Disney’s Latest Controversial Move Might Be a Success

A new movie trailer has parents upset — but Disney has seen success here before.

When Disney’s animated feature “The Little Mermaid” first hit theaters in 1989, the animation industry wasn’t as popular as it had been in earlier years.

Four years earlier, the studio had put a lot of effort into “The Black Cauldron”, which bombed at the box office. Pitching ideas for animated features was a difficult sell after that.

But thanks to the musical and story stylings of Hollywood and Broadway legends Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “The Little Mermaid” made an impression on movie-goers everywhere. The tale about a lovelorn young mermaid who longed to be where the people are brought kids and parents alike into theaters, racking up an impressive $235M (about $561M in today’s money).

Not only did it bring Disney  (DIS) – Get The Walt Disney Company Report the dollars, the studio now had a blueprint for future animated movie musical successes. It’s thanks to Ariel that Disney was able to build an empire of musical stories in the 90s, including “Aladdin” and the multiple-award-winning hit “The Lion King”.

The film’s premise is based on a tragedy of all things. In the early 19th century, Hans Christian Andersen penned a story about a young mermaid who trades her tongue to a sea witch in exchange for a potion that will give her legs, the opportunity to fall in love, and to then gain an eternal soul. Unfortunately, she’s unable to convince the prince to love her, so she throws herself into the sea and dissolves into sea foam. 

Writers have interpreted the classic tragic tale in myriad ways over the years. Many of those scholars believe that the mermaid is a self-insert character for Andersen himself, who, in a letter, confessed his unrequited love for a man who was engaged to be married to a woman. In the original tale, the mermaid experiences a great deal of physical pain in order to walk the world as a human. Oh, and also, she’s green.

Disney’s New Live Action ‘Little Mermaid’ Coming to Theaters

It’s easy to imagine why Disney veered toward a happier ending for this all-ages cartoon fairy tale. Thanks to a happily ever after and a lush wedding on a cruise ship, this redheaded mermaid crooned her way into the hearts of millions of kids. So when Disney announced a new live-action retelling of the story, fans were very invested in the production details.

In 2019, the Mouse announced that the lead role of Ariel would be played by Halle Bailey. Director Rob Marshall said that “after an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.” This weekend at D23, Disney unveiled a look at the beloved character’s life “Under the Sea”. 

Swiftly after the announcement, and again after the trailer premiere, a backlash against the casting of a Black actress as the lead role gathered momentum on social media. The hashtag #NotMyAriel saw people threatening to boycott the film’s release. After all, how could a classic movie with a historically white lead be successful with a Black woman in the same role?

Disney’s Diversifying is a Good Business Move

In 1997, Disney’s TV movie musical “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” took the top slot for the most-watched TV musical in decades. The cast featured “Moesha” star Brandy Norwood as Cinderella and pop diva Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother. The film proved to be a financial and award-winning success, and was also lauded for its multi-racial casting decisions. It’s also lived so long in the memories of 90s kids that it’s arguably a cult classic musical.

More than a decade later, Disney’s first princess film starring a Black lead, “The Princess and the Frog”, grossed more than $271M. While Tiana continues to charm fans of the Disney Princess genre, she’ll also be taking over the popular Disney park ride Splash Mountain, replacing the ride’s “Song of the South” inspirations with a New-Orleans-themed experience set to open to the public in 2024.

In the last few years, animated blockbusters like “Encanto” and “Moana” have showed that audiences are willing and excited to explore fantastical stories inspired by other cultures. And that willingness translated to box office and streaming success.

Parents and Kids React to the Change

Some angry parents may be taking to Twitter to express their outrage over the Danish-based character no longer being white. But other parents are sharing a whole other kind of reaction to the film: those of their Black children. One Twitter user compiled a mega-thread of videos featuring young Black kids grinning or squealing with glee when they saw an Ariel that looked like them.

One thing is for certain in both the original tale and the Disney remake — the mermaid is a girl who longs to experience the unknown, the unfamiliar, and a sense of adventure. Disney’s first stab at the mythology of Hans Christian Andersen’s is a huge change from the tone of the original story. And it’s likely that this casting choice, just like the choice to make the story much less miserable for the mermaid, is likely to pay off for the studio.

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