You’ll want to be a part of this Little Mermaid’s world

You’ll want to be a part of this Little Mermaid’s world | Soho House

As the new Disney reboot hits screens at our Houses, Hanna Flint explains why Halle Bailey’s Ariel is an important step for Hollywood

Saturday 3 June 2023 By Hanna Flint

When I was a little girl, the Little Mermaid was my girl. Ariel came splashing onto our screens in 1989, and by the time I was old enough to register her as an animated hero  – who I could watch repeatedly on VHS – my mum had bought me a doll with a replaceable green tail and The Little Mermaid-themed roller skates to boot. Every Saturday in the 1990s, I thought I was the coolest kid at the roller disco at Brentford Leisure Centre. Of course, Ariel looked nothing like me. She was white with red hair and blue eyes, and my colouring was various shades of brown. But that didn’t matter; Ariel was a defiant, adventurous Disney Princess and I wanted to be part of her world. 

Now, with the arrival of the live-action remake we have a new actor filling Ariel’s tail, beyond simply her voice (Jodi Benson did a stellar job with the original). After watching the film this week, Halle Bailey has proven herself to be exemplary casting. I mean, just look at her. She is basically a Disney Princess brought to life. Director Rob Marshall said he cast her after seeing her perform at the Grammys because of her ‘otherworldly sensibility’. She has those wide doe eyes that have become almost synonymous with this sort of beautiful female protagonist. Every time she looks up to the surface, Bailey eagerly exhibits the longing curiosity for a life outside the confines of her underwater kingdom that so effectively defines Ariel’s desires. 

The actor captures Ariel’s rebellious teenage energy and diffuses it throughout the story which, as with the original, sees the young mermaid give up her voice to the sea witch Ursula in order to experience life on dry land. Watching Ariel enthusiastically take in the chaos of life above water is just as endearing, humorous and heartfelt as the 1989 film. She makes it so easy to get swept up once again in this Little Mermaid’s coming-of-age voyage of self-discovery. As I left the cinema, what was very clear is that Bailey wasn’t chosen to tick some box on a diversity form. 

You’ll want to be a part of this Little Mermaid’s world | Soho House

It is so easy nowadays to write off any casting of a person of colour as tokenistic when they are playing a character who was originally drawn white. I hate to break it to the haters, but white supremacy has meant most childhood stories and fairytales we know about were written by white people, and therefore white characterisation has dominated these narratives. Even when animated stories have depicted African or Asian civilisations, white voice artists have been hired, as with the original Aladdin and The Prince Of Egypt. People of colour have had to make do with the crumbs Hollywood has historically had to offer, finding themselves in white characters beyond the way they look. I loved the Little Mermaid because of her tenacity and keen sense of who she could be outside of the control of a fearful king. 

The backlash now to Bailey being cast as a fictional fantasy character highlights just how many people with white privilege haven’t had to care about seeing themselves represented on screen. The original version of The Little Mermaid is still very much available to watch if this live-action remake offends your narrow-minded sensibilities. But as I said, Bailey wasn’t cast because she is Black; she was cast because she is a sensational performer. 

As one half of the R&B pop duo Chloe x Halle with her older sister, she brings her gorgeous vocals to each one of those iconic Howard Ashman and Alan Menken songs and makes them her own. The vocal runs? Ariel’s siren song never sounded so mesmerising. There’s a reason why Beyoncé signed her and her sister to her management company Parkwood Entertainment. Soon Bailey will be seen in Blitz Bazawule’s upcoming musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, where she plays the younger version of Nettie. And her next film, The Line, is set to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival next week. 

The Little Mermaid has given Bailey a chance to break into the Hollywood mainstream with as much force as Ariel breaking through the ocean’s surface for the first time. It’s a symbolic, life-changing moment not just for Ariel, or for the actor, but for all the young girls in the world watching. 

‘Know that inside you’re worthy,’ Bailey says. ‘And you’re here for a reason.’

The Little Mermaid is now showing at the Houses; visit our screenings page for our full film schedule. 

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