‘The Little Mermaid,’ Disney-style

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‘The Little Mermaid,’ Disney-style

The author is the head of the K-Entertainment Team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Disney sold me again,” I thought after watching the 1 minute, 24 second trailer of “The Little Mermaid” released on Sept. 9. At the D23 Expo, a fan festival that opened that day, Disney showed a scene from the movie scheduled to screen in May 2023.

The short video was enough to reignite the controversy that started three years ago when black American singer and actress Halle Bailey was cast for the main character, Ariel. In the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel is fair skinned with red hair and blue eyes. The American media reported about the trend of young black girls reacting positively to the trailer, while others not so much. Reflecting the heated interest, the trailer on Disney’s YouTube channel received more than 20 million views and 210,000 comments in eight days.

It is rather peculiar to be debating over what skin color suits a mermaid. The so-called “champions of the original,” who are also found in Korea, complain that the actress playing Arial was not a white redhead, as if they had seen a real mermaid. However, the Disney animation was the first to destroy the original. The original fairy tale written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1837 does not state a name for the mermaid nor describes how she looks. Disney chose red hair for her to contrast her green flipper, but other films and animations preceding the Disney version generally depicted the mermaid with blonde hair. Rather than the original ending that emphasizes love that is complete with sacrifice, Disney opted for a perfect, Disney-style happy ending.

The adaptation of the original in the animation “The Little Mermaid” was undoubtedly a choice for commercial success. “The Little Mermaid” is one of the hits that ended the dark age for Disney in the 1980s, earning $235 million worldwide. Casting a black actress for the role is no different. Through this short trailer, Disney created enough fans and antis who will have to watch this old story no matter what. At the same time, Disney successfully created a “social illusion” to make the question of who is chosen as a “Disney princess” an important issue. Here, we have a glimpse of the power that a global content company has accumulated as it celebrates its centennial next year.
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