There’s nothing fishy about Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid
Despite an astonishing backlash to her casting, Halle Bailey has proven she’s the perfect Ariel — in a film to make nostalgic hearts sing.
By Hayley Peppin
SHE’S AN ICON, she’s a legend, she is Ariel. Halle Bailey is the princess of social media (with millions of followers between her respective TikTok and Instagram accounts), has the incandescent voice of a Super Bowl headliner and an ethereal charm only seen on a splashing of Hollywood stars. Truly, no one could bring to life the titular Little Mermaid better than the 23-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia. She even got the ultimate tick of approval from the original voice of Ariel, Jodie Benson, who immediately told the film’s director Rob Marshall (of Mary Poppins Returns, Chicago and plenty other hits) “what a great casting choice” she was during pre-production for the live-action Disney remake. But despite Bailey’s many talents — and there’s a lot, she even makes beaded jewellery — the multi-hyphenate endearingly takes praise like a fish-out-of-water.
“It feels crazy when you say icon,” Bailey responds during our interview for The Little Mermaid premiere in Sydney, in reference to her being the one of the first African-American Disney Princesses. “I mean, I don’t feel like that at all. I just feel like little old me, but I’m grateful to be in this position.” A position which has seemingly gone full-circle, with Bailey beginning her Ariel journey as a little girl playing mermaids in the pool with her sisters (how relatable). “She’s the reason why I wanted to be in the water so much. So this was truly a dream come true,” she continued.
ARIEL was the REASON why I WANTED to be in the WATER so MUCH
Bailey was first asked to audition for one of her “favourite” Disney princesses back in 2019 after Marshall saw her perform at the Grammys alongside older sister Chloe. If you weren’t aware, Bailey rose to fame as one half of the sister-singing act Chloe X Halle — which saw them go from viral tween YouTubers to Beyoncé’s tour support act within a few years. Somewhere in between, the dynamic duo landed a coveted appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show — which led the Bailey’s to uproot their family from Atlanta to Los Angeles for their daughters’ burgeoning careers.
“We had just started thinking about who’s gonna play Ariel and who are we going to cast. And I’m watching the Grammys with John DeLuca, the producer, and we just look at each-other and go, ‘Who is this girl?’ Marshall described Bailey’s career-defining performance to me.
But it wasn’t just Bailey’s vocal ability that had Marshall absolutely hooked (sorry, all the fishy puns). The visionary director said she had an almost unspoiled and magnestisingly “other-worldly sort of sensibility,” much like the wide-eyed and wondrous little mermaid. “I thought, you know, that’s not easy to find, especially today. 13 year olds are like 30 year olds,” Marshall laughed. He’s not wrong, one only needs to check TikTok. Bailey was the first person they auditioned for Ariel and evidently the last. As while Disney saw hundreds of diverse girls — “it was sort of like, let’s just find the best Ariel,” Marshall explained — Bailey kept on coming back. Seemingly, she set the bar so high that no other hopeful Ariel could ever reach the surface.
“She [Bailey] opened her mouth to sing and shut her eyes … And then I just remember, by the end of the song, I was in complete tears,” Marshall recalled of that first audition, where she sang the iconic and ever-emotional fan-favourite, ‘Part of Your World.’ “I couldn’t believe how moving she was and how deeply connected she was.”
A connection, which perhaps runs deeper than Disney’s version of the original dark fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson. If you need a reminder, the live-action CGI movie-musical remake — which largely stays true to the 1989 animation (aside from robbing fans of the glorious sub-plot that is Chef Louis’ attempts to capture and cook Sebastian the crab) follows Ariel, a defiant and curious inquisitor of humans, who dreams of life on dry land (who knows why?). As undersea ruler King Triton’s (played by a maybe comical Javier Bardem) youngest and most rebellious daughter, of which he has many, Ariel’s welfare remains his primary concern. He therefore sets a plethora of protective parameters to ensure her safety at all times, including forbidding her from ever journeying to the above-world.
I couldn’t BELIEVE how MOVING and DEEPLY CONNECTED she WAS.
But Ariel being 18 years old, perky and bored of her fishy friends — yes, a hyper-realistic Flounder also makes an appearance — she breaks dad’s rules and surfaces; later saving a drowning Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Having quickly fallen for the kind and desperately hopeless prince, Ariel makes a deal with the tentacled sea-witch Ursula (played by the devilishly fantastic Melissa McCarthy) to swap her tail for a pair of legs. The catch is, the transformation is only for three days and at the cost of her precious voice. And if the prince doesn’t end up kissing her, she’ll be under Ursula’s power forever … and ever.
Yet away from the mythical elements, CGI-wizardry — the film cost more than USD $250 million to make over four years — and theatrical musical scores, some of which were penned by no less than Lin-Manuel Miranda — at its heart, The Little Mermaid 2.0 is all about breaking down the walls between unique worlds and not being afraid of those different from you. A theme which somehow mirrored life following a racist backlash on Bailey’s casting.
Astonishingly, #NotMyAriel began trending on Twitter shortly after casting news broke and then later after the trailer was released. Somehow racists decided a mythological creature from a cartoon needed to be a certain colouring and appearance in real-life. “I thought it was sad, because it felt so archaic to me,” Marshall said, before noting he later realised her casting could offer so much hope for young girls and boys of colour across the globe. As aside from some unfounded criticism, the most pertinent and profound responses saw families post videos of their children in awe after discovering a Black Ariel during the trailer. It’s a heartfelt and impactful movement that Bailey couldn’t be more honoured to be part of in Hollywood. She explained that Princess Tiana from Disney’s 2008 animated film The Princess and the Frog (featuring the first African-American Princess) meant everything to her when she was growing up.
“I just feel it’s so special for us to have this moment where we can see ourselves as princesses,” she shared. “And in these roles, it’s essential to your development as a young person, and confidence and self-worth. I know what it meant to me. I’m just so grateful to be able to continue on this kind of legacy.”
A legacy which has moved the world over, including Bailey’s famous co-stars. McCarthy joined her down under for the Australian premiere of The Little Mermaid on Monday night and told me she burst out crying the first time she heard Bailey sing. “It was pretty embarrassing. Like the first time she sings like three notes and I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m sorry. I swear I’m not weird,’ but I was just completely overwhelmed,” McCarthy shared of the “grit ” and “heart ” Bailey offers during every entrancing lyric.
As to whether she offered McCarthy her own vocal advice for the A-lister’s first-ever movie-musical? Bailey laughed and said, “Oh, no I do not need to go giving Melissa McCarthy no tips.” But it’s not to say she’s not a huge influence on the older generation — who are understandably still enamoured by The Little Mermaid (myself included). One only needs to take a look at the #mermaidcore hashtag, which has over 201.7 million views on TikTok, to see Bailey inspiring people of all ages and ethnicities to embrace shimmer, shine and sultry wet-looks for dopamine-inducing event-wear or self-expression. Naturally, it’s a sartorial assignment Bailey has suitably endorsed herself, both at the Los Angeles and Sydney premieres of The Little Mermaid wearing equally iridescent oceanic ‘fits.
“It’s crazy. You know, I see my peers and I love Tiktok. So when I see people [dress] like me I’m like, ‘What the heck!’ Yeah, we’re all just like, ‘This is so cool,'” Bailey said of her pop-culture resonance.
An-ever buoyant and boppy response from the perfect Ariel.
‘The Little Mermaid’ is in cinemas now.
I’M just so GRATEFUL to be able to CONTINUE on this kind of LEGACY.