That’s A Wrap: ‘The Little Mermaid’ casting brings fresh face to beloved story
Earlier this month, Disney announced the actress that will portray Ariel in the live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” choosing singer/actress Halle Bailey as the lead. “The Little Mermaid” is the next in an ongoing string of movies that the Hollywood giant has taken from an animated classic to an updated, musical spectacle. There are four such titles this year alone: “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.”
Bailey’s casting, however, has been met with great applause for the young starlet and for Disney for casting only its second black princess on the big screen, and with sharp divide over selecting an actress who isn’t white or a redhead. Tens of thousands of tweets with the hashtag #NotMyAriel littered Twitter last week varying between users seeing “their childhoods crushed” with this casting to “I’m not a racist, but …” to downright vileness. At the same time, fan art of Bailey as the underwater princess have popped up over social media.
Up until 2019, only two people of color have had leading roles in Disney’s live-action remakes, and no blacks have had more than voice roles. That would be Hawaiian-Chinese actor Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli in 1994’s “The Jungle Book” and Indian-American actor Neel Sethi in the 2016 version. This year’s “Dumbo” stars Nico Parker as Milly Farrier, one-half of the sibling duo in director Tim Burton’s film, and Will Smith made his own spin on Genie in the box office smash “Aladdin.”
More diversity in Disney casting, however, can be found on Broadway, where since the 1990s there has been a wide rotation of performers in iconic roles. Debbie Gibson, Toni Braxton, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Christy Carlson Romano are among the actresses who have played Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” in the 1990s and 2000s. Most recently, Aisha Jackson, who was the understudy to original cast member Patti Murin, played Anna in the Broadway version of “Frozen” in 2018. Jelani Alladin originated the role of Kristoff in the stage version, and Noah J. Ricketts is starring in the role now.
Bailey’s casting news comes nearly 10 years after Disney introduced its first black princess, Tiana, in “The Princess and the Frog.” Voiced by Broadway star Anika Noni Rose, Tiana is a waitress hired to prepare beignets for a sugar baron’s ball in 1920s New Orleans. Prince Naveen arrives in the Big Easy hoping to find a rich Southern bride, but is then cursed to be a frog. Thinking Tiana is a princess, Naveen asks her for a kiss. Unfortunately for Tiana, she too becomes a frog.
While many were excited to finally see a black Disney princess, Tiana’s screen time as a delightful woman in a ballgown was short as she spent much of the film as an amphibian. For some black women, this was disappointing. Waiting over seven decades for a princess to look like them, only for that fantasy to be stuck in an animal’s body for most of it. “The Princess and the Frog,” despite earning over $267 million during its global box office run, was considered a failure for a Disney animated film. It unfortunately was out at the same time as cinematic juggernaut “Avatar.” Nevertheless, Tiana has her place in Disney history and the hearts of many (myself included) with dolls and merchandise that share shelf space with Cinderella, Belle, Mulan, Jasmine and Rapunzel.
However, even Tiana’s features were too much for some Disney folks. Last year, the trailer and photos for “Ralph Breaks the Internet” featured the gathering of all the Disney princesses who come to Ralph’s aid. The computer-generated animation changed Tiana’s original look, narrowing her nose and lightening her skin and hair. Many protested, accusing Disney of erasing the character’s ethnicity and changing them out for more European features. After public outcry and input from Rose, Pixar returned Tiana to her original look.
Bailey, at the age of 19, already has a relationship with Disney and a growing audience. She and her sister Chloe form the R&B group Chloe x Halle and perform under Beyonce’s company Parkwood Entertainment after the sisters were discovered on YouTube performing covers of the music diva’s work. They also appeared in Beyonce’s visual album “Lemonade.” The duo earned two Grammy nominations this year, including best new artist, and they contributed to Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” soundtrack in 2018. Halle Bailey also stars as Sky Forster on the Disney-owned network Freeform’s “Grow-ish.” Bailey’s other acting credits include “Last Holiday” and “House of Payne.”
Director Rob Marshall, who helmed the Oscar-winning musical “Chicago” and most recently for Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” said in a release July 3 that Bailey “possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.” Marshall will direct “The Little Mermaid” with music by the original composer Alan Menken of the 1989 version and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame.
The younger generation that will be introduced to this Ariel did not have to wait until they have gray hairs to have strong princesses of different skin tones, dreams and countries. It’s a whole new world, after all. They have Jasmine from “Aladdin” who wants to be sultan, a misunderstood villainess in Maleficent, and a mermaid with locs and a voice of a siren. The Ariel of flowing red hair will not be erased from memory; she will have new company.
Tamara Dunn is the night news editor at the Times Leader. She is also a film lover who counts “Rear Window” and “Black Panther” as her favorites.