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‘The Little Mermaid’ shines, thanks to Halle Bailey and a warm wave of nostalgia

<i>From Walt Disney Studios/YouTube</i><br/>Halle Bailey in Disney's live-action
From Walt Disney Studios/YouTube
Halle Bailey in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — As the movie that began Disney’s animation renaissance in 1989, a live-action “The Little Mermaid” comes with big fins to fill. Thanks largely to star Halle Bailey, the lavish musical holds up nicely under the weight of those expectations, preserving the original’s essence while updating undernourished aspects of it and riding a warm, hard-to-resist wave of nostalgia.

Older kids might be jaded about the prospect of heading under the sea again, but parents and younger ones should find a lot to like in the studio’s latest exercise in leaving no intellectual property unexploited. While that has produced a mixed bag of live-action adaptations, “The Little Mermaid” happily falls more toward the “Beauty and the Beast” end of the gene pool than, say, “Dumbo” or the recent Disney+ misfire “Pinocchio.”

At first blush, theater-goers might wonder why this retelling would pad roughly 50 minutes onto the length of the animated hit, probably remembering more about its colorful songs than its love-at-first-sight story.

Working with writer David Magee and producer/Broadway standout Lin-Manuel Miranda (who has contributed new lyrics to augment Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classics), director Rob Marshall (whose musical credentials include “Chicago” and “Into the Woods”) answers that by fleshing out not just Bailey’s Ariel but the object of her affection, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), who gets a new ballad and more backstory.

When the movie was announced, it was difficult to fathom the unhinged reaction from the dankest quadrants of social media and the racism from trolls in response to Bailey’s casting. Seeing her inhabit the role with wide-eyed wonder, and gloriously belt out songs like “Part of Your World,” underscores that the producers chose wisely, which extends across the board to Melissa McCarthy as the evil Ursula, who leverages Ariel’s longing in her thirst for power; and Javier Bardem, who somehow manages to rock a crown and trident as King Triton.

Marshall bombards the audience with “Aquaman”-like visuals right off the bat, conveying the grandeur of the undersea kingdom as well as Ariel’s restlessness. When she finally does sing, the familiarity of the signature song “Part of Your World” makes the experience almost interactive, prompting spontaneous applause as if this were an actual musical.

There are some tweaks to the playlist, including a rap number for the absent-minded bird Scuttle (Awkwafina), bringing “Kiss the Girl” into the 21st century and dispensing with the culinary tune about cooking poor Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), whose role is otherwise undiminished. (Advance fretting about how the sea creatures look turns out to be much ado about nothing, though nitpicking with this sort of endeavor is inevitable.)

The heart of “The Little Mermaid,” however, remains very much intact. On the plus side, letting Ariel and Eric spend more quality time together once she’s on land makes the romance more organic. On the down side, the climactic confrontation with Ursula proves underwhelming, but it was among the weaker elements in the original as well.

An undertaking like “The Little Mermaid” obviously comes with various peripheral concerns for Disney, from merchandising to its theme parks. The movie manages the daunting task of treating the material with earnest reverence without being entirely shackled by it.

Viewed from that shore, “The Little Mermaid” is both slick and satisfying, meeting the primary challenge of allowing parents and kids to create memories around seeing it together. Setting aside its other assets, Bailey’s out-of-this-world contribution alone serves up the kind of splashy entertainment that justifies getting out of the summer sun, and in terms of being enjoyed far beyond that, might even have legs.

“The Little Mermaid” premieres May 26 in US theaters. It’s rated PG.

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