Just days ago and with great anticipation, Walt Disney Pictures dropped the trailer for the live-action film version of “The Little Mermaid.”
Slated to hit theaters in the spring, the story is based on the 1837 literary fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The story follows a young mermaid, Ariel, as she barters her singing voice for legs and a human soul. Most of us know the plot involves her fascination with the world above, features a humorous sidekick, a sea hag with ill intent, a disapproving-but-loving father, and of course, an earthbound prince.
After somehow missing out on the invitation to a private screening, I’m left guessing about the nuances that have been added to this 2023 version.
What I do know is that Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote new songs to accompany old favorites and Melissa McCarthy has been cast as the villainess, Ursula. What I also know is Ariel is being played by a 22-year-old musician and actress, Halle Bailey.
This means our Disney aqua-princess is beautifully and unapologetically Black.
But, Bailey’s Ariel is not the first Black or ethnic Disney princess. In 2009, ”The Princess and the Frog,” gave us Tiana, who had a Southern-Cajun drawl. In 1992, we saw Jasmine from “Aladdin,” who was Middle Eastern (although played by Linda Larkin, who is white). Three years later, “Pocahontas,” came out with an American Indian cast as the voice of the lead, and in 1998, we were introduced to the Chinese princess, “Mulan.”
To Disney’s credit, we also had Colombian-based “Encanto,” and “Lilo and Stitch,” which highlighted indigenous Hawaiian culture. But those films were animated, leaving much to the imagination about the appearance and ethnicity behind the dialogue.
Many people, myself included, expect the intent of any remake to be an upgrade. If not a storyline revision, at least a modernization of the details to make it more relatable and relevant to new audiences. With changing societal norms, and new technology to enhance special effects, the possibilities are endless. And the revisions have become necessary to address inclusivity and equality.
If you’re not sure about this, ask yourself what message is sent by the Brothers Grimm story of “Snow White.” Holding the honor of being the first Disney animated feature (also referred to as a musical fantasy film), it was released in 1937 and is also being remade as a live-action adaptation expected in 2024. It will be fascinating to see how they represent the internal fortitude of the fairer sex in this sleeper.
One uplifting result of Bailey’s reimagined Ariel is the internet blowing up over clips and videos of Black children watching the trailer for the first time. I recommend Googling it and watching the range of emotions on little kids’ faces when they realize the Ariel they’ve known and loved now looks like them.
I must admit that I cried when I saw how powerful this was. I also have to admit I violated my own pact to stay off social media. If I hadn’t had to go to bed I’d probably still be scrolling, kept awake by the comments I read on top of the joy.
Some people said Ariel was white, so keep it true to the original. It became political and charged as the threads wound on. It was tempting to engage, but I looked past those traps to more videos of little girls squealing when their mom asked them who they thought Ariel looked like.
This is a really big deal. After all, Ariel isn’t a newly introduced character intended to placate a community, she’s a Disney upgrade.
Truthfully, as an American white person, I never understood (and never fully will) how important and meaningful it is for Black and Brown kids to see something like this for the first time. I knew it was an issue but I’m embarrassed that I never considered it such a deeply monumental necessity.
That, my friends, is textbook white privilege. It goes to show me how much more work I have to do to learn what Black people in this country go through. And around learning how I can help.
I’ve never asked people not to write in but if you’re tempted to respond to this column with negativity, just don’t. There’s nothing in this movie upgrade that can be found offensive or inappropriate and if you think there is, the problem is with you. If you don’t like this version for whatever reason then watch the 1989 version. But keep it to yourself.
Spring of 2023 and the release of “The Little Mermaid” can’t come soon enough. Until then, check out the trailer for yourself. If you find yourself moved, you’ll be in great company.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].