For almost 100 years, the Walt Disney Company has been telling stories that have resonated with audiences young and old. The latest chapter in the billion dollar media conglomerate’s journey has been all about remaking some of its most beloved films for new audiences (with varied results). The Little Mermaid is Disney’s latest attempt at rebooting a classic, and while it isn’t perfect, it is absolutely magical — and it’s all thanks to its leading lady, Halle Bailey.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past 30 years, you probably know the details of The Little Mermaid like the back of your hand. (You might even be able to recite every line from memory — it’s that much of a classic.) Against the stern warning of her father, ruler of the ocean King Triton, a teenage mermaid named Ariel develops an intense obsession with the above world. After a near-death encounter with the handsome Prince Eric, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula the sea witch, temporarily giving up her beautiful voice in exchange for the chance to become human and win over her one true love on land. Chaos ensues when Ursula tries to complicate Ariel’s connection with the prince, and our young princess has to fight for her love and for her freedom. The story, a kid-friendly adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s much darker fairy tale, quickly became one of the most beloved films in the Disney universe.
When the remake was first announced, and Halle Bailey was introduced as the new Ariel, The Little Mermaid’s loyal fanbase was unsurprisingly split down the middle. Most of us — at least, those of us who aren’t anti-Black and weird — were thrilled to hear that the 23-year-old singer and actress had been booked for the gig. If there’s anyone who was meant to be a Disney princess, it’s Halle. But on the other, more delusional and racist side, people rioted at the news of her casting, claiming that Disney was taking away from redhead (read: white) onscreen representation. Some even went as far as trying to assert that Ariel is European (so why does Sebastian have a Jamaican accent? And can’t Black people also be European?) and using “science” to debunk the possibility of mermaids being melanated. They were reaching at straws and crying and throwing up all over Blue Ivy’s internet, but Disney wasn’t changing its mind. The new Ariel was a Black girl with locs, and the racists would just have to deal with it.
From the moment she appears onscreen in The Little Mermaid, it’s easy to understand exactly why Disney and director Rob Marshall backed Bailey’s casting with full confidence. (Marshall has repeatedly said that the Grammy-nominated singer’s moving rendition of “Part of Your World” convinced him in seconds, and he couldn’t get her out of his head even after seeing hundreds of other actresses auditioned for the part.) She’s perfect for the role, as if anointed by Jodi Benson herself. Ariel is the OG Disney princess adventurer, wide-eyed with an insatiable curiosity for the unknown, and Bailey effortlessly captures the naiveté and youthful spirit that we’ve come to associate with the character over the years. Whether she’s swimming through the CGI Atlantic Ocean, marveling at the beauty of mundane objects like a fork, or dancing in the streets for the very first time, there’s an actual twinkle in her eyes that simply can’t be faked. When it’s time for Ariel to sing, Bailey’s qualifications are even more indisputable because of the truly otherworldly essence of her voice. Bailey’s angelic tone makes our mermaid princess feel even more ethereal and mystical, and as the notes of Ariel’s famous siren song float throughout the film, the melody is as mesmerizing as it is haunting. Remember, this is one of Beyoncé’s mentees; singing is where Bailey shines.
Bailey’s pitch-perfect performance does most of the heavy lifting in The Little Mermaid remake, but the efforts of her supporting cast are nothing to scoff at. Piercing blue eyes, dimples, and all, Jonah Hauer-King was perfectly cast for the role of Prince Eric, and his chemistry with Bailey is palpable; he turns into the literal embodiment of the heart eyes emoji whenever she’s around. Also flawlessly cast was Melissa McCarthy, who stuns as Ariel’s antagonist and, per a tweak in the lore, aunt Ursula. The stakes were high for this particular role, as Ursula is one of the most popular cartoon villains of all time, but McCarthy’s dark and desperate take on the tentacled character gives her famous one-liners a chilling lean. Yes, she’s fabulously dressed and beat for the sea gods, but Ursula is a witch first and foremost, and an evil one at that. Javier Bardem plays her brother, the mighty King Triton, and though his scenes are scattered throughout the film, he also leaves a strong impression. (The flowing silver bundles and beard are an especially nice touch — give the hair and makeup department its things, Academy!)
Where things get somewhat murky (pun intended) for The Little Mermaid is where its sea creature characters are concerned. I’m just gonna say it: the animals in this film are absolutely terrifying. I understand that a live action film has to look realistic, but my God, was it jarring to see the anatomically correct versions of Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), and Scuttle (Awkwafina) pop up onscreen. Still, it wasn’t just the accurate yet wholly frightening look of the talking creatures that was off-putting (because wow, talk about a jumpscare). Everyone knows that Diggs is a great actor, but the borderline offensive quasi-Jamaican accent he puts on for the role of Ariel’s hesitant guardian, a crab who was born in Jamaica and educated in Trinidad, was somehow even more bizarre than that of Samuel E. Wright, the late actor who famously voiced the original Sebastian in 1989 (who, like Diggs, wasn’t Jamaican or Trinidadian in real life), and it ultimately takes away from what is an otherwise fabulous rendition of “Under the Sea.” In addition to being mildly irritating, Awkwafina’s chaotic Scuttle is just as distracting; her new solo song “The Scuttlebutt,” brought to us courtesy of one Lin-Manuel Miranda, was the perfect time for a quick bathroom break. (Not sorry!)
All in all, The Little Mermaid is truly a visually stunning experience, but like so many of the Disney live action remakes that came before, it has its kinks — a humbling reminder that even after a century of storytelling, the media company is still working on perfecting its craft. (Peter Pan & Wendy came and went without so much as a peep, Mulan was riddled with international controversy, and even the power of Beyoncé couldn’t save The Lion King.) Still, the fact that we’re still holding on to this Disney classic and so many others is also a testament to their staying power and cultural relevance. This new Little Mermaid isn’t at all intended to replace the story that we love but to reintroduce it to new audiences and reinforce its message — in this case, following our hearts and embracing those that are different from us with open arms.
“It’s astonishing, honestly. I’ve been crying happy tears every single day,” Bailey told Refinery29 Unbothered of the Black community’s overwhelmingly supportive response to her role in an interview prior to the film’s release, sharing an emotional story about one young fan interaction at Disney World. “It’s so validating to the little girl in me to know that she feels proud of who she is because of seeing herself in a character like Ariel. I’m so grateful to be in this position.”
The moment is just as healing for Bailey, who vividly remembers growing up and wishing that there were more stories about people who looked like her. Now she’s making that a reality for others. Similarly to the way that Brandy’s Cinderella changed our lives back in 1997 (the only Cinderella we acknowledge is Black with microbraids and brown lip liner), Bailey’s historic casting invited in a whole generation of little Black girls who’ll only know The Little Mermaid as a princess who looks just like them. Like Ariel, they can pursue adventure and make their wildest dreams come true.
Seeing these babies take pictures with Bailey’s poster, clutching her Barbie doll tightly, and singing her songs filled me with so much happiness and joy that I actually cried leaving the theater. There was once a time that we couldn’t see ourselves in these films at all, but now, our Ariel is Black. And she is beautiful.
The Little Mermaid is now showing in theaters.