‘The Little Mermaid’ 2023 review: Adaptation shines bright with focus on women’s self-determination

‘The Little Mermaid’ 2023 review: Adaptation shines bright with focus on women’s self-determination

‘The Little Mermaid’ 2023 review: Adaptation shines bright with focus on women’s self-determination


Fairy tales, although fantastical in nature, have been used for centuries to push forth ideals and life lessons from the perspective of the culture that creates them. Many have been passed down through the generations in various places, shifting and evolving to reflect the sensibilities of their day and age. The new 2023 live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid is no different in that regard. While the new film bursts with the same color and energy as its 1989 animated predecessor (which was itself an updated take on Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid story from 1837), it also manages to seamlessly interweave a relevant focus on women’s self-determination in a way that brings it into a modern age without losing its magical luster.


The musical fantasy film directed by Rob Marshall, with a screenplay by David Magee, tells the story of the young mermaid princess Ariel—daughter of King Triton, ruler of Atlantica—and her thirst for knowledge beyond the ocean. Ariel is an explorer in her own right, wanting to know the human world despite her father’s prejudice against homosapiens. Ariel eventually makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula in order to become human, find her true love’s kiss with Prince Eric, and live happily ever after.


If you’ve seen the 1989 cartoon, then you may think the film will touch all the same bases, and in a way it does, but this new retelling changes the perspective on a number of plot points. It changes the tale from a story solely about a girl who fell in love with a human boy to one about a young woman determined to live her life the way she wants and realize her passion for adventure and knowledge.


The significance of this change cannot be overstated in a time when women are losing hard-fought rights, such as reproductive choice, which was gained decades ago. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a judicial ruling that federally protected an individual’s right to an abortion. This historic reversal has had a domino effect, as an increasing number of states are pushing for legislation restricting or totally eliminating a woman’s right to make healthcare decisions for her own body. In 2023, women have less legal control over their bodies than they’ve had in decades. Ariel’s decision to trade in her fin for legs—and go against the rules of the ocean society—carries a lot more weight than it did in the late ’80s.


There is also the theme of Ariel finding her voice even though, for a time throughout the film, she is unable to physically talk. She is a character who longs to be heard and taken seriously. She has wants, dreams, and aspirations. These go beyond simply whom she wants to be with romantically; they strive for freedom of choice in all things. The film doesn’t shy away from making this connection, and that makes for powerful storytelling.


Halle Bailey shines bright as Ariel. Her performance is the glue that helps to bring the story together. Bailey handles Ariel’s journey of self-discovery with a subtle strength and vulnerability that will have the audience rooting for her throughout the film. Jonah Hauer-King as Eric also does a fine job as a leading man without falling into a lot of the overdone tropes associated with the stereotypical Prince Charming-type. Bailey and Hauer-King have a chemistry that showcases the mutual respect Ariel and Eric have for each other, as well as their shared interests and passions. The film doesn’t portray Ariel as someone in need of rescuing, but rather as someone determined to realize her full potential.


Daveed Diggs is a wonderful scene-stealer as the voice of Sebastian. Previous Sebastian voice actor, Samuel E. Wright—who is a tough act to follow—would no doubt have been proud. Another standout is Melissa McCarthy as the devious villain Ursula. The inspiration for the 1989 animation of Ursula is reported to have been the iconic drag queen Divine, in particular their character in the 1972 controversial film Pink Flamingos. It seems fitting then that McCarthy, who also did in drag back in 1990s New York City, channeled this same energy in her darkly glamorous performance of the villain. Her commanding presence is a perfect fit when opposite Bailey.


There is also importance in the fact that Bailey is African-American and the representation that brings to the big screen when it comes to female main characters. There have been critics who’ve dismissed her casting as “unnecessary” or simply as a way for Disney to spark outrage for the sake of publicity and ticket sales. That sentiment holds no weight when seeing what the newly infused Afro-Caribbean culture and atmosphere bring to the film that simply wasn’t there in the 1989 original. Not to mention the need to showcase Black women in a positive light in the media, given that we exist in a society that often aims to criminalize Black women and undervalue the role they play in our modern world and history in general.


With some of this heavier relevance now added to the fray, it doesn’t mean The Little Mermaid isn’t loads of fun. It very much is! The intended audience isn’t only children, but viewers of all ages looking for a new kind of fairy tale with heart and memorable characters. Don’t walk, run (or swim) to see this new adaptation that dishes out inspiration for anyone looking to set their own course in uncharted waters.


Robinson, C. K. (2023, May 25). ‘The Little Mermaid’ 2023 review: Adaptation shines bright with focus on women’s self-determination. People’s World. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/the-little-mermaid-2023-review-adaptation-shines-bright-with-focus-on-womens-self-determination/

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