If you really want to be where the people are, it comes with an understanding that Disney’s highly anticipated reimagining of “The Little Mermaid” solidifies diversity, inclusion and representation as the new frontier in Hollywood.
Presenting a color-blind aesthetic as if it were “Bridgerton Jr.,” this live-action “Little Mermaid” doesn’t look like the beloved 1989 animated film at all. But that’s the point. In an attempt to offer moviegoers a fresh perspective of a young mermaid princess yearning to break free, the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel stands as an unabashed embrace of Blackness rarely seen in mainstream pop culture.
Whenever something or someone disrupts what is perceived as comfortable it’s always going to make waves, especially in the media. For instance, it wouldn’t be controversial for a Black Ariel to be fodder for “Saturday Night Live” or “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” but when the same idea is intended for the big screen backed by Disney with a $250 million budget it’s suddenly the end of the world.
The viral hashtag #NotMyAriel sought to derail Bailey’s involvement, but her portrayal is so convincingly endearing and sweet you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. Considering Ariel spends half of the film mute, Bailey’s expressive inquisitiveness and beguiling femininity keeps the action light and charming, especially in Ariel’s castle scenes opposite Prince Eric (serviceable hunk Jonah Hauer-King). Most compelling is her stunning rendition of “Part of Your World” particularly shot in close-up, an indication that director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) grasped the intimate poignancy of not only Ariel’s longing for the world above but Bailey’s star-making potential. It is a beautifully breathtaking moment.
Equally excellent is Melissa McCarthy, full of side-eye sarcasm and obsessively over-the-top disdain as vengeful sea witch Ursula. With tentacles proudly swinging, her fabulously menacing rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is the kind of knockout that could open the door to more musical theatre roles. (She would be a fantastic Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”).
Daveed Diggs (Sebastian) and a particularly hilarious Awkwafina (Scuttle) greatly add to the fun, especially in “Kiss the Girl,” exceptionally executed in a manner rivaling the animated film, and “The Scuttlebutt,” a new hip-hop-infused number featuring lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) that injects the story with a cool contemporary pulse. There’s also notable strength in the authoritatively regal performance of Tony Award nominee Noma Dumezweni (“Harry Potter and The Cursed Child”), leading a multiracial Caribbean kingdom as The Queen.
As is the case with remakes, some aspects do not go over swimmingly. The visual effects in the climax are completely overdone, Javier Bardem stiffly underplays King Triton, and I’m still wondering why “Les Poissons,” a reliably kooky opportunity for surefire comic relief, couldn’t have been adapted to suit the whimsical capabilities of the live-action format.
Nonetheless, “The Little Mermaid” goes all in on diversity without flinching. And in many respects, it’s a long time coming. Toni Braxton was the first Black woman to play Belle on Broadway in “Beauty and the Beast,” Norm Lewis, seen in Dayton in February leading the national tour of “A Soldier’s Play,” originated King Triton on Broadway, and the aforementioned Miranda, who has Puerto Rican roots, adopted a Cockney accent as Jack opposite Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns.” It was inevitable that more Disney properties would be reevaluated with a broader brush on a larger scale sooner or later.
The power of storytelling lies in its retelling. Uncovering new ways to explore familiar characters and their surroundings expands the imagination and possibilities of the next generation.
From the enthusiastic applause heard after the Thursday evening screening I attended at Cinemark Huber Heights, it sounds like Disney, in the end, was on the right side of history.