Whenever a new Disney live-action remake of an animated classic comes out, there’s always a hullabaloo about what, if anything, changed from the source material. Specifically, fans question whether the latest remake updates anything to take modern standards into account, or a creator boasts that it does — whether it’s giving LeFou an “exclusively gay moment” in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast or canning the Siamese cat song in 2019’s Lady and the Tramp.
For whatever reason, though, most of the filmmakers behind these projects seem determined to also “fix” the stories’ main heroines — usually losing what made them so appealing in the first place. The most nefarious case in point is Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, a character beloved by young bookworms everywhere. Making her a book-lover wasn’t enough for the 2017 remake, which also turned her into an inventor for some reason — and then did absolutely nothing with that plot point.
But in the case of the new Little Mermaid, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee actually picked the right character to update.
That isn’t Ariel, who for the most part keeps pretty much the same personality she had in the original, though she certainly gets more moments to flesh it out. Ariel is a beloved heroine, and Marshall and Magee understand what made her so appealing in the original animated Disney film. She’s curious, passionate, and idealistic, and the 1989 movie takes great care to highlight those things, while also embracing her faults, like her absent-mindedness and stubbornness. Halle Bailey’s stellar performance as Ariel in the live-action version bolsters all of those points. Even with some added moments, her Ariel is pretty much recognizable. She isn’t the one who needed to undergo a modern makeover, after all.
The character who really needed a change was Eric.
The original animated Eric is a hero of his era. He meets the minimum requirements to be a Disney Prince, in that he’s handsome and brave, and not much else. In the 1989 film, Ariel sees him on a ship, playing with his dog, and immediately falls in love with him. That’s pretty true to the original Hans Christian Andersen story — not to mention the Disney fairy-tale movies that came before — but in 2023, we need more evidence that this is a man worthy of Ariel’s time, and worthy of her giving up everything to try and be with him.
The 2023 live-action version of Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, isn’t just a hunk. He feels restless in his palace, and he wants to explore the world beyond his island nation, but he feels trapped by his mother’s rules. That’s a direct parallel to Ariel’s story, so it makes sense that she would relate to him. Her bargain with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) is more about her desire to escape her father’s controlling rules about her being in love. (Ariel’s “Daddy, I love him!” line doesn’t make the cut in this version.) There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that there is at least one person on land who would understand her choice to leave the ocean. In Eric, she sees more of a kindred spirit than a soulmate.
The new Little Mermaid also gives Ariel and Eric more time to get to know each other. Instead of the dinner scene where Ariel bungles basic social interaction, now Ariel and Eric bond over Eric’s vast collection of trinkets he found on his adventures. As it turns out, they’re both total nerds when it comes to their interests, and they’re both just squirming to talk about what they love with someone. Ariel still can’t talk because of Ursula, but she’s still an active participant in the interaction, showing Eric a thing or two about his treasures from the sea, and eagerly poring over his maps. All their interactions are fueled by an awkward yet adorable attraction that just makes their romance all the more believable, and worth rooting for.
There are some superfluous changes to the live-action movie that don’t really add anything meaningful. For instance, Ariel’s sisters are rulers of their own seas, not Triton’s decorative choral singers, but they still don’t contribute much to the plot. Ursula has added motives, but that doesn’t come up beyond her introduction. Scuttle the seagull (voiced by Awkwafina) raps for a bit, because sure, why not? If you think too hard about some of the more consequential world-building changes in 2023’s The Little Mermaid, the movie begins to unravel.
But what makes The Little Mermaid isn’t whether the fish look good, or what exactly fuels Triton and Ursula’s feud. It all comes back to Ariel and her journey, which is fueled by the central romance between her and Eric. Just because Ariel falls in love doesn’t mean she’s not a strong and beloved protagonist, and just because Eric is a handsome and dashing prince doesn’t mean he lacks the substance behind that charming smile. By updating their romance, the 2023 Little Mermaid makes the love story more satisfying — and resonant for a new generation.
The Little Mermaid swims into theaters on May 26.