Out of the sea, wish I could beeeeEEEeeeeEEeee… part of that world.
Disney dropped the first teaser trailer for the live-action version of The Little Mermaid on September 2022 and it took us to the depths of the oceans on the waves of Alan Menken‘s familiar score. A harp plucks a familiar arpeggio and we begin to see glimpses of her: Ariel. The score begins to swell and then pauses with excitement as a full orchestra clears a path for Halle Bailey, our Ariel. A voice of cautious hope sings: “Out of the sea…” and then it fades in on Bailey looking above to a place beyond the ocean floor, “wish I could beeeeEEEeeeeEEeee…part of that world…”
It’s that “be” riff combined with Bailey’s longingly powerful eyes, golden voice, and glowing screen presence that made you know that Bailey is not just a movie star… she is a star.
That said, leave it to a Black woman to save a sinking ship from not becoming a total disaster.
The Rob Marshall-directed The Little Mermaid is merely the next link in a long chain of live-action adaptations of beloved Disney animated classics that we will continue to consume because of our curiosity, morbid or otherwise. However, The Little Mermaid hits different.
The 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid marked the beginning a golden Disney renaissance of animated films that included The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame — which has one of the best scores ever (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).
This was an era defining film so when Disney announced it was going to make a live-action version, those who inhabit the GenX-millennial-ish space, a live-action The Little Mermaid was a big deal.
There was a lot of fan-casting of Zendaya as Ariel and it was actually rumored that she was going to be the star of the movie. She responded to Entertainment Tonight in regards to the rumors saying “I’m sure it will be great when they make it and I’ll go see it like everyone else” and in People she basically said the same thing. The energy was giving “No, I’m not Ariel.” Still, it wasn’t a bad idea. So much that popular BossLogic created a too-good-too-be-fake poster to support the rumors. Ultimately the part (or your world) went to the Chloe x Halle songstress and grown-ish.
When the casting of Bailey was first announced it was met with a lot of backlash because, you know, white supremacy, racism, ignorance, intolerance — all the normal stuff. People were weaponizing “wokeness” against the film and Bailey expected it.
“As a Black person, you just expect it and it’s not really a shock anymore,” Bailey told The Face in an interview. She added that she had no plans on paying attention social media when it was first announced that she would be Ariel. “When [Chlöe and I] first signed to Parkwood, [Beyoncé] was always like: ‘I never read my comments. Don’t ever read the comments.’ Honestly, when the teaser came out, I was at the D23 Expo and I was so happy. I didn’t see any of the negativity.”
Well, if all of these folks were going to get their Andrew Christians in a bunch over a Black Ariel, they were in for a huge surprise when they would realize how multicultural and “woke” this Little Mermaid was going to be: Javier Bardem as King Triton; Noma Dumezweni as Prince Eric’s Mom; Daveed Diggs as Sebastian; Awkwafina as Scuttle; Jeremy Tremblay as Flounder; Jonah Hauer-King and Prince Eric — and on top of all that Lin-Manuel Miranda was set to work with Menken and add his Hamilton flavor to what would now include more of a Caribbean vibe — because now, Prince Eric lives on this undisclosed Caribbean island where Jodi Benson, the original voice of the animated Ariel, works in the farmer’s market. Also, the island is widely diverse not to mention as are Ariel’s United Colors of Benetton school of mersisters Tamika (Sienna King), Mala (Karolina Conchet), Caspia (Nathalie Sorrell), Karina (Kasja Mohammarc), Perla (Lorena Andrea), and Indira (Bridgerton‘s Simone Ashley).
All is set for a diverse movie adapted from a beloved Disney classic, right? No presh.
Like every live-action Disney adaptation, The Little Mermaid follows nearly all the same beats and produces a nice shiny replica of the original film. Jonah Hauer-King and Prince Eric is fine. Melissa McCarthy as Ursula is fine. Javier Bardem as King Triton is fine. Jacob Tremblay as the weird looking fish is fine. (We’ll talk about Scuttle and Sebastian later.) The movie is doing exactly what it is supposed to do: mimic the original with a bigger budget and flair, and update it enough to appease four quadrants. It’s liberal enough but appeals to conservatives.
They could have cast a drag queen as Ursula, considering the character was based on the legendary drag queen Divine. That would be the obvious answer, right? And considering what’s happening in this world, maybe a big tentacled drag queen is what we needed. Instead, we got McCarthy in what looks like she’s wearing makeup of queen doing her first drag show.
That’s not to say that McCarthy did not do a good job as Ursula. In fact, I rather liked her performance of “Poor Unfortunately Souls”. As mentioned, McCarthy delivered. I just wonder how this would have looked if Ginger Minj or Nina West was Ursula. Then again, red state moviegoers will probably be more keen on watching a movie with the star of Mike & Molly than one with a RuPaul’s Drag Race alum.
Like nearly all Disney live-action adaptation, it doesn’t live you fulfilled. If anything, it will make you fall in love the original animated feature all over again. If anything this, like every other live-action adaption, feels like IP rather than a movie — which is the direction a lot of films are headed these days. This movie feels like a product and yes, films are products but when it feels so pre-packaged it deflates some of it narrative integrity. If anything, it will just be another huge deposit for Disney’s live-action feature adaptation bank account.
The Little Mermaid is literally a fish out of water story and essentially a story, based on it’s origins, of a woman sacrificing everything for a man she barely knows — and she lives happily ever after. The live-action version shifts a couple things around and has openly announced that they have changed some of the songs from the original to make them less problematic.
Still, the movie was giving colonialism even if that wasn’t it’s intent — but it’s baked into this story, right? A mermaid wants to be human because she wants more. To her, being a human is better than being a mermaid. She hated being in the ocean. If you think of it, animated Ariel was a spoiled teen.
In the movie, Ariel doesn’t seem to have any hate for being underwater at all. She embraces her mermaidness. However, Ariel yearns to get out of the water and on land more because she has an eagerness to learn about the human world. She wants to expand her horizons for the better of the world — and lo and behold, Prince Eric wants to do the same thing! That makes them MFEO!
The Little Mermaid makes it less about Ariel needing a man to be happy and more about people being open to other lands and worlds. It’s about expanding horizons, being open-minded, welcoming and tolerant of one another no matter where we come from. In other words, the opposite of the United States. We see this at the end when the newly humanized Ariel and Eric set off to the high seas to explore and “change the world”. It’s not exactly clear how they were going to do this, but the intention is there and I fully support it.
The message of the film is loud and clear, but it doesn’t make it a good movie… it doesn’t make it a bad one either. It is carried by Halle Bailey. Without her, this movie lacks a soul and charisma. This brings us to Diggs and Awkwafina as Sebastian and Scuttle. Diggs cracks wise and does well as the iconic crab. That said, I have no authority on Diggs’s Jamaican accent, but it doesn’t sound like many people weren’t happy about it. Awkwafina as Scuttle is fun, but her rap-esque performance might raise some eyebrows based on past criticism of her using a “blaccent”. All of these were definitely choices… choices that were saved by Miss Bailey.
Marshall has a history of adapting stories about female-identifying characters who yearn for more than they are given. He directed Renée Zellweger as Roxie Hart in the 2002’s Chicago, which earned her an Oscar nom. Then he helmed the ambitious adaptation of Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha which was not the best and a critical bust — but it was beautiful to look at! And now there’s Ariel… two out of three ain’t bad.
Yes, he directed Bailey well, but it was still all her doing. The actress lights up the screen and commands it with an excitement and energy that just exudes star power — and that voice. It keeps you engaged and it’s effortless. Of course, she ate “Part of Your World” and all of its beautiful reprises up, but she also sang the new “For The First Time” effortlessly as if it was in the original along.
The Little Mermaid isn’t terrible. If this were a group project in school, it was clear that Halley Bailey did the most amazing work and for that, she should be rewarded.