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It’s not perfect, but Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid offers plenty of magical moments.

The Coral Moon

Ariel (Halle Bailey)
Ariel (Halle Bailey)

How much audiences will adore or abhor this live action extravaganza largely depends on how dear any given individual holds the Disney animated classic.

But, stepping back, Disney made a smart choice in bringing on director Rob Marshall, Oscar nominee for directing the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical Chicago and the man at the helm of the underappreciated Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (which also features mermaids).

There are quite a few pleasant surprises here.

First and foremost, most of the movie (a rough estimate of 75%) is offered in IMAX’s large format, so seeking out an IMAX presentation is highly recommended. It creates a great theatrical experience — visually and aurally — that’s worth shelling out the extra bucks.

Another surprise is how good Melissa McCarthy is as Ursula. Not only is her cinematic presentation suitably dark and creepy, her performance is also terrific and it’s an unexpected treat to hear her belt out Ursula’s signature song, Poor Unfortunate Souls, and make quips about “squidling rivalry.” On the downside, this Ursula’s big on monologuing; she’s a villain who desperately needs somebody to talk to besides her menacing eel minions.

And, while this live-action rendition is 45 minutes longer than the 1989 animated musical feature, the extra time is largely well-spent. The bulk of it is used to build out Ariel’s life and world under the sea as well as a really smart theme involving Prince Eric (now reimagined as an adopted shipwreck survivor) who seeks out adventure and explores the world with the goal of learning about other people and cultures so his own tribe back home isn’t left out of the world’s progress.

The Kiss of True Love

Of course, a lot of the “magic” of both the animated and live-action versions surrounds the masterful, timeless music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The visuals don’t always rise to the level of splendor the music deserves, but there’s enough heart in the movie’s grand ambitions to compensate.

This time around, during Under the Sea, Sebastian — promoted from chief conductor to Triton’s major domo — leads dancing starfish and a chorus line of synchronized turtles. This is one of the key scenes that benefits from the IMAX format and it doesn’t hurt Sebastian is voiced by Daveed Diggs, who performed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Speaking of Miranda, he’s been added to the mix and collaborated with Menken on some new music. Howard Ashman — Menken’s collaborator on The Little Mermaid and The Little Shop of Horrors, among others — passed away in 1991. Miranda steps in as lyricist and a notable addition is The Scuttlebutt, performed by Awkwafina as Scuttle. Awkwafina provides an agreeably contemporary spin on the daffy, slapstick character originated by Buddy Hackett.

Ariel with Eric (Jonah Hauer-King)
Ariel with Eric (Jonah Hauer-King)

As for Kiss the Girl, it’s a great song that figures heavily in the magic of both movies. There’s an appreciable romantic atmosphere in the live action version that helps buoy the performances of Halle Bailey (Ariel) and Jonah Hauer-King (Eric) as their serenade is orchestrated by Sebastian and Scuttle. That setting includes a fresh way of communicating Ariel’s name to Eric; less straightforward than the animated version, this time the characters look to the stars and divine her name from the constellation Aries, the fiery sign of the Ram, which is all the more appropriate given her red hair.

Edits in this version include Daughters of Triton, a song early in the animated version that introduces Triton and Ariel... well... Ariel’s absence. But, as part of the narrative clean-up, it’s been clipped and isn’t really missed. The song was, after all, itself incomplete given Ariel wasn’t around to perform her part.

Uncharted Waters

Halle Bailey? She’s fine, both as a singer and an actress. There’s no reason to complain about her or her performance. Actually, most of the cast is quite good.

But the weak link is itself a surprise, of the bad kind. That’s Javier Bardem as Triton, King of the Seas and father of Ariel. Bardem — who’s created all sorts of memorable characters, including a nuanced Bond villain in Skyfall — is strangely bland here. It’d be giving him the benefit of the doubt to say he gives a weak performance because he’s been worn down after raising seven diverse daughters — seven mermaids — with Ariel being the youngest and most challenging to raise in the ways of the sea life.

While Bardem is a bit of a disappointment, the narrative around his Triton is much more compelling. That figures heavily with his grudge against the “above world,” given the new revelation behind the death of Ariel’s mother. Triton extends his grudge to all humans and that in turn becomes a lesson for Ariel to teach her father. Only one bad person was involved, not all humans.

Ursula (Melissa McCarthy)
Ursula (Melissa McCarthy)

Ultimately, it’s the focus on strengthening the dramatic elements of the narrative that pushes Marshall’s Little Mermaid into darker seas, but that ultimately gives way to the calm waters of a solid reimagining.

The drama around Eric’s search for the girl who saved him from a shipwreck during a treacherous storm at sea is drawn out for more tension, which also feeds into an overall improvement around the romantic drama surrounding Ariel and that legendary three-day deadline to “kiss the girl.” And therein is a nice sequence focused on the characters of Ariel and Eric, in which they grow to appreciate each other’s interest in antiquities and artifacts.

It’s a nice touch.

There’s a good amount of attention put into making all of the characters more interesting and, yeah, more “fleshed out.” None more so than Eric, who’s moved beyond being just a one-note, standard Disney prince of yore. This Eric says he wants to be a different kind of leader, not sailing on the high seas for the sheer adventure of it, but to build connections. Every bit as much as Ariel wants to be a part of Eric’s world, Eric wants to be a part of the larger world stage. With that, the loop is closed: Eric wants to be a part of Ariel’s world, too. It’s no longer a one-way path.

That all leads to a more polished ending with the mer folk and humans gathered together to congratulate Ariel and Eric on their nuptials (oh, sorry, um... spoiler alert) and send them off on a new adventure.

It’s the first time there’s a sense that maybe — just maybe — there’s a legitimate story to be continued for these characters under the sea and beyond.