‘The Little Mermaid’ is a Disney Tale for Our Times

Jun 1, 2023 | Entertainment and Arts

By: Laura Bennett

Don’t lie, when you saw a new version of The Little Mermaid was coming out you – like the rest of us – immediately thought, “Please, don’t ruin another icon from childhood”. 

The good news is, your childhood may have been slightly reimagined, but it’s safe.

Directed by Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns, Into the WoodsThe Little Mermaid is, as Rob put it at the Australian premiere, “an underwater musical” about a young mermaid who wants to bridge the gap between two divided peoples and use her voice to connect with humans in a way her father and other mermaids never have.

Played by Halle Bailey (A Wrinkle in Time, Grown-ish), Ariel is still the character we’re familiar with, making a deal with the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to trade her voice for human legs so she can explore the world above the water and fall in love with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Their love story, though, isn’t founded in a “happily ever after” ideal – it’s about proving the misunderstanding between humans and the sea.

From the moment Halle was cast, The Little Mermaid has prompted conversations about diversity, representation of people of colour and the symbolism in Ariel’s quest to override prejudice.

Halle said herself she’s been “crying happy tears” since videos first emerged of young black kids reacting to the trailer and “seeing themselves” for the first time in Ariel.

Speaking to the crowd at Sydney’s State Theatre, Halle said, “they’re getting what I never had”.

The movie itself doesn’t dwell on its own distinction from other Disney classics but is clearly set apart in the way it centres the story on Ariel’s pure curiosity with humans and seeing them in a kinder light than everyone else.

Themes at Odds With the Original

The Little Mermaid Stills

Themes that may be problematic rewatching the original: namely Ariel sacrificing her gifts to fall in love with Eric have been reset as a means-to-an-end based on Ariel’s mission to unify people as opposed to her wanting romance.

The voice of the parents also hits differently in 2023’s The Little Mermaid, with King Triton (Javier Bardem) exposing more of his emotion around Ariel’s defection from “the family way” and Eric’s mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) admitting when she doesn’t understand the desires of her son.

A scene toward the end is particularly striking, when Queen Selina says Eric and Ariel will change the world and blesses them in doing it because she doesn’t want the older ones among them to be left behind.

Alongside its depth, The Little Mermaid is joyful and vibrant, full of the music you love plus some new additions that freshen it up a bit too.

While there’s beauty in the tone of a supportive parent, there’s an uncomfortable subtext that says “support” equals leaving the ambitions of your child unquestioned: let the next generation forge ahead, because the fact that they’re “forging” validates their cause.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Ariel’s mission in this instance, but the exchange speaks to a bigger picture about where wisdom and experience sit alongside youthful progress.

As young people fight for change, is there space to ask, “is this change healthy?”

The answer may be a whole-hearted “Yes” – as is the case with Ariel – but surely the older ones watching don’t have to take “being socially relevant” to mean never offering analytical thought to a new idea.

Joyful and FunThe Little Mermaid Stills

Alongside its depth, The Little Mermaid is joyful and vibrant, full of the music you love plus some new additions that freshen it up a bit too.

Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is known as a queen of comedy but is incredible as Ursula, offering an intriguing dark side – and a profound voice – that we haven’t seen yet but can absolutely get behind.

The role was “terrifying and nerve-wracking” Melissa said, but “delicious” in allowing her to play the villain.

A word of warning for little viewers though, it’s Ursula who makes The Little Mermaid a movie for the over 10s at least, with a visual darkness and overbearingly menacing demeanour at times that could be confronting.

The Little Mermaid is in cinemas from May 25.