Disney just released the first teaser for “The Little Mermaid,” starring Halle Bailey as Ariel, the eponymous teenage mermaid. The short clip features clips of the movie’s undersea world and ends with a snippet of Bailey singing “Part of Your World.”
“Wish I could be,” she melodically sings from the bottom of her secret grotto, the surface light reflecting onto her face, “part of your world.” Goosebumps.
Unfortunately, as anyone who’s been around since Bailey’s 2019 casting (or really, anyone who’s been on the internet) could expect, that short clip of hers led many to start criticizing Bailey’s casting—a.k.a. why is Ariel being played by a Black actress?
It’s exhausting. It’s already been three years since her casting announcement. That’s three whole years of seeing the same racist comments and bad faith arguments about who could play a fish. Aren’t you tired?
Let’s get through this quickly. Bailey is not taking away “redhead representation,” whatever that means. One: hair color is not some immutable trait specific to white people. Any person regardless of their race can dye their hair red—just like how Bailey dyed her locs a light copper red for the role. Don’t tell me it’s about looking natural, either. Ariel’s cherry red hair shade isn’t something that naturally exists—but if you want to go there, Bailey did dye her hair to a natural shade of red. And Afro-Caribbean natural redheads do exist, albeit rarely. Ariel has a Jamaican crab as a mentor; it’d be in theme.
But really, it’s not about the hair, is it? Ariel was almost blonde. If a white actress who wasn’t naturally a redhead dyed their hair for the role, no one would bat an eye. If that wasn’t the case, we would’ve seen people rally against Kirsten Dunst playing Mary Jane in “Spider-Man,” Scarlett Johansson playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all of the actresses who’ve played X-Men’s Jean Grey over the years.
Two: I can assure you that the redheads are fine. As long as Bryce Dallas Howard lives, there will always be natural redhead representation. You could maybe make a case for redhead discrimination if this was a UK production (and that’s a very big maybe), but it’s not.
It’s sad that the culture has soured so much. It feels as if anytime an actor of a marginalized identity is cast in a major role, it becomes fodder for debate, for accusations that a piece of media is pushing a “political agenda.” Fellas, is it woke to be a person? Can you imagine the swell of anti-woke rhetoric that the Ashanti “Cinderella” would’ve had if it debuted today? Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”?
The 1989 “The Little Mermaid” is in itself, and I say it fondly, already an unfaithful and bastardized version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. Ariel did not feel sharp knives stabbing her feet every time she walked, and she did not end up loveless, turning into seafoam, with a promise of eternal life. Ariel gets the guy! She has a half-mermaid daughter in the sequel! She has a talking fish best friend and a Jamaican crab as a tito. Her enemy is a drag queen octopus. Everyone sings! Why now the sudden reverence for canon, for staying true to the original?
I don’t know how else to emphasize this: Ariel is a fish. She can be anything.
All this hate is especially unfair to Bailey. She received an onslaught of racist hate at 19! While she wasn’t exactly a newcomer back then (she was a child actress, and she and her sister Chloe had already released their first album), she was still so young. And she didn’t have the cultural influence that she has now—this was before Chloe x Halle became the pop girls due to “Ungodly Hour.”
She’s crazy talented. This is the girl who, along with her sister, were mentored by Beyonce and considered her true musical successors, after all. That’s one hell of a co-sign. And “The Little Mermaid” director Rob Marshall himself noted that no one else surpassed or even matched her audition for the role.
We can already see that in the quick peek. She’s able to capture Ariel’s hopeful innocence, her genuine yearning to explore a different and foreign world because to her, it’s magic. She has that twinkle in her eye.
And not to belabor the point, but the way she sings out the “be”? Beautiful. That’s it. May nanalo na, we can all go home now.
Disney’s live-action reimaginings aren’t working, but it’s not because of the actors
That being said, can I guarantee that this would be a good movie? Not really.
I don’t doubt that Halle Bailey is going to be amazing in this, but this is also yet another one of the Disney live-action reimaginings of their classic animated movies. Each of these reimaginings belie a cynical assessment of the original work that doesn’t fully understand why they worked or why they became so beloved, and end up disregarding animation as a medium. Is anyone going back to the #girlboss “no Stockholm Syndrome here!” “Beauty and the Beast?”
(Material for another story: Isn’t it wild that a bunch of nerds popularized a heavily criticized pathology with misogynistic origins—gendered violence reporter Jess Hill calls Stockholm Syndrome dubious and founded on a lie in her book “See What You Made Me Do”—just to dunk on a kid’s movie? Pop psychology is evil.)
If we’re truly being honest, these movies aren’t being brought back to life because of a reverence for the original. It’s to feed Disney’s bottomline; quick cash grabs banking on nostalgia making the most of their copyright before they expire. The ultimate goal of these films is to replace the original so that they can continue milking these stories for years to come. I’m not saying that the creatives aren’t genuinely trying to make a good product—Emma Watson probably really believed in her Belle—but let’s be real here.
And all these movies are all trying to follow the Tom Hooper school of realism, the belief that grimy, muddy realism is more authentic and therefore better. Can we please do away with the idea that capturing realism is the ultimate goal of art? I’m still not over the “Lion King” National Geographic-esque live action. That wasn’t live action!
There’s nothing wrong with realism per se, but I’m getting so tired of eschewing the magical for some vague notion of realism. I want wonder! I want whimsy! I don’t want uncanny valley hyperrealistic cats taking off their skin suits. Unlearn Tom Hooper. Take away the gray scale.
All of Disney’s recent live-action reimaginings are dull, lifeless versions of the original. They don’t have heart, and heart was the best part of the old movies. I’m afraid that “The Little Mermaid” reimagining will be more of the same. The animated “Little Mermaid” turned a pretty but slightly sad fairytale into a pretty and hypermagical fantasy. “Part of Your World” is a showcase of wonder and excitement. We don’t even see much of Ariel’s secret grotto from the teaser because it’s so dim. Dimness is a telltale sign of Hooperism.
It almost makes me mad. It’s like a setup for Bailey and all the other talented BIPOC actors playing in these films. They will invariably be the ones blamed for a movie not working. If “The Little Mermaid” turns out bad, the people who are already criticizing Bailey will pin all of the blame on her and her casting. It’s unfair.
But who knows? Maybe Rob Marshall can pull another “Chicago.” Maybe the rest of the film (that isn’t the one-minute teaser) isn’t so dim. Maybe we can get something fun for once. At the very least, we know that the soundtrack is going to be god-tier.
Photo screengrabbed from “The Little Mermaid” teaser