Plus: Prince Eric gets a personality!

The story of Disney's The Little Mermaid has become somewhat divisive since its debut in 1989. A movie about a young girl who gives up her voice, transforms her body, and leaves everything behind in order to land a man isn't the type of concept that has aged well.

Rob Marshall, 62, who directs the upcoming live-action adaptation, doesn't see it that way.

"The character goes back to Hans Christian Andersen from another century, but at the same time, even in 1989, it felt in some ways like a very modern woman, someone who sees her life differently than anyone around her, and goes to find that dream," says the filmmaker, who also made Mary Poppins Returns and Into the Woods for Disney.

When it comes to Halle Bailey's performance as Ariel, the eponymous mermaid who strikes a deal with a sea witch to become human, Marshall says the movie is pushing the modernity further.

"No. 1 is her passion — that fire is very important," he explains of this new take on Ariel. "She feels displaced and it's really an epic story of finding your true self. But also there needs to be a great deal of joy. It's a strange combination of innocence and wisdom, and a great deal of soul and heart. She's very modern in that way."

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Halle Bailey's Ariel will be a 'modern woman' in 'The Little Mermaid,' says director Rob Marshall.
| Credit: Disney

The Little Mermaid, readying for a debut in theaters next year on May 26, comes with live-action and CG renderings of classic characters from the animated original: A Dog's Way Home star Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Bridesmaids' Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, No Country for Old Men Oscar winner Javier Bardem as King Triton, Hamilton Tony winner Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Room's Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, and Crazy Rich Asian's Awkwafina as Scuttle.

But Marshall and his fellow screenwriters, David Magee and John DeLuca, made some changes to the tale as well.

Ariel, the youngest daughter of ocean-ruler King Triton, longs to find out about the world beyond the sea. "She's not afraid of the 'other,' the human world, especially in our film," Marshall notes. "There's a wall, basically, built between the worlds. That's the rule that is never broken." As the story goes, Ariel defies her father's wishes, making a pact with Ursula to magically walk on land as a human in exchange for her voice, putting her life and her father's kingdom in jeopardy.

Marshall wants audiences to rest easy. Just because Ariel loses her voice doesn't mean we won't hear Bailey's powerhouse vocals for most of the movie. In addition to "Part of Your World," there's new music written for the actress. He teases, "I won't share what those are right now, but you'll get a sense of what she's feeling."

While among the surface world, Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric, who doesn't believe the mermaids of the deep are as bad as he was taught. Marshall and the writers took that as another opportunity to flesh out the Eric role.

"The role of Eric in the animated film — I'm sure the original creators would agree with this — it's a wooden, classic prince character with not a lot going on," the director says. "There's a whole story that's developed in our film. He has a mother, a queen, that's new to the film. He has a very similar trajectory in a way to Ariel. He doesn't feel like it's where he fits in, his world."

"These two kindred spirits find each other and really teach the world about prejudice and about breaking down barriers and walls between these two worlds," Marshall adds.

Marshall has seen the impact Bailey's Ariel is already having online. Parents of Black children have been sharing reaction videos of their kids seeing a Black Ariel in the film's first teaser trailer to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Marshall was completely caught off-guard by that response.

"I wasn't anticipating that because, in a way, I felt like we've moved so far past that kind of thing," he mentions of his own naivety, "but then you realize, in a way we haven't. It was very moving to me to see how important this kind of casting is for the world."

He stresses there was "no agenda" when casting Ariel for The Little Mermaid. "We just were looking for the best actor for the role, period. The end," he remarks. "We saw everybody and every ethnicity." The goal was to find someone who can be "incredibly strong, passionate, beautiful, smart, clever," and with "a great deal of fire and joy," Marshall describes.

And, of course, she had to be able to sing. "That voice is something that is so signature and so ethereal and so beautiful that it captures the heart of Eric, and he looks for her for the entire film," he says.

The producers found those qualities in Bailey, the recording artist of music duo Chloe x Halle, who has Beyoncé Knowles-Carter's seal of approval as one of the Grammy winner's protégés. Other actors they considered for the lead felt too "jaded" or "too wise," as Marshall puts it. "Halle still had that freshness in herself. As soon as we cast her, we were really thinking in terms of how we can make this her Ariel."

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