The recent news that Disney would be casting singer Halle Bailey as the titular mermaid in its remake of The Little Mermaid was met with an immediate wave of praise: praise that, just as quickly, turned into predictable outcry, which then blossomed into actual protest. In the days since, the hashtag #NotMyAriel has become a trending topic, with many disgruntled users wielding it to express their discontent with the casting of the black singer as the red-headed, blue-eyed heroine of the 1989 film. Much of the criticism concerning Disney’s decision revolves around the notion that this is change for the sake of change — worse, that this is change for the sake of pandering to political correctness.
Underneath all the vitriol aimed at Disney, is a denunciation whose roots is deeper than casting choices. In recent years, the film behemoth has undertaken remakes of its animated classics, with Dumbo (2019), Cinderella (2015), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty in the Beast (in the form of 2014’s Maleficent) having gone under the knife, and others like Mulan (2020) and The Lion King (2019), soon to get the treatment. The releases of these films have generated an equal mix of bittersweet wistfulness and skepticism, with some deeming it a cash grab and/or a nostalgia trap for those who grew up loving these films.
And this is precisely why Disney’s choice to take greater creative gambles, such as diversifying its cast, could be the answer to those complaints.
Reviving the creative wasteland: remakes as the key to innovation.
Creatively speaking, Disney remakes make little sense. Indeed, the majority of people who will watch the upcoming The Little Mermaid will most certainly have watched the 1989 one, ad nauseam. For those of us who will have experienced these stories twice in a lifetime, saturation and nostalgia fatigue is bound to set in. This is what undoubtedly happened with Spider-Man, which has known no less than four reboots since Sam Raimi’s 2002 effort. It is not a coincidence that 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which relied heavily on branching out from the iconic Marvel character, ended up a critical and commercial success.
Another example is the 1997 adaptation of Cinderella with an all-black cast, which included singer Brandy as Cinderella, Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen and the late Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. The film’s commercial and critical success proved that audiences could look past changes in character portrayal, as long as the essence of the story was maintained. The film has since become a cult classic.
This then begs the question: why not give these remakes a spin? Why not gender flip? Switch up the era? Modify the ages? If audiences are going to be given rehashes of the same films they’ve seen recently, why not make them interesting? Otherwise, these films accomplish nothing, bring nothing new to the conversation, and consume budgets that could have gone into original, innovative, or experimental projects.
Rotten Tomatoes calls 2015’s Cinderella “[r]efreshingly traditional”, while others, like Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick, deem it “overly-safe in transitioning from cartoon-to-live-action”. Similarly, reviews for Beauty and the Beast echo those sentiments: the critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes calls it “faithful” while, in more scathing review for Stabroek News, Andrew Kendall notes that the film “takes great pains to hew close to the original film in sycophantic deference.”
The common thread of all these opinions is “safe”. These films are safe, and one must assume that Disney is fine with that. By producing carbon copies of its own films, the studio shows its hand, namely its preoccupation with profit over innovation: and why should it try any different? After all, even if there is a lingering sense of having been had, of having participated in a willing farce, people will always line up to see these remakes and sequels. Whether it be out of childhood duty, or morbid curiosity, it makes no difference in the end, when they smash the box office.
A necessary social element: remakes as a tool for equity.
On a purely ideological level, infusing remakes with diversity is not just necessary, it is actually overdue. Although strides have been made in recent years, when it comes to visibility, the default is still overwhelmingly white. Actors of color are not being given the same opportunities and platforms, and have to create their own spaces, or else rely on a system of solidarity in order to have a voice.
Speaking with Vanity Fair in late June, Idris Elba discussed a topic that has often swirled around his career: namely, the possibility of him playing James Bond. He expressed his willingness to take on the role, but admitted that the assuredly grim response to the idea of a black man playing the traditionally white character would be too disappointing. In other words: despite the clamorous and ongoing demand from those who would enjoy to see him tackle the role, the naysayers would be louder, for him.
Similarly, when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the 2015 play based on JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, cast Noma Dumezweni, a black actor, to play Hermione Granger, the outrage was swift and punishing. Dumezweni’s race takes nothing out of the character’s arc — if anything, it puts in better context Hermione’s passion for social equity in the books. Still, the backlash was thundering.
We should be embracing a move like Disney casting a young black woman to play a character who looks little like her. Notwithstanding the fact that mermaids do not exist, and that Ariel’s race, in the 1989 film, doesn’t affect the plot in any way, it is a step forward in representation, and an exercise in opening one’s perception. Already, artists and illustrations have been flooding social media with drawings and paintings that show what Halle Bailey would look like as a redheaded mermaid: and it is glorious.
The more audiences are used to seeing characters who embody the variety that exists in the real world, even if it is seldom represented on screen, the more likely that tolerance might seep into actual life. The more casually we approach future castings of actors of color in roles in which race doesn’t matter, the more people might realize that diversity is not a phantom notion, but something that exists, whether or not it is seen.
If film and television are a microcosm of the world, then we could all benefit from learning to do better, for our own sakes and for the sake of the generations to come. We could all benefit from getting used to witnessing experiences different from our own.
Although I don’t personally care for the remakes of Disney films, which I find at best unnecessary, and at worse, manipulative, I commend the studio for making the effort to diversify its casting. Halle Bailey, one half of the duo Chloe x Halle, is immensely talented, and will undoubtedly bring her unique grace and sensitivity to the role.
Whether Disney’s efforts are genuine, or a calculated way of widening their audience reach almost doesn’t matter, in the grand scope of things. I like to think that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of news, as more and more films prove that leading women, LGBTQ and/or people of color are profitable for studios — and better yet, actually enticing to audiences.