Remakes are a tricky thing. You have to balance the original story with new material and, on top of that, account for all the ways society has changed since the original film came out. It’s even trickier when you’re changing mediums from hand-drawn animation to live action (and a hefty dose of CGI). Naturally, The Little Mermaid (2023) had to make some changes to the beloved Disney cartoon, and also added a whole lot more.
The Little Mermaid (2023) has a runtime of 2 hours 15 minutes—nearly a whole hour longer than the original film. That time is filled with world building, character development, and a few extra songs that really help to flesh out the story. (Get it? Because it’s live-action?)
A lot of that work is done with Prince Eric in the surface world. Most of the audience already knows and loves Ariel, so it was nice to balance the scales by giving Eric a more detailed backstory. He was adopted by the king and queen of the island kingdom and, while his mother is very traditional, Eric wants to be a “different kind of leader.” He has the same wanderlust and curiosity that Ariel does, but the queen wants him to stop his reckless travels and star in the castle. Sound familiar?
This dynamic makes Eric’s connection with Ariel much more than a life-debt and, as a result, they’re an easy couple to root for. I’ll admit that I never really “got” Ariel’s love for Eric as a kid, but in this movie, they’re downright adorable. One of my personal favorite parts is a scene where Eric shows off his own collection of trinkets from his travels. He teaches Ariel about maps and the different areas of the island and Ariel teaches him more about the shells and rocks he has on display—another addition that helps balance the power dynamic of their relationship.
Eric now has his own song as well, “Wild Uncharted Waters.” It’s nice, but not the best of the Disney prince songs. (Sorry, Eric, but Disney set the bar pretty high when they added “Evermore” to Beauty and the Beast in 2017.)
The Little Mermaid (2023) features three brand new songs written by Lin Manuel Miranda, the best of which is “The Scuttlebutt,” performed by Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina as Sebastian and Scuttle. Miranda left his mark on a few of the original songs as well, pruning the lyrics for a more modern audience. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” drops the verse about how human men don’t like women that talk, while “Kiss the Girl” has a few changes to emphasize the importance of consent—even if you’re crushing on someone who can’t speak.
It all comes back to balance, and that’s something The Little Mermaid (2023) handles with skill and grace. Cynics tend to reduce the original movie to another story about a teenage girl who changed herself for a cute guy. By giving Ariel more agency and Eric more substance, the live-action emphasizes that it’s a film about looking past prejudice, learning from each other, and being open to love.
Admittedly, there are some parts that don’t translate well to the live-action approach—a fish and a crab can only emote in so many ways—but being under the sea gives the animators more room to play with physics than the Pride Lands in The Lion King (2019). Pacing also becomes an issue later in the movie. While Megan McCarthy does an amazing job as Ursula, her evil plot and the whole climax of the movie feel rushed and lackluster next to the slowly blossoming relationship between Ariel and Eric.
On the whole, though, The Little Mermaid (2023) adds more than it changes the original film, and does so without stretching past its limits. As someone who grew up with the cartoon, I really enjoyed this movie—and so did the seven-year-old girl in the seat next to me.