The Little Mermaid’s remake as a live action movie improves upon the original in several important respects. The racial diversity of the movie not only helps to invite more people into the fantasy, but it also makes it a more interesting story and one that is truer to life. The ocean scenes are rendered more realistically, are sure to please ocean lovers, and might even entice some people to care more about the seas. The brilliant acting also takes this film to another level and allows viewers to empathize with all the characters and to respond emotionally to the narrative arc of the story. All in all, this version of one of Disney’s beloved classics has blown its predecessor out of the water in a big way.
The most controversial decision the filmmakers made was to have Ariel reimagined as a Black mermaid. This initially provoked racist outrage and backlash from a segment of the public who have characterized Disney as pushing a “woke” agenda and who consider that to be a bad thing. In an age of outrage marketing, adding a new racial component also seemed like an effective way to draw attention to the movie. When people complained about Ariel being Black it instantly made the movie’s opening more important. The way race functions in The Little Mermaid, however, works as more than a mere gimmick; it deepens the story and adds additional meaning to it.
The mermaids in this version are from the seven seas and consequently represent a variety of cultural differences. One potentially tricky aspect of the plot is that King Triton is father to all the mermaids in a kind of polygamous underwater royal family, but that is a side note and not the reason people were outraged. What works well is that Ariel is like the people who inhabit the islands on which the story take place. It is not just that her skin is darker than the cartoon version, but she also has dreadlocks in her beautiful reddish hair. When she joins Eric for a tour of the island, it is full of the vibrant colors of Caribbean culture with fruits, clothes, and art accenting the lush green land and vibrant blue sky. The island is populated by a beautiful array of Black people and Ariel matches their look.
Another reason why the casting of Hallie Bailey as Ariel matters is precisely why people were outraged at the decision in the first place. They identified with the first version of Ariel and presumably feared what it might feel like to see their favorite mermaid being Black. What they didn’t consider, however, was what it might mean to young Black women to see themselves represented in an iconic Disney movie.
When Ariel sings “Part of Your World” it taps into a deep sadness felt by many young Black American women in a culture rife with systemic racism and sexism. It is a radical revision of racial difference that transfigures racialized pain such as that felt by the main character in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. It takes the anguish of a girl who feels snubbed for her looks by the dominant culture and transforms her racial difference into something incidental. If a mermaid can become a human, what importance does race have?
Having a Black mermaid sing opens the meaning of this song in truly profound ways, as she wonders what it is like to belong to a world denied to her. It is not, however, her race that holds her back. As Ariel sings this lament, she is poised on a rock and a wave breaks against the boulder behind her hiding her fishlike tail. This synchronicity with the rhythm of the ocean amplifies the force of her feeling. The focus in this moment is on what is shared and not on what separates. It is visually stunning and creates a powerful emotional impact.
The depiction of underwater life makes excellent use of Disney’s army of digital artists to create an amazing experience of the ocean. From the way the waves crash against cliffs to the diffused filtering of light through kelp, this is a moving painting of an oceanic setting, a stunning similitude of the sea, that evokes an amorous response in anyone with affinity for the saltwater world.
When the mermaids are clearing the lumber of a wrecked ship from a coral reef, the film veers into an ecological plea to humans to understand the impact they are having on the ocean’s ecosystems. It is hard to imagine this having as much of an effect without the vivid rendering of the underwater world and its incomparable beauty. The mermaids can speak on behalf of the animals who suffer every time we pollute the oceans with busted oil pipes, gyres of trash, and acidification. When we don’t see the damage that we are doing and the beauty it destroys, we don’t feel compelled to change. When we witness the anger and sadness of the mermaids, the traumatic aspect of our way of life is given a voice.
It is the quality of acting that raises this movie to the level of greatness. Halley Bailey is an absolute superstar, and she brings strength, poise, and beauty to the role of Ariel with such undeniable greatness. It will be hard for the Academy Awards to not give her an Oscar. If Disney was accused by some conservative fans of pandering to the Left by forcing diversity into a classic movie, then the power of her performance should overcome any gripes.
Javier Bardem shines as the protective King Triton and manages to bring dimension to a caricature of fatherhood. His anger is believable, but his introspection wins the audience over to understanding his behavior. Bardem earns the respect of the viewers. This in turn transforms the final scene of the movie into an emotional ceremony to rival any wedding.
Jonah Hauer-King’s performance absolutely remakes the cliched character of Eric into a tortured and complicated voyager with a heart of gold. Hauer-King is a joy to watch on screen as young Eric strives to forge a new path of leadership through example. He has been raised on this island as an adopted royal and he masks his sense of unbelonging with unflappable optimism and good cheer. While much of the attention has been focused on Halley Bailey, it is Hauer-King who remakes his character to the greatest effect.
The rest of the acting is top notch. Melissa McCarthy is the perfect Ursula, all appetite, and no remorse. Awkwafina makes the airhead seabird Scuttle a hilarious comedic relief. Daveed Diggs gives emotional depth and comedic timing to the classic crab Sebastian. Noma Dumezwini turns a minor part, the Queen, into a major accomplishment. An all-star ensemble, this cast turns a children’s fairytale into a movie with serious chops.