Disney’s beloved animated classic The Little Mermaid gets the official live-action treatment. Will audiences make this adaptation a part of their world, or will they leave it sunk at the bottom of the ocean? Let’s dive in.

The Little Mermaid stars Halle Bailey as Ariel, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Javier Barden as King Triton, and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula. Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina lend their voices to Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle respectively. The film comes from director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns).

The Little Mermaid’s Iconic Music Is Back

Alan Menken composed an absolutely iconic soundtrack for Disney’s animated Little Mermaid. “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Under the Sea” all make their big live-action debuts in this movie. And if you haven’t heard by now (where have you been?) Halle Bailey is an incredibly talented singer. Her voice is beautiful, and perfect for Ariel. More than once her performance gave me chills. Bailey truly deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on her since the film’s first previews dropped.

New songs for the live-action story

The live-action Little Mermaid also adds a few new songs to accommodate the extended plot/runtime. Ariel gets an additional song to highlight some story exposition as she shifts from ocean to land life. It’s not particularly standout, but again, Bailey’s vocal talent easily carries it. Eric gets his own solo song, a love ballad full of flowery water metaphors. I don’t think the movie really needs it, but it’s fine. Finally, Scuttle gets a rap that delivers some important gossip (“the scuttlebutt”) to Ariel and Sebastian. Because this new entry is sillier, it feels like it fits in a bit better with the classic Little Mermaid songs.

Revisiting old favorites

Back in March, Menken caused a bit of a stir among Disney fans when he revealed the live-action Little Mermaid would change some of the classic songs’ lyrics for modern audiences. So let me say that a couple songs did change slightly, but it’s not a radical overhaul. You’ll only notice the changes to “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl” if you’re specifically looking for them. (Which, okay… a lot of fans of the animated movie probably will be.) 

For Ursula’s villain song, they simply drop the verse where she talks about men preferring women who don’t speak. (Yes, that means no “don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” And yes, I did miss this quite a bit.)

In “Kiss the Girl,” a set of lyrics are swapped. In the original, Sebastian sings,  “Possible she wants you too / There is one way to ask her / It don’t take a word / Not a single word / Go on and kiss the girl.” In the new live-action, the lyrics are instead, “Possible she wants you too / Use your words boy, and ask her / If the time is right and the time is tonight / Go on and kiss the girl.”

As much as I miss Ursula’s little extra flair, it’s not my biggest issue with the live-action songs. No, my weird soapbox-y complaint is actually about how there are NO animals playing instruments during “Under the Sea”! Sure, the fish are dancing around, but the song is about them making music!! It’s right there in the lyrics!!! This was my favorite sequence in the animated film as a kid so maybe I’m a little biased here. I’m afraid it was a decision based on an attempt at “realism”, a sticking point for many of Disney’s forays into live-action adaptations.

The live-action of it all

Full disclosure, when Disney announced plans to make The Little Mermaid live-action, I didn’t care for the idea. Personally, I think the animated medium really serves the original story. Seeing the movie didn’t entirely change my mind on the matter; however, I will say much of it looked a lot better than I anticipated.

(L-R): Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For instance, I absolutely loved the look of Ariel’s mermaid tail. The designs for all the other mermaids in the film also look great. I know kids seeing this movie are going to hit their “I want to be a mermaid” phase full-throttle when they get a look at these characters. I loved Ursula’s glowing tentacles, too, and the bright variety of ocean creatures on display during moments like “Under the Sea.” The land sets, including the seaside castle and the bustling marketplace, were also charming.

Everything can’t be a winner though. Still solidly sitting in the “no” category for me? Ariel’s animal sidekicks making the jump to live-action. It’s been said many times before, so I won’t harp on it too much here, but Disney’s attempts to make live-action animals as emotive and personable as their animated counterparts just hasn’t worked. Sorry, but I’m choosing animated Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle any day.

Revamping Ariel & Eric’s romance

Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID

Expanding Ariel and Eric’s relationship is definitely the best part of the live-action Little Mermaid. Thanks to nearly an hour more of runtime – and modern sensibilities about relationships – the movie gives us a lot more to develop their friendship and romance.

I loved seeing Eric share his own collection of treasures with Ariel. It gives the pair something to bond over early on, and demonstrates that they share the same curiosity for the world and adventurous spirit with one another. Their dance in the market and the scene where Ariel uses the stars to silently teach Eric her name were also great additions. Getting to see their bond take shape makes the arrival of Ursula-in-disguise even more impactful.

Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat?

A few other miscellaneous notes:

  • Halle Bailey truly radiates Disney Princess energy. Beyond her beautiful singing voice, she really brings the endearing charm, innocence, and determination so characteristic of Ariel.
  • The Little Mermaid hints at significant conflict between land and sea dwellers, which could have been an interesting angle for the story to explore. Instead, the conflict just disappears when Ariel and Eric get married. I wish the movie would have done more with this.
  • Sacre bleu! For whatever reason, the Chef character from the animated version doesn’t make the jump to live-action. No “Les Poissons” here.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for a fun cameo from Jodi Benson (the original voice of Ariel) during the market scene!
Halle Bailey; The Little Mermaid; Disney; A World Reimagined

The seaweed is always greener…

The Little Mermaid was one of my favorite Disney animated films growing up, and I don’t think this live-action version can fully compete with my love and nostalgia for it. That said, viewed as its own standalone feature, the live-action The Little Mermaid still delivers plenty of mermaid magic. I can easily see a new generation of kids getting wrapped up in this story, falling in love with the characters and the music. It may not be my favorite trip under the sea, but it’s still a trip worth taking.

The Little Mermaid premieres in theaters May 26.