Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” opens citywide on Friday, May 26, 2023.
This isn’t a Latin film, but it will have a broad impact across the Latin world because it gives many little girls around the world a chance to see someone like themselves in a great starring role.
The Little Mermaid
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is based on the the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from 1837. That story is about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her immortality to become human. Mythical mermaids are usually beautiful women who sing sailors to their death. The Disney story is more cheerful.
The 1989 Disney animated musical’s initial run made it the highest grossing animated film ever at the time. It makes sense that Disney would try a remake, and this time that added a really wonderful spin to its story.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid
The story is about Ariel a 16-year old mermaid princess who dreams of the human world with her friends Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seabird, and Sebastian the crab. With good intentions, they fill her dreams with misinformation. They just don’t know the human world because they don’t live in it.
Against her father King Triton’s warnings, Ariel and her friends go to the surface to watch a birthday celebration for Prince Eric. Naturally Princess Ariel falls in love at first sight. A storm wrecks his ship and knocks Eric overboard. Ariel rescues him and, because she is a mermaid, sings to this handsome young man. She leaves as he wakes up, but Eric is determined to find the beautiful girl with that enchanting voice. Of course Ariel is just as determined to join him. That’s how love works.
Father King Triton knows something is up and forces Sebastian to tell all. After he has a fit of rage, two eels Flotsam and Jetsam tell Ariel to visit Ursula the sea witch.
The sea witch makes a deal with Ariel. In exchange for her voice, Ariel will be human for three days. If she can get Prince Eric to kiss her, she will stay human. Otherwise she becomes a mermaid again who belongs to Ursula. The witch stores Ariel’s voice in a nautilus shell.
Ariel accepts and is put on a beach with human legs. Prince Eric finds her and takes her in, but because she has no voice, he doesn’t know it’s her. Even so, they almost kiss, but the eels Flotsam and Jetsam get in the way.
Ursula the witch disguises herself as a beautiful woman Vanessa and uses Ariel’s voice to enchant Eric. As Eric is about to marry the disguised witch on a ship, Ariel’s friends make trouble and the nautilus shell is broken. Hearing her true voice, Eric goes to kiss Ariel just as sunset breaks the spell.
She is a mermaid again and Vanessa is a witch again who takes Ariel. Father Triton can’t break the spell so he agrees to give himself up in exchange for his daughter. Ursula becomes the Queen of the Seven Seas. Everyone fights and Prince Eric manages to kill the witch.
Everyone returns to their former selves. Seeing his daughter is in true love, King Triton changes Ariel into a human forever and she marries Eric.
Disney’s animated film was a charming hit. Parents of a certain age will have seen it hundreds if not thousands of times.
The Little Mermaid 2023 Mixes It Up
Disney brings “The Little Mermaid” back as a live action film starring the talented Halle Bailey as Ariel. She is a beautiful actress and singer who was born in Georgia and as a teenager was raised in Los Angeles.
Bailey and her sister are the musical duo Chloe x Halle who have earned five Grammy nominations for their two albums. Though young, they have written their own songs since they were children, and learned to play music from YouTube videos.
We congratulate Disney on casting an African American as Ariel. We would prefer that casting an African American as the lead in a European fairy tale would not bear any mention at all, but we are still struggling as a country to decolonize our minds.
One of the problems with American popular culture is that it’s often a bit of a monoculture. It’s confusing for children to rarely see and hear people like themselves in wonderful starring roles.
- Spanish Academy Award winner Javier Bardem plays King Triton.
- Tony Award-winner Daveed Diggs voices Sebastian the crab. Diggs is part of the hip-hop group Clipping. He originated the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton.”
- Nora Lum “Awkwafina” voices Scuttle who is now a diving bird. The American actress, rapper and comedian broke through with her 2012 YouTube rap “My Vag.”
- Multiple Olivier Award-winner and South African British actress Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) plays a new character as Prince Eric’s mother, Queen Selina.
The casting doesn’t diminish the story in any way. In fact it adds depth. In New York City and the Latin world, we mix together, but many parts of America don’t. In the same way that Ariel’s friends had lots of misinformation, where we don’t mix together, we fall into the same trap. But you know, regardless of what parents think, love conquers all.
What Disney is doing has special importance globally. Disney films are aspirational for children around the world. It’s how many young children learn to speak English, and they speak English like Americans because they grew up watching Disney films and television.
When you start seeing another person instead of an “other,” your world expands exponentially. So this is a good thing, and we expect to see many more good things from Halle Bailey. She is really talented. Her Ariel is going to be a powerful image for a lot of little girls.
All Cultures Have Mermaids
Disney based its film on a European mermaid story, but all cultures have mermaids.
One Little Mermaid story that made it to Broadway and the West End is Lynn Ahrens’ “Once on This Island,” a Haitian folk telling of the mermaid story.
Other mermaid stories come from the Yoruba orishas. In Nigeria, Ariel might be Oshún, the Yoruba orisha of fresh water, fertility, and love. In the Caribbean, she might be Yemayá, the great mother orisha of the seas. By tradition, both Oshún and Yemayá are powerful female characters.
Oshún is petite, but she is the one who gets the call when big strong men can’t do the job. Like Ariel, Oshún succeeds through her determination, and is willing to sacrifice everything to get the job done. Her beauty is deceiving because underneath she’s a fierce Caribbean woman.
Everyone can read this story in their own cultural context, but in our Caribbean context, this is immediately how we saw Ariel. And we are glad to see her. Both Yemayá and Oshún are strong women who are much loved.