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The Little Mermaid modernises the story by going back to the 1837 original, says director Rob Marshall

‘Hans Christian Andersen was an outsider in love with a man, like Ariel's in love with a prince,’ says The Little Mermaid's director

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Image: Disney

The Little Mermaid is sitting pretty at the top of the Box Office charts on both sides of the Atlantic. A live action reimagining of the 1989 animated classic, which began the Disney Renaissance, it has split the critics, provoked serious discussion – and made a superstar of Halle Bailey, whose depiction of Ariel is winning huge acclaim.

By more explicitly setting the film in a time and place, casting young black singer-actor Bailey in the role of Ariel, expanding Ariel’s agency and purpose, and rewriting key lyrics – with the help of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the filmmakers have updated the story for a modern audience.

How did they modernise the mermaid musical? Director Rob Marshall says going back to the original fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen was vital.

“What helped me most was going back to the Hans Christian Andersen tale,” the director tells The Big Issue, the day after the London premiere.  

“Because even though it was written close to 200 years ago – in 1837, I believe – it is a very modern tale about this young girl who feels displaced and like she doesn’t belong. She goes on this epic journey to reach another world and learns not to be afraid of people who are different.

“I thought that was very timely. Not being afraid of what’s on the other side of the border or the wall or whatever and learn to accept those people and build bridges to that world.”

The quest for meaning is strong with classic Disney movies. Sure, the films may be a story of a lion growing into the role of king, a princess with magic icy powers seeking solitude, a young woman with zero powers in a magical family, or, in this case, a mermaid in search of love and fulfilment on land. But what does it all really mean?

When The Little Mermaid was made and released in 1989, it was in the midst of the AIDS crisis. The story offered allegorical readings galore.

Lyricist Howard Ashman was diagnosed with HIV during production. By the time the next film in the Disney Renaissance, Beauty And The Beast, was released in 1991, he had died. The closing credits for Beauty And The Beast ended with a dedication to Ashman: ‘To our friend, Howard, who gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.’

Both films can be read through this lens.

For Ashman, The Little Mermaid was a critique of Conservative ‘family values’ rhetoric wrapped up in family entertainment. This was a film about identity and gender and sexuality – heck, Ariel keeps her secret stash of human artefacts in an underwater closet, while Ursula was based on underground drag queen superstar Divine.

What’s more, Ashman’s reading is perfectly aligned with Hans Christian Andersen, according to The Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall.

“It was about unrequited love for Andersen,” says Marshall. “He was definitely someone who felt displaced. He felt like an outsider. It’s interesting, all his tales are about outsiders. It’s like the ugly duckling. He was an odd looking man. Somewhat unattractive. And he felt like he didn’t quite fit in. So he is the Little Mermaid.

“To be quite transparent, he was a gay man who was in love with a man – just like Ariel is with a prince. And that Prince in the original marries a woman, thinking that it’s the person who saved him. So Ariel ultimately kills herself. It’s a very dark tale. But that’s what it was about for him. It was about unrequited love.”

This, in more of Howard Ashman’s words, is a tale as old as time.

“Right,” says Marshall. “This story is still being lived by so many people feel who like they don’t belong. The bones of that story are still there.

“We can all relate to that. I don’t know many people that don’t feel in some way like they’re an outsider. Maybe the path that’s chosen for them by their families and what their expectations are is not exactly the road they’re going to take.”

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in The Little Mermaid
Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Image: Disney

Marshall insists that the film needs to be part of our world now. The live action version, he says, offers not only greater depth, but also a chance to revive the initial excitement that surrounded the 1989 film.

“Why are we doing it now in 2023? It has to relate to us in some way otherwise it feels like a museum piece,” says Marshall.

“I remember when The Little Mermaid came out in 1989. And it was the return of the movie musical. Movie musicals at that time had been dead. I was in the Broadway community at that time and it felt so exciting. Audiences were accepting people speaking and then breaking into song, which was really thrilling.

“Later, when I did my film Chicago, I felt like this resurgence of animated musicals and the Disney Renaissance helped us to make it happen. By that time, in 2002, people had begun to accept movie musicals once again. So it was then easier to have a live action musical.”

To make his reimagined The Little Mermaid, Marshall set about recreating a Broadway-style company. He filled the film with talent from Bailey to Javier Bardem, Jonah Hauer King as Prince Eric – who finally gets a song of his own, Daveed Diggs and Melissa McCarthy, who is new to musicals but steals every scene as Ursula. “She is fearless. An incredible actor,” says Marshall. Then there is Awkwafina as Scuttle, for whom Lin-Manuel Miranda set about writing a new song. “Lin had a ball with that one,” Marshall recalls.

He then drilled them in weeks of intense rehearsals.

“I’m always looking for at for actors who bring things to life in unexpected ways,” he says. “And then we do a lot of rehearsal in advance. Because I think it’s important that we work together and find the movie together – that we’re all in the same movie.

“We create a company. It comes from your Broadway, 100%. And this was so complicated to make. Every actor had eight or ten stunt men and women moving them around, and it had to be in time to the music. It was like a ballet.

“But I really didn’t want the technical aspects of the film to lead it. I wanted the story and the character work and the acting work all to be in the forefront.

Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), and Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Disney
Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid, with Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay). Image: Disney

“By the time we got to filming, I would sometimes literally shoot one line and then they would change to another kind of rig. We had to do it like a mosaic, literally in pieces. It was so helpful to have baked in the actual work, the acting work, and the scene work prior.”

The resulting film is now making a splash – dividing critics, selling huge amounts of merchandise, and creating a lot of talking points. So what does its director want audiences to take away. What’s the key message, if he could choose one, that he wants us to leave the cinema with?

“What felt very contemporary to me was this idea of not being afraid of people that are different than you,” says Marshall. “That’s what Ariel’s journey is about. She’s not supposed to go past the surface, she’s not supposed to deal with humans because they’re barbarian. But she doesn’t believe that. Her mother was killed at the hands of a human but as she literally says, one man did that, but it doesn’t make everybody our enemies.

“So she truly believes there are good people there. It’s that youthful thing. Someone young who sees past the fear. And I think that’s so important.

“We all need to hear that message. We just need to hear it. Because we’re all the same. We’re all one, aren’t we, ultimately? So can we see past those things? Can we find tolerance between different worlds?”

The Little Mermaid is out now in cinemas

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