If Disney insists on regurgitating its classics, at least we can hope future retreads such as "Lilo and Stitch" do it as effectively as "The Little Mermaid" does.
Unlike many of these "live action" (there's still plenty of animation) remakes of animated masterpieces, there are reasons to revisit "The Little Mermaid" that don't have to do with Disney's bottom line.
For starters, that creepy "Les Poissons" song, in which a mad chef tries to cook winsome, singing creatures, has been excised. And the masochism of the 1989 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's story — in which title character Ariel basically gives up everything to smooch with the dullest character on screen — has become a more satisfying resolution that honors the story but brings it into the 21st century.
Fans will recognize most of this "Mermaid": Rebellious Ariel (Halle Bailey) chafes under the rules of dad King Triton (Javier Bardem). She spies pirates on a ship (the movie spends too much time with them), one of whom she falls for.
He's Prince Eric, who romances her after she saves him from a shipwreck. But, in a fishy take on "Romeo and Juliet," he's from the land and she's from the sea, so things can't work out until Ariel's evil aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) promises she can stay on land if the prince falls in love with her in three days — something Ursula then does everything she can to prevent from happening.
One thing that's almost inevitably disappointing about these remakes is that musical sequences that originally had the freedom to do just about anything, because they were drawn by imaginative craftspeople, became leaden attempts to recapture that magic (see, for instance, the difference between the Busby Berkeley marvels of the original "Be Our Guest" and the tedious Emma Watson "Beauty and the Beast"). That's not the case here, where director Rob Marshall ("Into the Woods") — with an assist from members of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company — finds ingenious ways to make the lively "Under the Sea" every bit as inventive and entertaining as the original.
"Under the Sea" is sung by original "Hamilton" actor Daveed Diggs, who supplies the voice of Ariel's crab pal, Sebastian. He's terrific, but the MVP of this "Mermaid" is the bad guy — who's almost always the most fun in Disney classics.
McCarthy goes back in time for her fresh take on Ursula, using a mid-Atlantic accent (which, for perhaps the first time ever, makes sense because she's in the middle of an ocean that might be the Atlantic) and bringing the villain to life with doses of Bette Davis carnality and Ruth Gordon weirdness. Pat Carroll's performance in the original is an all-timer, but McCarthy makes the role her own. Even her groan-y puns ("You're a prawn in my little game") are fun.
With fine new songs co-written by original composer Alan Menken and the inevitable Lin-Manuel Miranda, "The Little Mermaid" nicely balances the things it knows we expect from this story with dazzling new elements. As a result, it's as fresh as the lemon that creepy chef from the original "Mermaid" probably wanted to squeeze all over poor little Sebastian.
'The Little Mermaid'
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG for mild danger.
Where: In theaters.
These Disney remakes aren't improvements
"The Little Mermaid" brings Disney closer to what seems to be the goal of churning out lesser, sorta-live-action remakes of all its classic cartoons ("The Jungle Book" remake, for instance, was almost all animated, albeit in a more naturalistic style than the 1967 original).
The newer movies have brought treasured stories to new audiences — some of which, like folks who can't be persuaded to watch black-and-white films, may be so used to the Pixar, computer-generated style of animation that they can't sit still for hand-drawn classics. But none of the remakes has matched its predecessor in quality.
Here are some recent Disney releases, from least useless to most:
"The Little Mermaid" (2023) — Just enough creative additions to merit a new version.
"Cinderella" (2015) — Like "Mermaid," it's a lightly feminist update of a classic and, also like "Mermaid," it's dominated by a charismatic villain, Cate Blanchett's wicked stepmother.
"Alice in Wonderland" (2010) — You can debate that there's too much of it but Tim Burton's signature macabre touch at least adds something new.
"Mulan" (2020) — Sensitively directed and gorgeous to look at, the remake is a more sensitive version of the tale of a female warrior.
"Dumbo" (2019) — The greed theme feels like overkill in Tim Burton's remake, but the title character remains adorable.
"Beauty and the Beast" (2017) — There's nothing blatantly wrong with it, but it's a moment-by-moment remake of the delightful original that somehow takes an hour longer to do it.
"Pinocchio" (2022) — There's an unnerving, uncanny valley quality to the mix of animation and live action, but Tom Hanks' Geppetto grows on you.
"Aladdin" (2019) — Will Smith is very appealing in Robin Williams' impossible-to-fill genie slippers, but the movie has no pizazz and its special effects are numbing.
"The Lion King" (2019) — Why animate animals realistically instead of just using, you know, real animals?
"Lady and the Tramp" (2019) — Actually, there might be a reason to do the above. "Lady" employed real animals and tried to layer on animation to make their faces smile and sob. Doesn't work.
"101 Dalmatians" (1996) — The original is an effortless charmer, with iconic villain Cruella de Vil. Glenn Close is fine in that role in the remake, but the movie is a blunt, crass loser.