The Little Mermaid makes box office splash with US$95.5 million opening
This image released by Disney shows Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. (Photo: AP)

LOS ANGELES, USA (AP) — The Little Mermaid made moviegoers want to be under the sea on Memorial Day weekend.

Disney's live-action remake of its 1989 animated classic easily outswam the competition, bringing in US$95.5 million on 4,320 screens in North America, according to studio estimates.

And Disney estimates the film starring Halle Bailey as the titular mermaid Ariel and Melissa McCarthy as her sea witch nemesis Ursula would reach US$117.5 million by the time the holiday is over. It ranks as the fifth-biggest Memorial Day weekend opening ever.

It displaces Fast X in the top spot. The 10th instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise starring Vin Diesel has lagged behind more recent releases in the series, bringing in US$23 million domestically for a two-week total of US$108 million for Universal Pictures.

Melissa McCarthy stars as the sea witch nemesis Ursula.

In its fourth weekend, Disney and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 made an estimated US$20 million in North America to take third place. It's now made US$299 million domestically.

The performance of The Little Mermaid represents something of a bounce-back for Disney's animated-to-live-action remakes, and makes it likely they will keep coming indefinitely. Poor reception and the pandemic had some recent reboots either performing poorly or skipping theatrical releases for Disney+, including Dumbo, Mulan and Pinocchio.

"It works as long as the movies deliver," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. "It's great for Disney to be able to go to their archive by reviving these titles that started off as huge hits in the animated realm."

The opening puts it in the top tier of Disney's remakes, with a similar performance to 2019's Aladdin, though it was well short of 2017's Beauty and the Beast, which opened to more than US$170 million, and 2019's The Lion King, which brought in more than US$190 million in its first weekend.

Audiences thought it delivered. The film had an A CinemaScore and, according to exit polling, had more ticket buyers between ages 25 and 34 than children, suggesting nostalgic adults were essential.

"The multigenerational component of this cannot be overstated," Dergarabedian said.

Critics were more lukewarm. The movie is currently at 67 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. In her review, Lindsey Bahr of The Associated Press called it "a somewhat drab undertaking with sparks of bioluminescence" that like too many of the Disney remakes "prioritised nostalgia and familiarity over compelling visual storytelling".

She said Bailey, half of the sister R&B duo Chloe x Halle, still shone with a "lovely presence" and "superb voice".

Directed by Rob Marshall with a reported budget of US$250 million before marketing, The Little Mermaid tells the story of a yearning, wayward daughter who cuts a devil's deal to swap her fins for a pair of legs. It features the songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, including Part of Your World and Under the Sea, that helped the original film spark a Disney animation renaissance in the 1990s.

Fourth place went to Universal's The Super Mario Bros Movie, which keeps reaching new levels in its eighth weekend. Now available to rent on VOD, it still earned US$6.3 million in cinemas. Its cumulative total of US$559 million makes Mario and Luigi the year's biggest earners so far.

Comics couldn't stand up to Ariel as the week's other new releases sank.

The Machine, an action comedy starring stand-up comedian Bert Kreischer, finished fifth with US$4.9 million domestically. And About My Father, the broad comedy starring stand-up Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro, was sixth with US$4.3 million.

It's not clear whether The Little Mermaid will have legs — or fins — going forward. Next week brings the release of animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts arriving the following week.

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