'The Little Mermaid' PEOPLE Review: Halle Bailey Gives a Star-Making Performance as Ariel

As Disney's new live-action Ariel, she sings like a mer-angel


A live-action version of Disney’s 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid demands a perfect Ariel. If not, it sinks like a stone.

Halle Bailey (Grown-ish) happens to be perfect: She has a clear, powerful voice — able to unleash a tsunami of emotions when she sings the anthemic “Part of Your World” — and her performance is appealingly playful and sweet, even relatable.

And she accomplishes this while spending a large chunk of the film saddled with a tail that looks like a Met Gala dress inspired by a candy wrapper.

The rest of Mermaid, which has been directed by Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns) with a steady hand but not terribly light touch, doesn’t have Bailey’s uncloyed simplicity. It’s a cluttered, messy-looking film — imagine James Cameron spending a fortune to create Avatar: The Way of Chowder. The famous “Under the Sea” number, which won a Best Song Oscar for the original, is a garish aquatic spectacle that could be a goldfish’s dream of a Las Vegas residency.

Related:Halle Bailey Ignored 'Little Mermaid' Naysayers: 'I Think About the People Who Lift Me Up' (Exclusive)

Melissa McCarthy is nearly overwhelmed by the tentacled body she inhabits as Ariel’s evil aunt Ursula, who transforms the mermaid into a human so she can win the love of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King, an actor possessing two exquisite dimples but, at least this time out, not much presence). However, McCarthy isn't an actress to be defeated by Hans Christian Andersen. Her performance, sour but strong, is a squid-ink cloud of discontentment.

And Awkwafina, the voice of seagull Scuttle, honks and squawks with lively brashness.

Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

On the other hand, Javier Bardem, as Ariel’s gloomily august papa, King Triton, never has a chance to breathe life into the role. In the end, standing in shallow water near the shore, his hair and long gray beard matted, he looks like the statue of a holy martyr dumped in the kiddie pool.

The score, which has grown by several songs with contributions by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is boldly melodic. You don’t mind the implausibility of lyrics sung beneath the waves coming out in understandable English phrases rather than “gwarba warba wobo waaaaaaaaahr,” and that counts for something.

The story, though, plays on emotional and psychological keys that don’t wash with the times. The film opens with a quote from Andersen — “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more” — that suggests a damp romantic masochism you find only in old TCM movies and select Nicole Kidman vehicles.

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Why should Ariel have to go through so much misery in pursuit of a human prince? (In the original story, each baby step Ariel takes on land causes her excruciating pain — she seems to have a bad case of plantar fasciitis.) Is it unfair to ask why Eric shouldn’t put on scuba gear and wade into the water to find true love?

But Bailey is everything here. When she sings, when she smiles, you feel you could live, quite happily, ever after.

The Little Mermaid is in theaters Friday.

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