“The message of this movie is to listen to others in a world of xenophobia,” Little Mermaid producer John DeLuca told a reporter at the movie’s London premiere on Monday. Spain’s Javier Bardem, who plays mermaid Ariel’s father King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake, was asked about “repping for Latin culture.” Melissa McCarthy “channelled all the drag queens that live inside my heart,” when playing sea witch Ursula. And when the young R&B singer Halle Bailey, who plays Ariel, arrived the square seemed full of pre-teen girls desperate to touch her gown.
The new Little Mermaid is not the film you remember. The basic story is the same – mermaid falls for prince, loses her voice in exchange for legs – but Prince Eric and Ariel’s love is underpinned by a desire to break down the prejudice between humans and merfolk. It is, as Bardem said, “all about inclusion.”
When Bailey was first revealed as Ariel, the inevitable fury followed. Twitter users posted pictures of her “whited up”, countered by reaction videos of young Black girls crying when they see Ariel looks like them. Released next week into the heart of Disney’s battle with Ron DeSantis over the company’s initially mild opposition – later intensified after irate Pixar staff walked out – to his “Don’t Say Gay” policy, Mermaid feels like a statement.
Walt Disney Studios’ centenary year slate has very few white leads. Haunted Mansion stars LaKeith Stanfield and African American stand up Tiffany Haddish, Gemma Chan heads up The Creator, Elemental is director Peter Sohn’s animated exploration of his immigrant childhood while Ariana DeBose voices the heroine of Wish.
So what? Disney-bashing used to be a left-wing sport. The company has a long history of donating to conservative politicians. Walt Disney was a member of the antisemitic Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He took Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl on a tour of his studios in the month after Kristallnacht.
Walt woke wars. Since the 1990s, however, Disney has increasingly irked the US right. Religious leaders attacked the extension of health benefits to the partners of LGBTQ Disney employees, and unofficial “Gay Day” celebrations at Disney theme parks. A nine-year Christian boycott followed Ellen DeGeneres coming out on air in her ABC sitcom in 1997. DeSantis has pitched Disney as a social justice warrior and these days American Nazis are more likely to protest outside Disney World than take a studio tour.
The Mouse that Roared. Although returning CEO Bob Iger seems more concerned with stemming the losses from Disney+, he has sued Florida for breaching Disney’s first amendment rights and issues wry questions on whether Florida “wants us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes or not?”
DeSantis is missing the point. Disney is not a campaigning charity. It does things to make a ton of cash. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, the global box office was worth $42.2 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association. With home viewing added in, the figure broke $100 billion for the first time. International revenues, which overtook the US box office back in 2003, is what’s driving cinema’s recovery. In May, as Super Mario topped the charts, five of the world’s top ten films were non-English speaking. In the US, per capita attendance was highest among the 12-17 and 18-24 year-old age groups and highest among the Hispanic/Latino and Asian audience. Disney will not build a business on 45 year-old white men. Ariel is the future. Follow the money.
The Little Mermaid is in cinemas from 26 May
Photograph courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.