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THE LITTLE MERMAID: 3 STARS. “underwater scenes gives your eyeballs a workout.”

Disney takes you back under the sea with “The Little Mermaid,” the latest of their photo-realistic, live action remakes of classic animated movies. Based on the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, the new film places the titular mermaid in an undersea world that brings to mind your work computer’s aquarium screensaver.

Singer-songwriter and actress Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, the mermaid daughter of the Kingdom of Atlantica’s ruler King Triton (Javier Bardem). She is a free spirit, fascinated by the human world. Unlike his daughter, the overprotective King is no fan of humans and has forbidden her from visiting the “above world.”

But, like the song says, she “wants to be where the people are,” despite her father’s warnings. “I want to see them dancing,” she sings. “Walking around on those… what do you call them? Oh feet!”

Her dry land dreams are fulfilled when she rescues the human Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning. She is immediately smitten, and determined to live above sea level.

“This obsession with humans has got to stop,” scolds King Triton.

“I just want to know more about them,” she says.

Following her heart, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), an evil sea witch with glow-in-the-dark phosphorescence tentacles, who grants the mermaid’s wish to be with Eric in trade for her “siren song,” i.e. her voice.

“Here’s the deal,” she says. “I’ll whip up a little potion to make you human for three days. Before the sun sets on the third day, you and Princey must share a kiss, and not just any kiss. The kiss of true love. If you do, you will remain human permanently. But if you don’t, you’ll turn back into a mermaid and you belong to me.”

Ursula’s “premium package” comes at a high cost, however. A steep price tag that could cost King Triton his crown and Ariel her life.

You can’t shake the feeling, while watching the new “The Little Mermaid,” that it is competing with itself.

The 2023 photo-realistic animation is very good, presenting beautiful, fluid images, buoyed by theatrical flourishes from director Rob Marshall and strong performances from Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy. The new songs, by Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, are good too, particularly the fun “Scuttlebutt.”

But it feels like something is missing. That’s the magic that made the ink and paint “Little Mermaid” an enduring classic.

There is plenty of razzmatazz. Marshall, a veteran of big musical extravaganzas like “Chicago” and “Into the Woods,” is at his best when applying a Broadway style gloss to the musical numbers. “Under the Sea,” a holdover from the first film, is a knockout. The psychedelic underwater cinematography will give your eyeballs a workout and it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

But for every Ziegfeld Follies style dancing sea slug number—super cool—there is yet another movie-stopping scene of Ursula’s endless exposition where she explains her nefarious plot or a padded action scene. Those slow spots give the storytelling a choppiness that would capsize a lesser vessel but Bailey’s strong, emotional vocals and star-making performance coupled with a fun turn from Daveed Diggs as the “educated crustation” Sebastian keep the ship from sinking.

“The Little Mermaid’s” message of a young person giving up their voice so they could be heard, is unchanged, and is still powerful, but feels waterlogged by comparison to the original.

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