The Little Mermaid has always been both a good memory and problematic for me. It was a good memory because of the people I watched it with and the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs we wouldn’t stop singing for years. Problematic because, well, the film’s “change everything you are to get the boy” message isn’t exactly a terrific one to pass on. However, there was something more going on with the Ariel character that could excuse it, and that was to live as you are, not as someone else thinks you should be.
Could Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid be a trans allegory for our generation? Why, yes, I believe so. Because we’re no longer unbound by animation and limited by real human faces and bodies telling the story, there’s a certain realism that allows this story to make a whole lot more sense beyond its fairytale trappings.
For Ariel’s part, she’s never been interested in life under the sea. Not because it’s forbidden fruit or because her father, King Triton, says humans are evil; it’s because she feels more part of that world than hers. Often, we don’t choose our lives; our lives choose us, and we are called to be what we are meant to be, whether personally or professionally. Viewed through this lens, this new remake of the much-beloved 1989 animated film couldn’t be more timely or carry more significant weight in our own personal identity struggles.
Nothing plot-wise has changed from its 1989 predecessor: A young girl is still told to live a certain way, but she is compelled to do otherwise by feelings she can’t explain. Against a parent’s wishes, she undergoes a transformation but loses her voice, having to fight to get it back and to finally be heard. Given this day and age, however, the parallel is too strong to overlook.
Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) heart’s desire is to join the humans “up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun, wandering free.” You could switch her marine milieu and want to be dirtside for, let’s say, a small town and want to live in a big city. But it doesn’t quite get there, does it? To go from country life to metropolis life doesn’t mean you have to fundamentally change who you are – the most you’ll need is a change of clothes and a purpose. We’re talking about Ariel needing wholesale physiological alterations to be where she wishes to be.
Having a cute-looking boy makes the decision easier, and it might look like she’s throwing her whole life overboard for Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), but some new musical material by Lin-Manuel Miranda helps us understand that she’s more interested in human life itself. Even the discomfort of a corset doesn’t stop her from being enchanted by these new events, as if they’re just another thing that humans do in their daily lives. From taking the reins of a horse and buggy to learning to dance with local villagers, everything is a bright, involving contrast to merely being another one of King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) daughters and having to hide her interest in humans from everyone except her friend Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and majordomo Sebastian (Daveed Diggs).
Having given her voice to Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy) in exchange for legs, she still manages to speak volumes in her silence. There’s a ferocity and joy in everything she does and experiences, which Halle Bailey puts across with a fiery spirit. Bailey doesn’t just do a Jodi Benson impersonation; instead, she redefines Ariel as someone who knows so much about herself at a young age and doesn’t hesitate to take the chance to be the person she knows she must be. (BTW, look for Jodi Benson – the original voice of Ariel – in a small cameo toward the middle of the film.)
This self-knowledge and ingrained purpose are what separate Bailey’s iteration of Ariel from what felt like a lust-driven flight of fancy in the 1989 film. It’s this change – which feels more subtle than it should – that recolors Ariel’s transition into one that she’s meant to undergo rather than be a pool in which she wants to dip her toes. She’s not meant for just a splash in the water; she’s meant to make waves and to live her own way, and that’s where The Little Mermaid becomes more of a trans allegory than just a fairytale adaptation.
Of course, the movie could be taken as a straight-up remake of a touchstone ‘80s classic, with all the magical underwater scenes reimagined with brilliant computer wizardry. But the intervening years and the many struggles for acceptance and equity have imparted more meaning to this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale. Screenwriter David Magee – also responsible for the screenplay of Mary Poppins Returns – knows how time and life can reshape the familiar into something larger. Those encountering The Little Mermaid for the first time will find a sumptuously-made musical waiting for them; those who’ve known the film will catch more engaging nuances and depth, making this one of the better Disney remakes in recent years.
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