Culture Pick: Disney’s live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’ makes a splash this summer with a diverse cast and surprise plot twists

Rachel Seale, Contributing Writer

More than 30 years after the animated “The Little Mermaid” premiered, Disney released its live-action version on May 26. Directed by Rob Marshall and featuring original composition from Lin-Manuel Miranda, “The Little Mermaid” grossed more than $95 million in its opening weekend.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the live-action movie received a Tomatometer score of 68% and an even higher audience score of 94%, which was greater than the animated film’s audience score of 88%.

The live-action version follows a similar plot to the original with Ariel, who is the youngest of King Triton’s seven daughters, longing to give up her mermaid tail to live in the human world. 

Disney ventured into uncharted waters by changing the look of the 1989 cartoon version of Ariel, who is portrayed as a pale mermaid with vibrant red hair. In the live-action movie, Halle Bailey, an African American singer and actor was cast as Ariel. 

Many people have criticized Disney for the change, using the #NotMyAriel hashtag to protest the movie on the social media platform Twitter. Critics claim Ariel shouldn’t be Black since the fairy tale on which the movies are based is Danish. 

However, according to Insider, this isn’t the first time Disney has included a more diverse range of characters within the “Little Mermaid” franchise. 

During the early 1990s, Disney aired a cartoon on CBS that followed Ariel on more adventures. Among her underwater friends was a girl named Gabriella, who was depicted as a deaf, Black mermaid who communicated through sign language. She even had an interpreter, an octopus named Ollie.

Gabriella was created to represent kids with different backgrounds and disabilities and allow them to see themselves on TV with Ariel.

While Disney has faced some backlash, others have praised the company for the diversity in the film. Many little girls are finally seeing a princess that looks like them for the first time. Videos of little girls watching the movie’s trailer have gone viral, with Halle Bailey even commenting on them.

Bailey told Edition Modern Luxury that “seeing the world’s reaction to it was definitely a shock, but seeing all the babies’ reactions, all the brown and Black young girls, really tore me up emotionally.”

Bailey went on to explain how Disney chose to update the film thematically from the animated one.

“I’m really excited for my version of the film, because we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy. It’s way bigger than that. It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life and what she wants,” Bailey said.

Not only is the titular character exploring new representation, Ariel’s sisters and father are also made up of a diverse cast. King Triton, Ariel’s father, is played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who is best known for his portrayal of assassin Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.

Unlike in the animated film, Ariel’s sisters’ ethnicities have been changed to correspond with the sea they represent. Triton’s other daughters include actors with different names and backgrounds. 

Instead of missing her debut concert at the beginning of the movie, the new version opens with Ariel being late to the annual meeting of King Triton and his daughters as the Coral Moon approaches. Humans believe that Triton summons his daughters to use their siren song to lure sailors to their deaths at the arrival of the Coral Moon.

Despite her father’s warnings to stay away from the surface and “barbarians” or humans, Ariel ends up seeing a shipwreck during a storm and saves Prince Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, whom she falls in love with. 

Ariel uses her siren song to save Eric and wake him up on the shore. Although Ariel manages to hide in the water as he regains his composure, Eric is determined to find the “mystery girl” who saved his life. 

As Ariel’s fixation with the human world grows, Triton forbids her to ever go to the surface again. Ariel disobeys her father by going to seek help from the sea witch Ursula, who happens to be her estranged aunt.

Ursula, played by Melissa McCarthy, makes a deal that she will turn Ariel into a human for three days in exchange for Ariel’s mermaid powers, including her mermaid tail, ability to breathe underwater, and her siren’s song or voice. 

In the live-action movie, to ensure Ariel will fail, Ursula adds an extra spell that will keep Ariel from remembering she has to kiss Eric. Ursula, who had been kicked out of the palace by her brother, wants to use Ariel to get revenge on Triton and usurp the throne.

Joining the now human, yet voiceless, Ariel on her journey, Sebastian the crab, voiced by Daveed Diggs, Flounder, voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Scuttle, voiced by Awkwafina, add comedic relief as they push Ariel and Eric to fall in love.

Even Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel, makes a surprise cameo appearance in the film where she literally passes the “dinglehopper” off to Bailey as the new little mermaid.

According to IMDb, the film has a PG rating for action/peril and some scary images.

With surprise plot twists that deviate from the animated film, Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” is sure to have audiences longing to be a part of Ariel’s world.