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Disney’s Latest: A Not-So-Little Mermaid

Regarding Disney’s latest, the question might be: “Does the world really need another ‘Little Mermaid?’”

But we already posed that query with recent live-action reboots of “Cinderella,” “Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast.” The answer was: “Probably not; but no one’s complaining.”

And they won’t complain about the latest “Mermaid,” either — though I don’t think it’s quite as strong as the terrific titles above.

Somewhat delayed by COVID, this eagerly awaited new version has a lot going for it: The film looks fantastic, a shoo-in for an Oscar nom on cinematography — and perhaps production design as well. The new songs are excellent, and performances from Javier Bardem, Art Malik, Daveed Diggs and Jonah Hauer-King (as Prince Eric) are top-of-the-line.

But nearly everyone agrees that the film’s greatest asset is Halle Bailey. Her mesmerizing work as Ariel instantly dismisses the silly controversy over casting an African-American in this role. (Was it really smart to insist on faithfulness to original author Hans Christian Andersen, when the 1989 film had pretty much completely rewritten his story to begin with?)

Bailey somehow manages to endow Ariel with a more modern femininity without erasing her charm, her innocence or her girlishness. And good heavens, can that woman sing. When Bailey gets through with her initial number, the winsome-as-ever “Part of My World,” you just want to stand up and cheer. Or at least splash salt water and seashells into the air.

Jonah-Hauer’s first song, “Wild Uncharted Waters,” is likewise engaging, though like others here, it’s new to this film. I also loved the incidental music during the mid-movie market scene. And for the record, original Ariel Jodi Benson — who pronounced her blessing on Bailey’s performance — has a cameo in that scene.

Many viewers enjoyed Melissa McCarthy as the villainous Ursula, but for me it really did not work. Perhaps there was something jarring in importing McCarthy’s smart-alecky, real-world persona into this fantasy realm; or relatedly, that her Ursula simply isn’t frightening. Instead, as she slithers horizontally along in her bulging tentacled costume, she spends much of her time looking simply uncomfortable — which, needless to say, is not very scary.

Contrast this with Ursula’s conniving human counterpart Vanessa, who nearly seduces Eric away from our heroine; with her brief but galvanizing work in this role, Jessica Alexander proves truly unnerving and shows, among other things, that strong acting can make a lovely woman both menacing and ugly.

Diggs is hilarious in a role that at first seems underwritten; I mean, his crabby Sebastian sidesteps the usual nonstop wisecracks and zippy one-liners with which modern kid-movies often try so hard to be cool. And actually, about halfway through the film — during Eric and Ariel’s outing on the boat, to be specific — I realized that for all the dazzling colors and sea life and choreography, this new version was working hard to keep it low-key, and not to jazz up a time-tested classic. All this helps maintain an old-style, fairy-tale vibe even in a film that takes every advantage of the latest technology in sight and sound.

I will say, however, that the movie kinda loses that vibe at the climax — a loud and overblown action scene that is at least relatively brief. I also didn’t care any more here for the metaphysics of Ursula’s defeat and Triton’s restoration than I did in the first film.

But these are quibbles on a hit that has already proven to be a bona fide crowd-pleaser.

Maybe we didn’t really need another “Mermaid”; but we certainly needed a Halle Bailey.

I think we’ll all be glad she’s part of our world.