The new “The Little Mermaid” is a live-action remake of the classic 1989 Disney animated film. But you wouldn’t know it from its undersea scenes.
Shots of the human-obsessed mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) swimming among fellow sea creatures look as lifelike as a faux-aquarium screensaver, with the imagery overly CG smoothed and flattened. The look is more animation than live-action, yet lacks the beauty of the old-school original “Mermaid” or the computer-animated “Finding Nemo.”
But Bailey — half of the musical duo Chloe x Halle with her sister, Chloe (“Swarm”) — breaks through the mediocrity with a crystalline voice that re-energizes the beloved song “Part of Your World” from the 1989 original before her character surfaces into the better part of the movie.
Scenes occurring on land or ship look expensive, in that epic, sweeping way best experienced on a big screen. Daunting yet inviting cliffs rise above white sand and pristine water (Sardinia filled in for the movie’s quasi-Caribbean setting). The wooden trade ship on which Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) explores foreign lands on behalf of his island kingdom appears 19th century sturdy (Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” fairy tale first published in 1837) before it crashes and burns, and Ariel saves him from drowning.
Eric is still fuzzy when he notices his half-fish savior, but Bailey’s and Hauer-King’s chemistry is clear from their first shot together. Hauer-King’s singing chops are far more modest than Bailey’s, but the young actors match up in most other ways. Both have open demeanors well-suited to characters who are up for adventure and unbowed by the pressures of being royal spawn.
Ariel’s father is the sea king Triton, played sleepily by Javier Bardem, who might be bummed at having reached the Anthony Hopkins, long-gray-beard phase of his career. Triton always discouraged Ariel’s fascination with humans, which was fueled by her childhood spent exploring old shipwrecks with the probing curiosity of a James Cameron IMAX camera. Ariel sees humans and imagines possibilities. Humans see sea creatures and imagine a side of wasabi, the mermaid’s undersea family and friends insist.