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'The Little Mermaid' reimagines cartoon Ariel and pals as part of your (real) world

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In 1989, the Walt Disney Company released one of its last hand-drawn feature films, "The Little Mermaid."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SEA")

SAMUEL ERNEST WRIGHT: (As Sebastian, singing) Under the sea, under the sea. Darling, it's better...

SUMMERS: A classic Disney princess story, it was a throwback to early Disney in many ways, a fairy tale filled with songs and romance. Now Ariel and her pals have been given a live-action makeover. Critic Bob Mondello says the new "Little Mermaid" is a throwback, too.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You loved Ariel as a kid, when she was a two-dimensional mermaid who yearned to be up on the surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART OF YOUR WORLD")

JODI BENSON: (As Ariel, singing) I want to be where the people are. I want to see, want to see them dancing.

MONDELLO: And you wonder, will you love her again in the flesh, as it were? Well, filmmaker Rob Marshall and star Halle Bailey make that part easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART OF YOUR WORLD")

HALLE BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Flipping your fins, you don't get too far. Legs are required for jumping, dancing.

MONDELLO: Bailey's voice is gorgeous and her presence lovely, with presumably digital hair bobbing underwater, eyes sparkling, scales glistening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART OF YOUR WORLD")

BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun.

MONDELLO: Ariel will be tested when she rescues a hunky prince from a shipwreck and falls for him while he's unconscious - maybe his best look, actually, Ariel's companion, Sebastian the crab, knows King Triton will disapprove and suspects that their gull pal Scuttle will not be much help.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Sebastian) Are you listening to me?

AWKWAFINA: (As Scuttle) Yes.

DIGGS: (As Sebastian) You won't tell him. I won't tell him. And I will stay in one piece. You got it?

AWKWAFINA: (As Scuttle) Got it. Sorry. What'd you say again?

DIGGS: (As Sebastian) I am a dead crab.

MONDELLO: They're voiced by Daveed Diggs and Awkwafina, respectively, while Ariel's devious aunt Ursula the sea witch is played in full octopus drag with eight glow-in-the-dark tentacles by Melissa McCarthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS")

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Ursula, singing) Come on, you poor, unfortunate soul. Go ahead. Make your choice. I'm a very busy woman, and I haven't got all day. It won't cost much - just your voice.

MONDELLO: So far, so familiar, as the director duplicates scenes and camera moves in photorealistic fashion. He's mostly substituting digital animation for hand-drawn here, so calling the film live action is a stretch, but give the studio its concept. There are things you can't unsee, like Javier Bardem's tummy undulations when he flicks his tail as King Triton and things that take more time when you need them to look real. The new film is almost an hour longer than the old one, but there are also new Alan Menken songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda nicely reflecting the late Howard Ashman's taste for rhyme-happy lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE FIRST TIME")

BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Everything's clearer and brighter and hotter, but now that I'm here like a fish out of water, I'm trying to stand. But this gravity's pulling me down.

MONDELLO: Where the first film had a mostly European feel apart from Sebastian's Crabbean (ph) accent, the filmmakers have set this one firmly in the Caribbean, an island kingdom that a bit of dialogue establishes was once a trade hub, explaining a populace that's as multicultural as the audience Disney is hoping to attract.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS THE GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, vocalizing).

MONDELLO: The queen is Black. Prince Eric isn't. He's white, but he's adopted. And there are Asian, Latino and Indigenous faces everywhere, including underwater, where ethnic diversity establishes that Ariel and her six sisters have each come from one of the seven seas. In short, at least as much thought has been put into making this new version inclusive as into imagining how dancing seahorses might look in a photorealistic world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SEA")

DIGGS: (As Sebastian) Watch this. (Singing) The newt play the flute.

MONDELLO: You can admire all the hard work and still wonder whether this particular vehicle justifies the effort. In 1989, the cartoon "Little Mermaid," coming after three decades of mediocre animation, ushered in a Disney renaissance that soon produced "Beauty And The Beast," "Lion King" and "Aladdin." All of those have subsequently gotten live-action makeovers. So this "Little Mermaid" isn't going to usher in anything besides a lot of money. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SEA")

BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Under the sea.

DIGGS: (As Sebastian, singing) Under the sea.

BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Under the sea.

DIGGS: (As Sebastian) When the sardine begin the beguine, it's music to me.

BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Music is to me.

DIGGS: (As Sebastian, singing) What do they got?

DAVEED DIGGS AND HALLE BAILEY: (As Sebastian and Ariel, singing) A lot of sand.

DIGGS: (As Sebastian, singing) We got a hot crustacean band. Each little clam here know how to jam here under the sea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.