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The Little Mermaid splashes back on the big screen

Walt Disney Studios

Beyond the Mouse, an NPR Illinois Community Voices podcast partner, was recently invited by The Walt Disney Company to a press preview of the new film “The Little Mermaid” in Chicago on May 8 and the virtual press conference the following day. Knowing how beloved the original 1989 animated film is, are 2023 audiences ready for a re-imagined live-action version? Beyond the Mouse Podcast was more than willing to check it out.

Director, Rob Marshall, certainly has no problem taking on beloved Disney classic films. He directed 2018’s “Mary Poppins Returns” and now “The Little Mermaid.” Thirty-four years have passed since Disney’s original animated telling of “The Little Mermaid,” but why was he motivated to turn to such a well-loved Disney classic?

"This girl who feels like she doesn't belong, doesn't fit in, feels displaced, the outsider, she goes on this epic journey of self-discovery and learns not to be afraid of people who are different ... the 'other,' and that felt very contemporary to us," Marshall said.

A live-action, re-imagining of “The Little Mermaid” seems to be an ocean-sized task. How did the cast feel about working on the film? Daveed Digs who voices Sebastian, the crab, said, “It's just big, and it wasn't – well, particularly for us, we worked on it like it was a small thing. At least in that work session, it really felt like we were kind of doing, like, community theater. We were pushing boxes around, like, to make sets, you know what I'm saying? And we got in this groove where it was, like, that's how you make art.”

Noma Dumezweni, who plays a new character in this version, Prince Eric’s mother Queen Salina, agrees about the film-theater connection when she was asked why Mermaid’s creative team, Rob Marshall and Jon DeLuca, were so perfect for this project. “Oh, gosh. It's the spectacle of it. It's the herding cats of it ... making extraordinary people feel very comfortable in doing what they're doing. The thing what I've absolutely clocked with Rob and John is that they're theater babies. And that's growing through the theater.”

But this is a movie-musical. So what about the music? Eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken returned to his original production role. Menken said, “Well first when they said, ‘Rob Marshall,’ my reaction was, yes! That’s bucket-list stuff. Then the addition of Lin-Manuel Miranda into that was just wow, what’s this going to be like? Let’s see!”

In the various live-action versions of Disney animated films, directors are given more time to develop or flesh-out characters and storylines. They are also given the opportunity to add more songs to the story. As in 2015’s “Cinderella,” we learn more about the prince. This time it’s Prince Eric, played by Jonah Hauer-King, who receives more story driven screen-time and his own “I want” song, “Wild Uncharted Waters.” Sebastian (Diggs) and Scuttle, voiced by Awkwafina, lend their rapping talents to advance the story with “Scuttlebutt.”

But aren’t we still missing something among all these “whozits and whatzis galore?” Ah yes! There’s an all-star cast including Melissa McCarthy (Ursula), Javier Bardem (King Triton), and Jacob Tremblay (Flounder), who add their special talents to this undersea adventure.

And this is Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” so we must have our Ariel! Played by Halle Bailey, she was the first to audition for the production team. Marshall shared, “I mean, here's the thing. The first actor we saw for this role was Halle. The first thing she did is she came in and sang for us. And she sang that song. She shut her eyes and started to sing the song and I thought, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I just thought she's so deeply connected to what she's singing about. It's so emotional. It's so beautiful. And I thought, oh my gosh, we've been doing this for five minutes. Have we found Ariel? And we had.”

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” opens nationally on May 26. Beyond the Mouse will release a “Full Disclosure Review” on NPR Illinois Community Voices the week of May 29.

Article by Brett Rutherford.
The Beyond the Mouse podcast features Craig McFarland, Vanessa Ferguson and Brett Rutherford.

Craig is a Co-host of Beyond the Mouse, the Disney themed podcast from The Front Row Network. He is also Associate Editor-in-Chief of The Front Row Network. He began podcasting in 2015, and can be heard on over a hundred Front Row Network episodes.
Vanessa is the Community Voices Production Coordinator. Reach Vanessa at vfergu3@uis.edu.
Brett Rutherford is a cohost of the Beyond the Mouse podcast for the Front Row Network.
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