Rob Marshall wants to be clear.
“There was no agenda to cast a woman of color,” the director of Disney’s new live action reboot of The Little Mermaid says about the reimagining of the film’s seafaring heroine Ariel, a role that ultimately went to rising pop star and actress Halle Bailey.
“We looked at everybody for that role. I mean, across the boards, every ethnicity,” Marshall continues. “It was really just, ‘Let's just find the best Ariel. And it was quite a demanding bill to fill because she needed to have an extraordinary voice, be strong and passionate, but also be vulnerable and kind of naive, and maybe otherworldly too.
“And Halle came in and she sang ‘Part of Your World.’ And I just remember so clearly, at the end of the song, I was just in tears. It was emotional. She's so moving, so deeply connected and we kept bringing her back.”
The casting of Bailey, who is Black, was met with the all-too-predictable racist backlash and complaints that Disney was going “woke” by reimagining its, ahem, mythical mermaid creature in a movie that takes place in a fictitious fantasyland with a non-white actor.
But while the controversy generated more headlines, there was also wide celebration. Videos of young Black girls joyously reacting to the film’s trailer went viral.
“Those moments mean everything to me,” Bailey, 23, tells us. “Seeing the babies’ reactions and them saying, ‘Wow, she looks like me’ is so special and powerful and healing to the inner-child in me, honestly. I think it means so much for us to be able to see examples of ourselves on screen. And it does so much for your self-worth, especially when you're a baby and you see somebody that looks like you as a princess. So those moments mean the world to me and I'll never get tired of it.”
Seeing herself as Ariel on the big screen for the first time also had a profound effect on Bailey. “I was just sobbing for like the first 20 minutes, watching myself,” she admits.
When the finished film was finally screened early for critics, it was Bailey’s thundering performance and powerhouse vocals that drew the loudest acclaim.
Her co-stars weren’t surprised.
“She was amazing,” says Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Ariel’s love interest Eric and got a FaceTime call from a teary Bailey after she’d just watched the film for the first time.
“She has it all,” says Javier Bardem (Ariel’s dad, King Triton). “She has everything that you can ask for any actress and singer to have. But on top of that, she's a beautiful human being and she has an aura that you either have or you don't have it. And she was born with it. So when you watch it on screen, you can't take your eyes off her.”
“I first heard her sing ‘Part of Your World’ during a rehearsal,” remembers Jacob Tremblay, who voices Flounder. “It was literally just rehearsal and she was [hardly] even trying and still just gave out such a beautiful performance. She gave everyone goosebumps. It was absolutely fantastic. My mom, who grew up with the original, she was crying her eyes out.”
“And she really put the whole thing on her back,” says Daveed Diggs, who takes over as fan favorite Sebastian. “It's an incredible amount of pressure for that young woman to be under, once like it got announced and everything coming at her. But I can't think of anybody who could handle it like her. She’s really, really special.”
Cast members also agree that the film’s colorblind casting should be celebrated, not criticized.
“You can't let people that are simply afraid of anything they don't see in the mirror dictate what we do and how we love and who we admire and look up to,” says Melissa McCarthy, who antagonizes Ariel as the villainous sea witch Ursula. “So I just love what our movie represents.
“God, if we were all the same, how intensely boring.”
The Little Mermaid opens Friday, May 26 in theaters.
Watch the trailer: