Rob Marshall, who directed Disney's upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, insisted there was "no agenda" when the studio cast singer Halle Bailey as Ariel. There was a racist backlash after Bailey's casting was announced, since the fictional mermaid was depicted as white in the 1989 animated classic. There was also a positive response to the casting though, particularly with a TikTok trend of parents of Black children sharing videos of their kids seeing a Black actress in the role for the first time.
"We just were looking for the best actor for the role, period. The end," Marshall, an Oscar-nominee for directing Chicago, told Entertainment Weekly in a new interview. "We saw everybody and every ethnicity." Their goal was to cast someone as Ariel who was "incredibly strong, passionate, beautiful, smart, clever" with a "great deal of fire and joy."
Bailey, who is one half of the duo Chloe x Halle, has all those qualities, plus an incredible singing voice. "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," Marshall said, adding that other actors who tried out for the part were too "jaded" or "too wise" for it. "Halle still had that freshness in herself," the director said. "As soon as we cast her, we were really thinking in terms of how we can make this her Ariel."
Marshall previously worked with Disney on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns. He cast Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Javier Bardem as King Triton, and Art Malik as Grimsby. Daveed Diggs voiced Sabastian the crab, while Jacob Tremblay is the voice of Flounder. Awkwafina voices Scuttle the diving bird. David Magee and Jane Goldman wrote the screenplay from a story by Marshall, Magee, and John DeLuca.
"She's not afraid of the 'other,' the human world, especially in our film," Marshall said of his film's take on Ariel. "There's a wall, basically, built between the worlds. That's the rule that is never broken." He also teased new songs for Bailey to sing beyond just "Part of Your World." These new songs will give audiences a "sense of what she's feeling." Composer Alan Menken returned, with Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the lyrics. The late Howard Ashman wrote the original songs' lyrics with Menken.
The new movie will also have an expanded role for Prince Eric, who Marshall sees as a "wooden, classic prince character" in the 1989 movie. "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," he said of the film's central couple. The Little Mermaid opens on May 26.