls”) with gusto, flawless comic timing, and fabulous hair and make-up.
The basics are all accounted for in “The Little Mermaid,” which Marshall sets on a 19th-century Caribbean island ruled by Eric’s mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) — who adopted her White son as an orphan. If this newly inclusive adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable is gracefully addressed by its tropical, cosmopolitan setting, the story’s sexual politics aren’t fixed quite so easily: The plot still revolves around Ariel losing her voice to find the love of her life — while not losing the approval of her pathologically controlling father.
Still, for viewers who can overlook those anachronisms, this “Little Mermaid” yields its own rewards, by way of a sumptuous production design and lively, expertly choreographed set pieces; Ariel’s enchanting undersea forest often rivals “Avatar” for sheer colour and beguiling imagery.
Most dazzling, though, is Ariel herself, portrayed by Bailey with such sparkle and such exquisite vocal artistry that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Bailey nails the iconic moments (that head toss) and the high notes, but also her character’s combination of spunk and innocence. She delivers a lovely performance that’s all the more accomplished for being delivered amid crashing waves, sweeping vistas and the crushing expectations of generations of fans. As a new generation’s Ariel, she makes “The Little Mermaid” her own — with confidence, charisma and oceans of charm.
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.