The “controversy” is that, in The Little Mermaid remake coming out next summer, Ariel is played by a black actress. To that point, my position is that, unequivocally, representation matters. People of all types, especially historically marginalized minorities, deserve to both be on screen and be seen on screen. They also deserve richly crafted roles to showcase their capabilities.
My concern, however, is that Hallie Bailey, the clearly talented young woman playing Ariel, is being used by Disney to turn outrage into cultural exposure, goading people into seeing this new Little Mermaid regardless of its artistic or entertainment quality.
But wait–weren’t alt-right racists the ones who made this controversy in the first place? I suspect they were merely the regressive, mouth-breathing pawns. The Mouse House’s marketing department expected them to be.
To explain what I mean, I’ll reference a different company with a mermaid: Starbucks. In 2015, the coffee chain released its holiday season cup in a simple red hue. Though a perfectly fine design effort, this cup stuck some as plain or underwhelming.
Regardless, the cup was intentionally holiday focused. Why do I know this? Because Jeffery Fields, its designer, was interviewed upon its unveiling, saying that “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve” during the holiday season. He also insisted that Starbucks continue to have a holiday cup to signify the shared appreciation and humanity of one another during the season.
That intention… did not come across to some. After an unhinged preacher posted a rant on Facebook, he advised his followers to “prank” their local Starbucks by saying their name was “Merry Christmas.” Then, a certain orange-hued political leader called for a Starbucks boycott. The media picked up the story, and the culture war was on.
How did Starbucks respond? By saying their cups had a “purity of design that welcomed all of our stories.” Yes, they explained the intent of their design, but did nothing to encourage or discourage people’s actions. Of interest, however, were two Christian leaders’ opinions. One, speaking on Fox News, scoffed at the ordeal, frustrated that believers weren’t more concerned about larger issues. Another, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, claimed that few Christians in his circle cared one way or the other, despite “breathless media reports.”
When the dust settled, Starbucks had reported the fastest sellout of their commemorative cups since 1997 and actually had to serve customers drinks in their regularly designed cup because stores couldn’t order enough of the holiday ones. Looking back at that cultural moment, I believe that Starbucks unintentionally (then quite intentionally) spun fear into gold.
Disney’s current play with The Little Mermaid feels more purposeful to me. Why? Because I don’t believe the movie has anything else going for it. Look at the dingy seabed behind her. Look at the drab incarnation of Flounder swimming beside her. Much like their live-action Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the inner joy, brightness, and imagination have been sucked out, replaced with uninspired hyperrealism.
Extra galling is Disney using “diversity” to hide their lack of effort, then not responding when Hallie Bailey gets horrific vitriol slung at her online. They’ve tried to have it both ways before, and recently. Last year, the company pandered to LGBT+ viewers in Jungle Cruise with Jack Whitehall’s character who comes out to Dwayne Johnson in one scene and never mentions it again so that the moment can be easily excised in foreign markets.
Remakes aren’t always bad, so I hope I’m wrong in this regard. I hope this new Little Mermaid surprises audiences by tapping into rich characterization and well-crafted storytelling. Then again, this is the company that wasted Donald Glover and Beyonce’s talent on a shot-for-shot rehash of The Lion King three years ago. And if the attention the teaser trailer has received is any indicator, they’ll get away with laziness again.
P.S. Disney is only 98 years old; they officially turn 100 in 2024. They’re celebrating preemptively because Warner Bros. turns 100 next year, and Mickey wants to steal Bugs Bunny’s thunder.
What if Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train was two high school girls instead? Starring Camilla Mendes of Riverdale and Maya Hawke of Stranger Things, this dark comedy could be a surprise fall hit.