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The Little Mermaid's Early Reviews Keep Disney's Remake Afloat (But Barely)

The latest beloved Disney animated property to receive the live-action treatment is "The Little Mermaid." The original film came out in 1989, and the 2023 version will likely follow its story pretty much to a "T." A young mermaid, Ariel (Halle Bailey), wants to be with a human boy, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), and makes a deal with a sea witch so that she can get her legs to meet him finally. The story's a beloved classic for a reason, but fans have naturally grown skeptical of these Disney live-action remakes over the years from "Beauty and the Beast" to "Aladdin." It begs the question of whether the live-action "Little Mermaid" does justice to the original or comes across as a shameless cash grab. 

The first wave of critics' reviews is here, and in a surprising turn, many of them feel the remake has merit. As of this writing, the film has a favorable rating of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes out of 74 reviews. Being such a blockbuster, plenty more reviews are bound to trickle in over the next few days and weeks, but it does suggest there's something for audiences to enjoy out of this reimagining. Perhaps it'll even convince some viewers not to watch the 1989 version on Disney+ and instead head out to a theater to see this new take on Hans Christian Andersen's story.

Halle Bailey is worth the price of admission alone

It's easy to be cynical about another Disney live-action remake. For the most part, when it comes to these movies, the stories are essentially the same, but they add a new song or two. There may also be some additional agency for the female lead, but a lot of the time, it feels like Disney guaranteeing itself a hit. While many reviews admit that the story fails to capture the magic of the original, there's some stuff to appreciate. And one of the biggest driving factors to see this movie is Halle Bailey's star-making turn as Ariel.

Rachel Wagner was pleasantly surprised by the movie as a whole and called particular attention to Bailey's part, stating, "In the end I loved Bailey so much as Ariel and her singing voice is so beautiful it allowed me to forgive much of the movies flaws. She really is that good." She wasn't alone in her assessment of Bailey's talent, as Moira MacDonald of The Seattle Times wrote, "Bailey gives a glowing performance of effortless starshine; her singing voice has both sweetness and power, and her smile is the sort on which dreams dance."

With that kind of praise, 2023's "The Little Mermaid" may be worth it just to launch Halle Bailey's acting career. Combined with the fact Bailey will appear in the 2023 remake of "The Color Purple," she could easily be the next big box office draw. Perri Nemiroff also heaped praise onto the young star, "A mixed bag overall, but still a must-see for Halle Bailey's breathtaking work as Ariel and Melissa McCarthy's deliciously devilish Ursula." While it's nice to hear Bailey keeps the film from sinking, most reviewers are split on the rest of the project.

Despite Halle Bailey's best work, critics are mixed on everything else about The Little Mermaid

While Halle Bailey makes a great Disney princess, her performance only seems to do so much in the eyes of critics. Many reviews are split on whether "The Little Mermaid" is worth seeing outside of her, with the consensus being that the movie comes across as a cheap imitation of the original. Courtney Howard's review for Fresh Fiction is largely critical, as she admits there's very little in the remake to separate itself from the animated version: "We're given an occasionally charming, fairly rote rehash of the 1989 feature, now padded with extra songs, characters and conundrums that add very little to the magic of the original."

It may be cliche to say these Disney remakes lack the magic of their originals, but again, it still holds true for this one. Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times wrote, "What's on-screen too often feels like wan, second-rate imitation, and the few differences seem motivated less by a spirit of imagination than one of joyless anxiety." And many of these critiques still admit that "The Little Mermaid" is among one of the better Disney remakes, like Lyvie Scott of Inverse writing, "The Little Mermaid is arguably the best live-action Disney remake since Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. The splendor is there; the romance is crafted with care — but something's still missing."

Years from now, will anyone decide to put on 2023's "Little Mermaid" over the 1989 rendition? That remains to be seen, but when it comes to cashing in on nostalgia, Disney could've done far worse. "The Little Mermaid" makes its big splash in theaters on May 26.