What's the same, what's different in Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' remake?

Brian Truitt

Spoiler alert: The following post lightly discusses specific scenes and plot points in the new "Little Mermaid" movie, so beware if you'd rather dive in completely cold.

Tackling a new take on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” director Rob Marshall went all the way back to the original. No, not the 1989 animated classic – he revisited Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale.

“That was very helpful because I saw immediately a very modern story about a young girl who feels displaced and is working to change her life and also break down barriers and walls between herself and the human world,” says Marshall, who leans into that conflict between mankind and merpeople in the new live-action revamp, starring Halle Bailey as mermaid Ariel. “For me, it was a real antidote to our divided world that we live in.”

That’s not the only change, though. Here’s what else is new and different in the "Little Mermaid" remake, from fresh songs to modernization:

Prince Eric finally gets a ‘Little Mermaid’ character arc – and his own ballad!

Jonah Hauer-King plays Prince Eric, who gets a backstory and a new ballad in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid."

“The Little Mermaid” still centers on Ariel’s yearning to explore the surface world, her dastardly deal with sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) and the blossoming romance between Ariel and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Unlike the ’89 film, Eric finally gets to musically shine with “Wild Uncharted Waters,” one of three new songs by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his backstory is revealed: He was a shipwrecked little boy adopted by the island kingdom’s Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni).

Their relationship is similar to Ariel’s with her father King Triton (Javier Bardem), Marshall says. With Eric and his mom, “there's a feeling of misunderstanding one another and also not feeling that he belongs, like how Ariel feels like an outsider. And together they find each other as sort of kindred spirits.”

Ariel and Eric have a chance to fall in love before he needs to ‘Kiss the Girl’

Eric and Ariel spend a good amount of time sharing their sense of exploration and adventure – plus just get to know each other as he shows her his landscape where she’s a fish out of water – before the big romantic tune “Kiss the Girl.” “It's not just, ‘Oh, isn't she pretty? Isn't he cute?’ It's a deeper relationship,” Marshall says.

Adds Bailey: “It was really a beautiful thing to be able to show their kind of gravitation toward one another through the divide of the two worlds that they lived in.”

Halle Bailey’s Ariel gets a second solo showstopper

Ariel sings "Part of Your World," of course, but also gets a second solo number in "The Little Mermaid."

The young mermaid has her biggest musical moment early on, with the powerful ballad “Part of Your World.” Marshall thought she needed another song. “When she gets to land, what is she feeling?” he says. There was a certain challenge involved, though, since by that point, Ariel has lost her voice because of Ursula’s spell to turn her human. “We chose to do something in a cinematic way where you actually hear her inner thoughts musically.”

The result is “For the First Time,” where the audience gets to hear Ariel's internal song as she's introduced to the surface world. It’s about her “experiencing breathing air, experiencing a bath, experiencing this or that," Menken says. When she's finally reunited with Eric, "she can't speak, and he says, ‘Oh, that can't be her.’ And then she's experiencing heartbreak for the first time. Gravity's pulling her down not only physically but also emotionally.”

Melissa McCarthy's updated Ursula is a member of Ariel’s family

Melissa McCarthy plays the scheming sea witch Ursula in "The Little Mermaid."

Marshall wanted to “raise the stakes” of the story whenever he could, which is why Ursula in the new film isn't just some random nefarious villainess trying to rule the undersea kingdom but actually Triton’s sister (and Ariel’s aunt). 

“Why does she feel like she's the black sheep of the family? By making them brother and sister, he's banished her, (and) there's a sense that she never got enough,” Marshall says. “There's a sense of that rivalry between the two of them and who should be controlling the sea.”

'Kiss the Girl' gets new lyrics related to consent

Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) have a romantic boat ride set to the tune "Kiss the Girl" in "The Little Mermaid."

Not only is Bailey the first Black Ariel, but Triton's other daughters are also a mix of ethnicities. Also, Miranda has updated lyrics for a few of the Menken and Howard Ashman classic numbers. For example, one verse of “Kiss the Girl” has been changed to reflect today’s views on consent: The crab Sebastian (now played by Daveed Diggs) used to sing, “There is one way to ask her/It don't take a word/Not a single word/Go on and kiss the girl” and now croons, “Use your words, boy, and ask her/If the time is right/And the time is tonight/Go on and kiss the girl.”

But not all the changes lie in “trying to be more modern,” Menken says. “Sometimes it's trying to be more economical. Sometimes you're trying to catch a different plot point that you want to serve. It happens every single time anything is adapted from one medium to another.”

Don't be crabby: The fish don't play instruments in ‘Under the Sea’

Crooning crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs) gets a spotlight number with "Under the Sea" in "The Little Mermaid" but it's a bit different from the 1989 original.

Some fans of the ’89 movie might be bummed there’s no sealife band accompanying Sebastian and Ariel in the underwater spectacular. “In an animated film, you can absolutely believe that animals are playing in a jazz quartet underneath the sea," Marshall says. "It just doesn't work here because we're in real waters.”

Instead, the director wanted to capture the “beautiful dance happening there” in the ocean with his photorealistic, computer-generated creatures. So Marshall enlisted members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to help craft “the most challenging” musical sequence the “Chicago” filmmaker has ever done.  “I actually took that cue from Walt Disney himself because he had worked with Ballet Russes when he created ‘Fantasia.’ I thought, you know what, they can approximate the moves of these incredible sea creatures so we can actually create a big production number with only one live actor.”

Contributing: Rasha Ali

More on Disney's new 'Little Mermaid':

Review:Halle Bailey keeps Disney's 'Little Mermaid' remake from being all wet

Halle Bailey:New 'Little Mermaid' pushes herself 'past what I thought I could ever do'

'We almost lost it':'Little Mermaid' composer remembers fight for 'Part of Your World'

'Ursula is everything':Melissa McCarthy loves her 'conniving' 'Little Mermaid' villain

Contributing: Rasha Ali