Set in the 1830s in and around the waters of a fictitious island in the Caribbean, Ariel is a spirited 18-year-old mermaid with a beautiful voice and a thirst for adventure. She is the youngest child of King Triton, who rules the oceans from his underwater kingdom, and is the most defiant of his daughters of the Seven Seas. Frustrated with the confines of her life, Ariel is fascinated with the world above the surface, but it is a world inhabited by humans, with whom Triton has forbidden all merfolk from interacting.
Ariel spends her time with her aquatic friend Flounder collecting human artifacts from ship wreckage scattered across the ocean floor, which she stores in her secret grotto. But one day, disregarding her father’s rules — and the pleas from Flounder and Sebastian, a crustacean and the King’s major-domo — she can’t help herself and swims to the surface to discover a majestic shipping vessel manned by the adventurous Prince Eric, whom she rescues when his ship is destroyed during a storm.
Twenty-three-year-old Halle Bailey, one half of the Grammy-nominated R&B duo Chloe x Halle, was cast as Ariel, the strong-willed mermaid from under the sea. Casting a young woman of color in such an iconic role was a no-brainer. From the first moment Halle is on-screen, Bailey radiates incredible passion, Ariel’s charisma, her tenacious spirit and angelic voice that causes people to stop in their tracks whenever they hear it. She doesn’t just sing, but she possesses such a deep connection to what she was singing about.
To learn more about Halle Bailey’s portrayal of Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, how it impacted her life, her personal connection to the role and more, The Koalition spoke to Bailey through the African American Film Critics Association‘s roundtable interview.
Rob Marshall first spotted Bailey during the 2019 Grammy’s as Chloe x Halle performed ‘Where Is the Love?’ He was enraptured by her angelic singing voice but didn’t know if she could act. So, he asked Bailey to audition for The Little Mermaid by singing Ariel’s signature anthem ‘Part of Your World.’ It was at this moment Bailey’s life was changed forever. “When she finished, I was in tears because she’s so soulful,” Marshall recalls. She has captured Ariel’s passion, heart and soul.
Growing up, Halle Bailey was obsessed with The Little Mermaid, wearing out her family’s VHS tape watching and rewatching the 1989 Disney animated hit and pretending to be Ariel every time she went swimming. “I remember watching the movie on repeat and pretending that I was Ariel, swimming in the water and singing the songs, but never in a million years did I think I would ever be able to play her,” says Bailey. “There’s something so special about being a mermaid because it’s a mix between this mythical, beautiful creature and your authentic self, and I think that’s why so many young children respond to the character. Because it’s like, yes, I can be this sort of magical being by just being who I am, and I am special the way that I am. That’s why it really resonated with me.”
In describing the character, Bailey says, “Ariel is passionate, she has so much wisdom, and is wise beyond her years. She knows what she wants, and she doesn’t back down. I feel like our stories are very parallel to one another. We are both on similar journeys, and I’m just so inspired by her. She inspires me to speak up.”
“I tell people all the time, I feel like Ariel truly has helped me find myself and like this young woman’s version of me because it’s been five years of my life now. From 18 years old to now being 23, so those are very intense transformative years as you’re developing as a young woman. I especially feel these themes of the film and what she had to go through with her passions and drive and speaking up for herself, and even though it may be scary, she went for it. I feel like those things I really try to adopt and give to Halle now. She’s taught me so much.”
For Bailey, Ariel was the role of a lifetime. “It meant a lot to me to take on this role of Ariel as a Black woman. I feel like Black women are just the epitome of beauty and power and gracefulness. I felt I was really trying to put the essence of me into Ariel as well. I feel so grateful to be able to represent for this new generation of what princesses can be and for all of the beautiful Black and Brown children who are able to see themselves in this film and in the merch and in the dolls; for it to not be an out of the ordinary thing for us to be in spaces like these. We feel so worthy, and we deserve to take up space as well. I’m just grateful to be in this position.”
Being seen by Black and Brown girls also includes having hair that reflected theirs. Black stylists worked with Ariel’s hair to ensure it was ethnically correct, looked natural and would work on land and look believable when she was underwater. In 2016, the sisters’ mother, Courtney, told The Cut that casting agents begged them to cut their locs to book more roles. However, Disney wanted to work with Halle’s own locs, wrapping them in various shades of deep red, light red and strawberry blonde hair, and then adding loose pieces of hair.
“There was a time when we’d barely see locs — and now we have a Disney princess with them, which has never happened before,” Bailey told Ebony in May. “It was super important for me to have my natural hair in this film.”
The beloved songs from the original animated film The Little Mermaid, including ‘Part of Your World,’ ‘Under the Sea,’ ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls,’ and ‘Kiss the Girl,’ are very much a part of the live-action film version and are sure to capture the hearts of a whole new generation of fans. With music by multiple Academy Award winner Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) and lyrics by multiple Academy Award winner Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors), the songs are timeless, and went on to receive countless awards, including Oscars for best original score and best original song (‘Under the Sea’). Producer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda is a huge fan of the original animated film and, along with Alan Menken, Miranda has written three thrilling new songs and one new reprise for this film.
“I love the music in the film,” says Bailey. “The iconic songs that were in the animated film are just legendary…they will be around forever, and it was really exciting to be involved with those songs, as well as some new ones. Ariel has a new song called ‘For the First Time,’ which she sings when she finds herself on land and discovers all these new things. It’s a combination of feelings from scary and frightening, to exciting. It is a beautiful addition, and in fact, I think it might be my favorite song…that and ‘Part of Your World.’”
The ‘Part of Your World’ sequence took three days of filming because we broke it down in parts and I truly felt like I was able to capture the essence of all that she was, all that she was asking for in that song. Her desperate cry for help, her love and curiosity for the new world. I truly felt like I was able to capture that in the essence of this version of the song.”
For the ‘First Time’ gave Bailey new insight into this version of Ariel and she approached the character. “I was very excited to sing the original songs because I’ve loved part of your world since I was a little girl. When you think about the original, you think about Ariel who only had one song because of the impact that it had on all of us. So, taking on this new version and singing these new songs was something that was so spectacular and beautiful.”
Bailey continued, “As a singer and musician first, I was fangirling over Alan Menken, the amazing composer of this film. The songs that he wrote are just magical and the essence of Ariel lives on through all of them. I was excited as a singer; I was up for the challenge. ‘Part of Your World’ is technically vocally very difficult to sing. It’s a hard song to sing, you want to do it justice. Jody Benson laid a beautiful foundation and I just really tried to give it my all as well as breathe some new life into it as well.”
“As [for] the new song ‘Ariel has ‘For the First Time’, which is this internal journal, this diary you’re hearing of hers as she embarks on her journey on land for the first time. It’s exciting and cool to see and I really just tried to put all of those emotions she was feeling into the music.”
Early pre-production on The Little Mermaid began in Los Angeles in 2019. During this time, storyboard artist worked closely with Marshall, producer John DeLuca and production designer John Myhre on visuals for the designs of the CG animated characters and the look of the sets. Because a significant portion of the film, specifically everything that takes place underwater, would be created digitally by visual effects supervisor Tim Burke in post-production, it was crucial these shots were worked out in advance.
They started by doing pre-vis animation that calculated and designed and created the entire way that the scenes would play out, and to decide how each shot could best be accomplished. The Little Mermaid represents two different worlds, the above world, which is the very real world, and the underwater world, which is a magical world where mermaids exist, crabs sing and diving birds like speak. The underwater world is entirely digital and above the water, everything is real and constructed in the way a classic period film is. Then there’s the musical aspect that brings everything together.
The film required a lot of training, including carriage training, stunt training, dog training, rowing training, boat training, diving training, and gym training. It was almost like boot camp.
For Bailey, “the start of the rehearsal process was so much fun. We went out to London [for] three months of intense rehearsals. Rob Marshall is a visionary, he’s a perfectionist. On the first day, we had a wonderful presentation of what the film would look like. We were put through a walkthrough of what the rainforest looked like and ‘Kiss the Girl.’ It truly was magical. It looked like we were walking into a Disney World ride the way that they had everything so set up so we could see the essence of what this film would be. The rehearsals were amazing. It was a lot of mermaid training for me, it was a lot of stunt work, it was a lot of being on the wires and on harnesses. [It was all] really just capturing the essence of what it is to be this mythical magical creature.”
“All the stunt training was very difficult, but it was fun,” Bailey continued. “It is tough on your body in the moment, but the more you rehearse it, the more your body gets used to it, especially on the rigs, which gave me a sense of flying and spinning, which is what Ariel is doing underwater.”
Throughout the movie’s ups and downs, Bailey is grateful for staying grounded and the people in her life that support her on this journey. And as Bailey carves her own path in the entertainment industry, the traits that she admired in Ariel are everlasting. The theme of learning to let go, but knowing you have the support of your family rings true for Bailey, who relied on the support of her family throughout the process.
I’m so grateful for my family, my siblings and my sister Chloe in particular. She’s my biggest champion and she roots for me so much. With the news of this casting and finding out that I was going to be able to take on this role, I just surrounded myself with the positivity of the loved ones I had around me and the people lifting me up and filling me up with ‘you can,’ ‘you can, and you will’ and ‘you are worthy.’ I think it’s essential for us to be able to hear these things especially when we take on unfamiliar [and enter] unknown territory we’ve never experienced before. I haven’t done anything like this before. This was an immense experience and beautiful challenge for me, and it helped me find who I am. [This role] has taken me out of the shell or the box that I used to put myself in and has taught me that I can do a lot more than I thought I could.”
To learn more about The Little Mermaid check out the full interview in the video above.