Live-action “Little Mermaid” largely sticks to what works

At a time when the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence is a major topic of conversation, it’s good to know that sometimes it’s all about the people.

Disney’s latest live-action “reimagining” of one of its animated musical classics, “The Little Mermaid,” succeeds largely because of three folks: leads Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King and director Rob Marshall.

Let’s start with the latter. Having helmed a couple of impressive musical-theater adaptations — 2002’s Academy Award-winning “Chicago” and 2014’s “Into the Woods” — and most recently delivering with the high-stakes sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” in 2018, Marshall was a safe and smart choice for “Mermaid.” There is the occasional misfire — you may have to work not to laugh out loud at a major moment late in the film — but Marshall has crafted an update that should please fans of the original and those new to the story, as well.

More bold are the picks to portray the titular mermaid, Ariel, and Eric, the young human prince with whom she falls in love. One-half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, Balle sings with a voice somehow both silky and determined, and her acting, while not as strong, is more than good enough. Meanwhile, Hauer-King — who starred in 2017’s “A Dog’s Way Home” — infuses Prince Eric with heart and passion without overdoing it, exhibiting a fine singing voice himself along the way.

The 1989 version of “The Little Mermaid” is credited with ushering in a new age of animated gems from the House of Mouse. This fresh version also, of course, is based on the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name and hits all the major story beats of the original.

Ariel (18, not 16, in this version) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (a going-through-the-motions Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”), who rules the oceans from his underwater kingdom. The young woman is fascinated by all things human, collecting this and that from the world above, but she is forbidden to have anything to do with people by the fearful merman.

Still, her family and pals Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, “Luca”), a tropical fish, northern gannet Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina, the lead voice in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon”) and crab Sebastian (voiced by “Hamilton” alum Daveed Diggs with a Trini accent), the king’s trusty if not-always-forthcoming servant, just aren’t enough.

We meet Eric on his latest voyage, returning home to a Caribbean island where he has been raised by his adoptive mother, The Queen (Noma Dumezweni, “Mary Poppins Returns”), with the help of the good-natured Sir Grimsby (Art Malik, “Homeland”).

When Eric’s ship runs afoul of a storm, Ariel rescues him before quickly vanishing, leaving him with only a vague idea of her and her seemingly magical voice. He becomes consumed with finding this mystery woman.

Speaking of her vice, Ariel is so desperate to experience the human world that she makes a deal with her father’s power-hungry sister, sea witch Ursula (an appropriately hammy Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”): human legs in exchange for her siren song. The fine print of the agreement says that Ariel must receive true love’s kiss before the end of her third day as a human or her aunt will hold on to her mermaid gift forever.

Ariel, new limbs and all and very much a fish out of water, soon arrives at the castle. However, she cannot speak and thus is unable to tell Eric who she is, in fact, this woman of his dreams. Nonetheless, they immediately hit it off, and as they spend time together, he begins to have conflicting ideas of what he wants.

However, you don’t think Ursula will just float about and let this match happen, do you?

While this live-action “Mermaid” falls a little short in the emotional-impact department, it is a wholly pleasant affair. It’s at its best whenever Bailey and Hauer-King share the screen, such as on a day together that concludes as they float in the water and Ariel gets an assist from her little pals in setting a magically romantic scene.

That sequence is gorgeous, as “The Little Mermaid” is most of the time. It’s pretty spectacular stuff when we are underwater, the effects folks clearly putting in a lot of work on small details such as the movement of Ariel’s hair.

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The movie sounds great, too, thanks largely to the songs of the original, by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics). We get some new lyrics courtesy of “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, with Eric’s number “Wild Unchartered Waters” a new standout. (We can’t say we loved the vocal performance of Awkwafina in the humorous Scuttle-forward “The Scuttlebutt,” however.) For the most part, though, songs such as Ariel’s “Part of Your World” and the Sebastian-led “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” work in the same effective manner they did nearly 25 years ago.

That’s true, too, of the movie itself, with credit also owed to the screenplay of David Magee (“Life of Pi,” “Finding Neverland”), working from the original by John Musker and Ron Clement.

Disney’s live-action updates have been hit-and-miss, and we certainly understand the fans who feel they’re unnecessary. That said, we live in a world where the Disney folks see them as necessary for the company’s bottom line, so regardless of whether they’re essential, it’s nice when they’re enchanting.

‘The Little Mermaid’

Where: Theaters.

When: May 26.

Rated: PG for action/peril and some scary images.

Runtime: 2 hours.

Stars (of four): 3.

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