Halle Bailey’s emergence as ‘The Little Mermaid’ star goes swimmingly

Charismatic singer wins us over in live-action Disney remake that comes close to wearing out its welcome.

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Ariel (Halle Bailey), the title character of “The Little Mermaid,” rescues Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck.

DISNEY

Ariel saves the day.

Check that. HALLE BAILEY saves the day with an endearing, charismatic, star-power performance as the heroic and brave Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which swims dangerously close to wearing out its welcome on occasion and features some eye-popping but occasionally jarring visuals, but ultimately wins our hearts. Bailey’s Ariel is just so lovely and likable, we can’t help but root for her to win true love and prove that humankind and merpeople really aren’t so different after all.

With director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods”) going for a big, bold, ambitious, Broadway-type vibe and Lin-Manuel Miranda teaming up with Alan Menken to contribute three new songs in addition to new versions of the beloved Menken-Howard Ashman tunes from the 1989 animated classic, this “Mermaid” runs more than 50 minutes longer than the original. Necessary? No. Destined to have the little ones in the audience squirming restlessly once or twice. Sure.

‘The Little Mermaid’

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Disney presents a film directed by Rob Marshall and written by David Magee. Rated PG (for action/peril and some scary images). Running time: 135 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Still, there’s no denying the power of the timeless story (which remains true to its roots, with a few tweaks), and it’s a thrill to see Bailey confirm her movie-star status when she belts out a show-stopping version of “Part of Your World,” one of the most memorable musical moments in any movie in recent years. With blazing talents including Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina providing scene-stealing supporting work, “The Little Mermaid” has one of the most likable and entertaining casts of any film of 2023.

It’s quite likely you know the story, but here we go. The teenage Ariel is a rebellious and lively and somewhat naïve mermaid who is consumed with learning about all things human, much to the dismay of her overprotective and quite gloomy father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), who is always oh-so-serious despite the fact he has ridiculous hair that undulates rhythmically in the water. Also, he’s the ruler of the sea — that’s a pretty cool job, right?

After Ariel rescues the noble Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from a fiery shipwreck, she becomes even more obsessed with the world above the sea, and she strikes a Faustian bargain with the deliciously evil and duplicitous Aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who is legitimately terrifying and might have the smallest of viewers covering their eyes. The deal: Ariel will become a human, complete with whatcha-call-’em, legs, and will have three days to find true love’s kiss with Eric — or she’ll be Ursula’s forever, giving Ursula the upper hand with Triton. Oh, and Ariel will literally have no voice and Eric won’t recognize her as the hero that saved him, so it’s an uphill battle.

Disney’s live-action remakes have met with criticism for the photo-realistic renditions (the computer-animated lions in “The Lion King” just looked like lions who talked like humans with a theater background), and it’s a mixed bag with “The Little Mermaid.” The underwater sequences are absolutely breathtaking, but it is a little weird to bear witness to the realistic-looking likes of Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), the crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and the scatterbrained northern gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina).

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Melissa McCarthy plays the genuinely terrifying Aunt Ursula.

DISNEY

Still, thanks to the charming voice work of the actors, we come to embrace this crew. Diggs’ Jamaican-accented Sebastian kills with a catchy rendition of “Kiss the Girl,” while Awkwafina’s Scuttle delivers a hilarious, rapid-fire, spoken-word number called “The Scuttlebutt.” (Jonah Hauer-King has a little bit of a vanilla presence as the dashing Prince Eric, but he does a fine job with a new number titled “Wild Uncharted Waters.”)

While the padded running time might have benefitted from a trim here or there, it does afford the opportunity for Ariel and Eric to spend some quality time together and get to know one another over the course of those three days. It’s not just fate binding them together; these two crazy kids really like and enjoy each other’s company, and they share a common trait: Each has a longing to explore the world beyond the boundaries of their tightly knit but cloistered and sheltered communities. We’re really rooting for them to overcome the myriad of obstacles threatening to keep them apart forever. Thanks in large part to Halle Bailey’s outstanding work, “The Little Mermaid” makes quite the splash.

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