How Disney has sold its latest live-action adaptation
The Little Mermaid comes to theaters this week from Walt Disney Studios, the latest in a string of second takes on a story after the studio’s original animated versions.
Halle Bailey stars as Ariel, the mermaid who is fascinated by the surface world and who falls in love with Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), a human who she saves from drowning. Ariel makes a deal with the wicked Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) to become human herself so she can spend more time with Eric over the objections of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem). Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay provide the voices of Ariel’s underwater friends Sebastian, Scuttle and Flounder.
Rob Marshall directed this new version, written by David Magee and featuring most of the same songs by Alan Menken as the 1989 animated feature.
announcement and casting
Bailey’s casting in mid-2019 was simultaneously praised for its inclusiveness and derided by those small minded individuals for whom any nod in that direction is traumatic. Tremblay, McCarthy and others joined around the same time, with Diggs coming on board later that year.
This was one of several live-action productions halted by Disney in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Diggs spoke briefly about the movie while promoting other things in early 2021.
An interview with Mencken in September 2021 included him revealing he was writing four new songs for the movie.
Disney finally gave it a 2023 release date a month later.
the marketing campaign
The first teaser trailer debuted in September 2022. It mostly shows off the visuals of the undersea kingdom Ariel lives in but keeps her hidden until the end, when we see her singing the chorus from “Part of That World”.
That debut actually happened during Disney’s D23 Expo, with Bailey, Marshall and others in attendance.
A teaser poster wasn’t released until October, also showing Ariel looking longingly up at the surface from her undersea vantage point.
An interview with Marshall had him expressing his dismay that there was such a pointed negative reaction to Bailey’s casting that also resurfaced when the trailer came out.
“Part of That World” is once again the central element in a TV spot released in February featuring most of the same footage seen in the teaser trailer with brief glimpses of Eric and Ursula added.
The next poster came out in March of this year and features Ariel in almost the exact same position as on the teaser, but this time the rock she’s perched on is above the water. That one-sheet was mostly part of the build up to the debut of the official trailer (17m YouTube plays), which happened during the Oscars broadcast.
That trailer opens by showing the shipwreck that throws Eric into the ocean, where he’s saved by Ariel, something that doesn’t sit well with her father. Ursula takes advantage of Ariel’s curiosity to make her human and she goes to the surface world and finds Eric and yada yada yada.
More of the cast is shown on the theatrical one-sheet released a couple days later, but Ariel is still sitting on a rock here.
As Disney has done a lot recently, a video featured the cast reacting to the full trailer.
Bailey appeared on “GMA” to talk about taking on the lead role in the movie and what it was like to film underwater for so long, something also covered in another interview. EW then shared a handful of new photos.
A featurette has Bailey, Marshall and others talking about what’s been retained from the original, what’s been changed and more. Menken is part of that as well along with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who joined to help adapt some of the music and add his own style.
An extended TV spot offers a bit more Flounder and a bit more of Ursula’s conniving.
McCarthy appeared in person at Disney’s CinemaCon 2023 presentation in April, sharing how much fun it was to play the villain in the story and debuting new footage to attendees there. She then stopped by “GMA” to hit many of the same points.
Marshall was interviewed again about why he took on the project and what fans could expect along with sharing a bunch of new photos from the film.
The first round of character posters included Ariel, Scuttle and Flounder.
Exclusive one-sheets for RealD 3D, Dolby, IMAX, Fandango and 4DX all came out, all showing different aspects of the characters and elements of the story, with some focusing solely on Ariel and others including Triton and Ursula.
Bailey’s cover feature in Ebony was just the latest high-profile press moment for the actor, who was all over the place as buzz around her performance became not only pervasive in general but also a central feature of the campaign.
A clip debuted during the MTV Movie & TV Awards broadcast, this one showing a tender moment between Ariel and Eric.
We get a look behind the scenes in another featurette showing the cast recording some of their voiceover work and talking about the training and other prep they did for filming.
The whole cast and crew along with others came out for the Hollywood premiere where they talked about the process of rehearsing and getting into character while praising everyone involved.
In attendance at the premiere was Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in the 1989 version, and shortly after that event Bailey confirmed Benson has a cameo in this movie and has been nothing but supportive since she was cast.
A longer look at “Under The Sea” came out at that point to make sure everyone knew how awesome Diggs is.
Bailey performed “Part Of Your World” on “American Idol” in mid-May before the international press tour kicked off with stops in Mexico City, London and elsewhere.
One more featurette focused on Ariel’s story and Bailey’s performance as the character, including her singing.
A second batch of character posters included Triton, Eric and Ursula along with Ariel and Scuttle.
Menken was interviewed about which of the songs from the original movie were cut from this one and what changes have been made to a few of those that remain. Benson would approvingly comment on some of those changes, including one that gives Ariel back some power in her relationship with Eric.
The “Poor Unfortunate Souls” clip that was shown at CinemaCon last month was finally released online to show off more of McCarthy’s performance as Ursula.
The campaign must have worked for a good number of people because tracking estimates an opening weekend of $120 million, likely helped by schools beginning to let out as summer gets underway.
There are qualms I have with the marketing from my own perspective, but most of those generally fall under the category of feeling tired of having new versions of popular things pushed at me time and time again. A few others have to do with how murky and smudged out this movie looks compared to the 1989 hand-drawn feature.
What redeems the campaign to a large extent is how much Bailey is involved in taking the message directly to young girls, especially young girls of color. That’s a big part of the marketing and publicity, beginning with the backlash to her casting and going through various appearances and initiatives closer to release.
So much of the word of mouth around the movie has revolved around how there doesn’t seem to be a definitive reason for it to have been made given the 1989 version still exists. But that outreach to audiences that have been largely underserved – or unserved entirely – makes a strong case for an update.