"The Little Mermaid" 1989 and Halle Bailey starring in "The Little Mermaid" live-action film in 2023 (Disney)
“The Little Mermaid” is back.
And this time the beloved Disney classic, originally released in 1989 and heralding a new golden age of animated features for the company, is being brought to life via a combination of live-action photography and computer-generated imagery. It still loosely conforms to the story laid out by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837 and hews more closely to the animated feature written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
Ariel (now portrayed by Halle Bailey) is still a feisty mermaid living under the thumb of her overbearing father King Triton (Javier Bardem). She still swoons over Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and makes a Faustian bargain with Ursula the sea witch (Melissa McCarthy). And she still has a trio of animal sidekicks (Jacob Tremblay, Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs). If you’ve seen the animated original, you’ll be able to predict what is around every crashing wave, which isn’t to say that there aren’t a host of wild deviations.
Let’s run through the 13 biggest differences between the live-action remake and original animated versions of this Disney classic. A word of warning, though: spoilers for the new movie follow.
The differences begin early on, as the movie no longer starts with "Fathoms Below," the sea shanty that opens the original film. The music that underscores the song and sequence is soaring Alan Menken finery and, while Menken returned for the remake, it’s hard to beat the gusto that the original movie started off with. It’s also a key storytelling moment, explaining how the human world thinks of the undersea kingdom. In the new film, director Rob Marshall brings "Fathoms Below" later in the movie, but it’s too little, too late.
Eerily Lifelike Creatures
Now we’re onto more highly contested changes, like making the designs for Flounder, Scuttle (no longer a seagull, now some kind of diving bird), and Sebastian eerily lifelike. Part of what makes the original characters so memorable is their expressiveness; you know what they are thinking and, more importantly, feeling at every moment. Instead, Disney has gone the route of their CGI remake of “The Lion King” by making them as true to nature as they possibly can. They softened Sebastian’s eyestalks but really, that is the least they could have done. This was not a great choice.
A Different Job for Sebastian
One thing that is easy to forget about the original film is how Sebastian (voiced, wonderfully, by Samuel E. Wright, who passed away in 2021) was a conductor. And he was introduced into the story as being the orchestrator of a grand concert that Ariel (Jodi Benson) is a no-show for. They have totally eliminated the conductor element of the character this time around, with Diggs' Sebastian repeatedly stating that he’s Triton's majordomo. On a storytelling level this is another whiff. Part of what made Sebastian’s journey so satisfying was that he was being elevated past his station and was in over his head. If he’s already the confidant and fix-it man for Triton, then his job minding Ariel isn't that big of an ask. Disney live-action remakes have over-compensated characters in the past, much to the detriment of the narrative (think how in the live-action "Mulan" she was already a martial arts wiz before being conscripted). This is just the latest example.
All About the Sisters
Not only have Ariel’s sisters had their names changed from Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella and Alana to Tamika, Perla, Caspia, Indira, Mala and Karina, but now the girls no longer live in the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. Instead, each sister rules over one of the seven seas and returns home for the coral moon celebration, something that is never really explored or even properly explained. Each girl is a different nationality or ethnicity, really driving the point home that mermaids can be from anywhere – and look like anyone. Accordingly, the "Daughters of Triton" song was removed from the movie. There’s an additional, gloomier element to Ariel’s family too, with King Triton saying that their mother (we’re presuming all girls had the same mother) was killed by a human. Dark!
More to Ursula's Spell
When Ariel makes that fateful deal with Ursula, in this new version there are even more dimensions to the spell. In the original film, Ariel just signed her voice away (which led to countless questions about why she doesn’t just communicate with Eric via writing him something). But in the live-action remake, not only does she give up a scale from her tail, but after the deal is done, Ursula reveals that she has concealed a trap door: In human form, Ariel won’t remember that she needs Eric to kiss her to get her voice back. That Ursula is a real rascal. This move feels like an unnecessarily complicated addition, but it gives more agency to the animals since they know about this addition to their pact, making “Kiss the Girl” an even more frenzied attempt at breaking the spell. Like most changes, this is a downgrade.
Ursula is King Triton’s Sister
In the original version of "Fathoms Below" from the 1989 “Little Mermaid,” there was a version of the lyrics that explicitly laid out that Ursula was King Triton’s sister. Those lyrics were deleted from the song and there was no reference to Ursula and Triton being related in the actual body of the film. The longer version of the song resurfaced years later on one of the movie’s many home video releases. For the live-action remake, they made that familial connection canon. You’d think that maybe that would add to the drama or conflict, that the characters’ emotional shading would be deepened. It doesn’t. It’s mentioned once and that’s pretty much it.
Flotsam and Jetsam Don’t Speak
This is a minor change but hey, we’re making note of it. Flotsam and Jetsam, voiced in the original film by British actress Paddi Edwards, were eels who worked with Ursula and helped lure Ariel to her doom. In the remake, where none of the animals are caricatured and none of them speak (besides Ariel’s BFFs), Flotsam and Jetsam are voiceless. Come to think of it, that little seahorse guy from the original who is so cute doesn’t show up either. Sigh.
More Prince Eric Backstory
Here’s where some of the biggest changes come into Fantasyland. In the original film, Eric finds Ariel washed up on the shore (in the new movie, it’s some random fisherman) and they fall in love and his chef tries to kill Sebastian (more on that in a minute). In the new movie, there’s a whole backstory to him and his kingdom – he was adopted by a Queen (Noma Dumezweni from “The Undoing” and “The Watcher”) and is trying to make strides to expand the kingdom. Not in a colonialist way but in terms of opening its borders and letting new thoughts and ideas in. (We’re pretty sure, at least, it’s not entirely clear.) He has a song (more on that later) and a castle befitting his vaguely Mediterranean nation. It's not entirely convincing. He might have been better as a more thinly drawn (literally) hunk.
A Visit to the Village
An expansion to Eric’s whole deal is a sequence, in the new film, entirely missing from the animated classic, where Eric and Ariel visit a local village. Since this is a Disney film, the community isn’t impoverished or unhappy, they’re a joyful, multicultural bunch who Ariel dimly interacts with. At one point she gets something from a local shopkeeper played by none other than Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in the original animated film. How about that? There’s a little dance sequence during this section of the movie, too. It’s also when you, as an audience member, really feel the nearly hour’s worth of additional runtime.
No "Les Poissons"/Chef Louis
With all that extra Eric baggage something had to go, right? Well, of course it did. And that "something" was the character of Chef Louis (voiced by the brilliant, dearly departed René Auberjonois) and his genuinely amazing song “Les Poissons.” This is one of the highlights of the original film, especially in its more dramatic second half, as Sebastian narrowly avoids getting turned into dinner. While Rob Marshall, director of the new film, said it was too cartoonish and too much of a detour, it is suggested that Prince Eric’s kingdom is one established and maintained by fishing. Ariel is even startled to a see a relief in her room of fisherman capturing a giant fish. This makes the Chef Louis omission even more baffling. Couldn’t somebody had a lot of fun with that musical number too?
There Are Three New Songs
There are three new songs: "Wild Uncharted Waters" sung by Eric; “For the First Time” sung by Ariel; and “The Scuttlebutt” sung by Scuttle and Sebastian. These songs are written with Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, taking over for Howard Ashman, the original film’s genius lyricist who passed away due to complications from AIDS before the release of “Beauty and the Beast." Eric’s song goes along with him getting more backstory and screen time but isn’t the soaring, longing song that it’s intended as. "For the First Time” addresses a big issue with the first movie, which is that after Ariel loses her voice she doesn’t sing again. With Bailey and her formidable voice, they found a workaround: it's a sequence where she imagines she’s singing as she takes in all the sights, sounds and smells of the human world. (It’s also a callback to director Marshall’s debut feature "Chicago," where the musical numbers were imaginary sequences inside the characters’ heads.) The last film, "The Scuttlebutt," is pure Lin-Manuel Miranda, a rap-sung ditty that also serves as an exposition dump. Awkwafina uncomfortably slips back into her Black accent and it stops the movie dead in its tracks. Supposedly they’d written a song for Javier Bardem that they cut. But they left this in???
No More Marriage
Much of the original "Little Mermaid" concerns marriage – will Prince Eric and Ariel get married? Will he actually marry Ursula’s human doppelgänger Vanessa? Much of the third act is set on a ship, as a series of madcap instances prevent the wedding from actually happening. But in the new "Little Mermaid," marriage is pretty much off the table. There’s talk that Prince Eric and Vanessa will be engaged, but there is no marriage and there’s no marriage between Ariel and Prince Eric, either. This is obviously a progressive change meant to more fitfully align with the times but you do miss the uncontrolled chaos of the original movie’s climax, where all the sea creatures conspire to stop the wedding from happening. But hey. It’s not all about marriage, people.
A More Proactive Ariel
This is a companion to the no marriage clause – Ariel actually gets stuff done this time. This is best exemplified by the very end of the movie, where Prince Eric originally steered the ship into the giant, kaiju-sized Ursula. In this version, Ariel kills the sea witch. Along the way she seems generally more in control of her narrative and less burdened by her muteness on land. She isn’t pining for Prince Eric as much as she is longing for a world outside of the one lorded over by her father. They are all good changes, for sure. No notes.