“The Little Mermaid” will open in theaters this week as the latest installment of Disney live-action remakes, with many excited to see a fresh take on the classic film.
Live-action remakes have warranted their own brand of criticism because of how beloved the originals are among generations of people who grew up watching them. There are inevitable critiques of how the filmmakers changed elements of the animated versions, whether they transform the movie into a fresh take or disturb the charm of the original.
“The Little Mermaid,” however, garnered public criticism for casting choices that created a very diverse pod of mermaids in the kingdom of Atlantica. The film’s titular character, Ariel, is traditionally depicted as a pale, red-haired mermaid. The live-action remake cast Halle Bailey, a Black actress and singer, for the role.
Muse Machine, Dayton’s revered arts education organization, staged “The Little Mermaid” in January with a diverse cast of students. Producer and Director of Student Programs & Marketing Douglas Merk said his cast of over 100 young people had “extremely positive” reactions to learning about the movie’s cast, and they were excited to see the talent showcased by those actors in the film.
While reboots and remakes have been a popular trend in the last several years, Hollywood has a long tradition of remaking movies to almost guarantee income if the original was a success, according to Jeffery Brown, professor and chair in the department of popular culture and the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University. He said Disney has the opportunity to do that, but also make something new by taking animated favorites and transforming them into live-action movies.
Part of that transformation stems from being able to use new technology like computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create live-action movies involving make-believe elements such as mermaids and singing sea creatures. Another piece is making those time-honored films into something many generations can enjoy.
“(Disney is) making the live-action that will play into the nostalgia with the grown-ups who are then going to take their kids to see this fresh take on it,” Brown said.
Making updates to remakes like “The Little Mermaid” with a diverse cast and a few lyrical changes to the soundtrack gives generational audiences – “a real chance to talk about how things have changed,” according to Brown.
“There’s nothing wrong with admitting that our entertainment of the past was racist, sexist or homophobic,” Brown said. “It’s a good measure of how far we’ve come that people are willing to do different things.”
Bailey’s casting, which was announced in July 2019, was immediately met with negativity fueled by racism. Critics online began trending the hashtag #NotMyAriel on social media in reaction to the news, Variety reported.
When Walt Disney Studios released trailers for the film, detesters showed their disdain for the movie with the YouTube dislike button. Over 3 million people disliked the teaser trailer from September, and over 2 million disliked the official trailer from March. Several recent clips of “The Little Mermaid” and behind-the-scenes looks have also received more dislikes than likes.
Specifically with “The Little Mermaid,” Brown said defining and sticking to a certain race for adaptions of Ariel and her sisters is “ridiculous” given that mermaids aren’t real and there is no reference point for what they should look like. He said it’s understandable to feel connected to the original versions of these classics, but these kinds of changes do not alter them in significant ways.
“This is a story about human behavior, and it’s a classic tale. The color of somebody’s skin really doesn’t matter,” Brown said. “It doesn’t change what the message of the film is.”
Brown said that for Black children, seeing themselves in positive roles in entertainment is both exciting and helps change how ethnicity is seen. When children can see themselves as heroes in films, it challenges the boundaries of identity, he said.
Videos of little Black girls reacting with joy to “The Little Mermaid” trailer, for example, went viral on social media.
When Muse Machine cast its version of the show, Merk saw something similar manifest.
“Not only was (a diverse cast) not disruptive to the storytelling, it was a reflection of our own community and the families in our audiences made the additional, joyful connections of watching people like themselves on stage,” Merk said.
First looks of the film through trailers showed the dynamics of how Ariel’s iconic hair will appear when it is animated underwater using CGI featuring Bailey’s locs (a natural hairstyle). Bailey was on the May cover of Ebony magazine, and she spoke with the magazine on the personal and cultural importance this directing choice had for her.
“There was a time when we’d barely see locs — and now we have a Disney princess with them, which has never happened before,” she said. “It was super important for me to have my natural hair in this film. I was really grateful to (director) Rob Marshall, because he wanted to keep my locs. It’s always important to have somebody to cosign.”
Credit: Alberto Pezzali/Invision/AP
Credit: Alberto Pezzali/Invision/AP
Angela Davis of Miamisburg said she celebrates casting that finds the best talent for the role. Having Bailey step into the character and advocate for her natural hair offers both talent and a refreshing take for Davis. Earlier in her career, Davis recalled being told to straighten her hair to look more professional because natural hair on a Black woman “wasn’t acceptable.”
“For little Black girls to be able to watch a movie like ‘The Little Mermaid’ and see a Black girl wearing her hair naturally, it is definitely inspirational for them to see that their hair in its natural state is acceptable,” Davis said. “It’s not considered unprofessional. It’s not considered bad, but it’s considered beautiful because that’s the hair that God gave them.”
At 5 years old, Davis’s daughter Rylee told her that when she grew up she wanted to be a teacher, a doctor and a mermaid. For her birthday that year, she celebrated with a swim party themed after “The Little Mermaid.” Davis even had a custom cartoon drawing created of her daughter as Ariel for the occasion.
“We live in a society where we tell girls that they can be anything,” Davis said. “If we can tell them that they can be president, they can be a CEO, they can be a doctor or a lawyer, then why can’t they be a beautiful princess?”
Now 13, Rylee is “amped” to see “The Little Mermaid” when it comes out, her mother said.
“Just yesterday, (Rylee) said, ‘Mommy, the movie is coming out. We’ve got to go see it this weekend,’” Davis said. “It means a lot to our little girls.”
HOW TO GO
What: “The Little Mermaid” in theaters
When: Opens Thursday, May 25
Where: Cinemark Dayton South 16 and XD, Cinemark The Greene 14 and IMAX, Cinépolis Dayton, Huber Heights 16 and Regal Fairfield Commons are showing the movie in the Dayton area.
More Information: For more showtimes, visit Fandango’s website.
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