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Disney rolls out its latest remake, 'The Little Mermaid'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Has Disney done it again? And if they have, should they maybe stop?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Sebastian, singing) Under the sea, under the sea. Darling, it's better...

SUMMERS: These are some of the questions on our minds as Disney's remake of "The Little Mermaid" hits theaters. The industry juggernaut's latest live action remake has ingredients needed to dominate at the box office - star power, good timing and nostalgia, lots of nostalgia. But some argue that we should expect more than that in 2023. There's a whole lot to get into here, so we are going to turn this one over to our group chat. Today I'm joined by Aisha Harris, a co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, and also Gene Demby, a co-host of NPR's Code Switch. Hey, y'all.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: What's good, Juana? Glad to be here.

SUMMERS: All right. Aisha, I want to start with you here, because you've seen this movie, and you reviewed it for NPR. Give us the short version. What did you make of it? Did Disney try anything new here, or did they just stick to the same old playbook?

HARRIS: Well, Disney, I think, has its playbook down pat. Basically, they take an animated classic, as they call it, and then they turn it into a live-action CGI remake. They throw in some familiar faces, and they add a little bit of modernization to it. They might recast it in a different way. And voila, they are making probably a billion dollars. And this is probably what's going to happen with this movie. I would not be surprised. So the fact that Halle Bailey is a Black Ariel is a big deal. The cast itself is very multicultural. But at the end of the day, it still feels very, very similar to everything they've done with other movies, including "Aladdin," "Beauty And The Beast," "Jungle Book."

SUMMERS: As you mentioned, Aisha, Halle Bailey plays Ariel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID")

HALLE BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Wish I could be part of that world. What would I give...

SUMMERS: And, I mean, her voice is gorgeous. She's clearly got a charming presence. But I'm curious about her depiction of Ariel. Are the flaws here more on her performance, or is it the construction of this movie?

HARRIS: I think it's hard to be able to tell because especially when so much of this film is CGI and you have actors performing against fake backdrops, it's really hard as a performer to be able to really rise above that and stand out amongst this, like, cacophony of really ugly visuals. And I think for me, one of the problems I had with this performance - and it could be just the direction she was given, but she doesn't have the sort of like feistiness and mischievousness of the original Ariel. And I think that's, like, a core part of this character. And while she's very charming here, it's just missing that sort of, like, fire that I really wanted from a performance like this.

SUMMERS: OK, this one's for both of y'all. I remember when we got the trailer for this movie and found out it was coming out, there were all of those videos all over social media - I remember scrolling through TikTok; you couldn't miss them - of these young Black girls who seem to be starstruck by the idea that there was a Black girl as "The Little Mermaid." And I had some feelings about that, and I'm curious what you made of all that.

DEMBY: Oh, man. I mean, you could almost set your watch to it at this point. Like, whenever there's a big-budget tentpole movie with a Black cast, at some point, the discourse around that movie becomes about, like, what Black people owe to its box office performance, right? If you think - if you go back to "Red Tails" - right? - this not very good movie by George Lucas that came out, like, a decade ago. It was about the Tuskegee Airmen, and George Lucas, when he was doing the rollout for that movie, was talking explicitly about how Hollywood studios didn't want to bankroll that movie because they had a Black cast. They had no sense that there would be enough people that would come out to support this movie. And so people organized around going to see "Red Tails." They organized church groups. They organized youth groups and took kids from schools to go because they thought it was important. The Obamas had a screening of it at the White House.

SUMMERS: I remember that.

DEMBY: And it's something like that is sort of happening around "The Little Mermaid," right? There was this thing called the "Little Mermaid" challenge, which is this project by which people are trying to raise money so that little Black girls can go see "The Little Mermaid" in theaters. And on one hand, it's like, oh, that's really cute. You know, representation is really important. They should see themselves. On the other hand - and this is maybe my cynicism coming through - it's like, do we really want to be crowdfunding for Disney, one of the - if not the biggest media company in the world, right? Like, is that a project we should be invested in?

And I think those things get muddied a lot - right? - when we talk about big, tentpole Black movies. And I think it's because Black folks have historically felt like, oh, my God, if we don't come out and support this movie, they won't make more movies like this. But that also, like, muddies and complicates the way we can talk about it because then the conversation about representation is just about sort of box office performance. It's just about sort of, like, did we do enough to sort of keep this train moving?

HARRIS: To Gene's point, there were, you know, all the right-wing conservative talking heads and people saying, oh, that's not my Ariel. Like, I think, like, that was an actual hashtag, like, #NotMyAriel, because people were upset that she was Black now. And so when you have that tied in, it's not just about this movie as, like, in terms of box office, but it's also about in terms of, like, this act of resistance that people think they are taking if they go to see this anyway, even if they don't think it's a good thing. So it does make it complicated because people take my critiquing this movie as me not wanting Halle Bailey to win or not wanting, like, more of these stories. And my response to that is just, like, I'm rooting for Halle Bailey. I'm rooting for, you know, all of these performers in this movie. But, like, at the same time, it's not a good movie, and I want better for all of us.

SUMMERS: Gene, I'm curious - from your perspective, what gets lost when we flatten the conversation around race in this way, particularly when it comes to the intersection of race and pop culture?

DEMBY: And not to put on, like, my race hat too hard, but it feels almost as if, like, we are in a time in which there are so few avenues for us to exert sort of our will, like, throughout the democratic process, right? And so we're encouraged all the time to, like, buy and to consume. And the way we express our politics is through what we buy. And so it's kind of ridiculous to think about it this way, but these movies become, like, an expression of our values, right? And going to buy them becomes an expression of our values.

Like, one of the things about the "Little Mermaid" discourse that's really interesting to me, and it happens a lot of time around movies with Black casts, is that you can even hear it in the way that people talk about them. They don't say, I'm going to go see the movie. I'm going to - they say I'm going to support this movie, which is something you do for a political cause and not for a movie about a mermaid and some CGI fish. You know what I'm saying?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Like, but that's the way we're talking about this movie - right? - which tells you about, like, how much weight it has taken on.

SUMMERS: I mean, this is Disney's - what? - 22nd live-action adaptation at this point?

DEMBY: Wow.

SUMMERS: And first of all, that's crazy. Secondly, there's been this growing kind of concern about the lack of original media that isn't an adaptation or a remake or a spinoff of some franchise. How much of this is just about, I don't know, a lack of creativity and imagination? Or is this just about Disney wanting to avoid risk?

HARRIS: I mean, I think it's both of those things, right? This doesn't only apply to Disney. Like, every corporation is doing the same thing. It feels very frustrating as a viewer - and I imagine for people in Hollywood, too - to just be kind of, like, stuck in this rut of constantly having to rehash things. And I mean, not to bring in a completely - like, when I think about the writer's strike that's happening right now, I wonder how much of that is, like, also tied to this frustration with, like, not being able to, like, have original content, and writers being kind of forced in order to make a living - even though they're struggling to make a living to begin with, but being forced to make a living to some extent by just taking someone else's property and trying to put a new spin on it.

DEMBY: To Aisha's point, I think leaning into sort of the representation sort of anxiety that people have and the desire to see - to come out and support these movies is a way of kind of, like, critic-proofing and ensuring a certain level of box office, right? The only thing we need is butts in seats. If that means winking at Black people and tell them like, hey, see yourself on the screen...

HARRIS: Oh, God.

DEMBY: ...Disney and these studios are not above that kind of nudging.

SUMMERS: That's Aisha Harris, co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thanks, Aisha.

HARRIS: Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: And Gene Demby, co-host of NPR's Code Switch. Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.