Now Ariel is in the singer Halle Bailey’s hands. And it’s not that she can’t keep par with the original’s illustrators. It’s that this movie isn’t asking her to. It takes the better part of an hour for the flesh-and-blood Ariel to go mute. And when she does, whatever carbonation Bailey had to begin with goes flat. This Ariel has amnesia about needing that kiss, taking “cunning” off the table for Bailey, too.
With her sister, Bailey is half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle. They’ve got a chilling, playful approach to melody that Bailey can’t fully unleash in this movie. For one thing, she’s got two songs, one of which — the standard “Part of Your World” — does manage to let her quaver some toward the end. But what’s required of her doesn’t differ radically from what Jodi Benson did in the first movie. Ostensibly, though, Bailey has been cast because her Ariel would differ. Bailey’s is Black, with long copper hair that twists, waves and locks. Racially, the whole movie’s been, what, opened up? Diversified? Now, Ariel’s rueful daddy, King Triton, is played by a stolid Javier Bardem, who does all the king’s lamenting in Spanish-inflected English. Instead of the Broadway chorines of the original, her mermaid siblings are a multiethnic, runway-ready General Assembly.
The prince, Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), is white, English and now seems to have more plot than Ariel. “More” includes meals with his mother, Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni), who’s Black, as is her chief servant, Lashana (Martina Laird). The script, credited to David Magee, John DeLuca, and the director Rob Marshall, informs us that the queen has adopted the prince (because somebody knew inquiring minds would need to know). As the bosomy, tentacled Ursula, who’s now Triton’s banished, embittered sister, McCarthy puts a little pathos in the part’s malignancy. She seems like she’s having a fine time, a little Bette Midler, a little Mae West, a little Etta James. And the sight of her racing toward the camera in a slithery gush of arms and fury is the movie’s one good nightmare image. But even McCarthy seems stuck in a shot-for-shot, growl-for-growl tribute to her cartoon counterpart and Pat Carroll’s vocal immortalization of it.
The cartoon was about a girl who wanted to leave showbiz. She and her sisters performed follies basically for King Triton’s entertainment. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken aimed for the American Songbook’s Disney wing. The voices and evocations were Vegas and vaudeville. Dry land was, entertainment-wise, a lot dryer, but that was all right with Ariel. This new flesh-and-blood version is about a girl who’d like to withdraw her color from the family rainbow and sail off with into “uncharted waters” with her white prince.