Disney’s original 1989 animated musical film (which kicked off the studio’s legendary and critically acclaimed Renaissance era) was based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name. This 1837 tale told the story of a lovestruck mermaid named Ariel who feels like an outsider in her underwater society, causing her to dream of a life with humans in the world above.
The animated film draws forth these queer themes of longing for love and acceptance — and is swimming with LGBTQ+ inspiration. The character of Ursula, one of Disney’s most delicious villains who was originally voiced by the late Pat Carroll, was inspired by drag legend and John Waters muse Divine (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Hairspray). And the film’s most prominent musical number, “Part of Your World,” is now a queer anthem, which was scored by Alan Menken with lyrics from the late, great gay songwriter Howard Ashman.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Disney, now celebrating a banner year with the studio’s 100th anniversary, is releasing the highly anticipated live-action version of The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Jonah Hauer-King, Awkwafina, Daveed Diggs, and Javier Bardem. With a history as rich — and as queer — as The Little Mermaid’s, it would only make sense for a director with a deep appreciation for the original animated movie to take the helm. And the studio found that in out filmmaker Rob Marshall.
“I’ve always felt a little bit of a connection with the animated film,” Marshall says. “The fact that people started to really embrace the idea of a musical with The Little Mermaid and then Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, it started that whole sort of resurgence of movie musicals. And then that sort of bled into the idea of us being able to do one myself, being able to do Chicago and that being embraced. So…there was always this interesting connection that I always felt with The Little Mermaid.”
It was that connection, plus a storied career that includes lauded films like Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns, that helped Marshall land the gig — a job he considers a huge honor. He understands the weight and pressure of it, considering how popular Ariel’s story is in the larger Disney canon.
“Ask anybody you know. You say, ‘Do you know The Little Mermaid?’” Marshall explains. “It’s, ‘Oh my God, it’s my favorite. I grew up with it. It was the video I watched over and over again as a child, as a parent, as a babysitter.’ I know how iconic the piece is and how much it means to so many people. And I really wanted to do it right.”
Doing it right, in Marshall’s eyes, required incorporating new elements, including “deepening the story” and giving it a fresh, modern life so that it can stand on its own as a film. To this end, he recruited In the Heights and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to team up with original composer Alan Menken to write new lyrics and music, including a song for Prince Eric (who previously didn’t have one) and more music for Ariel (whose only song in the animated film was “Part of Your World” and its reprise).
Though a lot was added to 2023’s The Little Mermaid to modernize and refresh it, Marshall also paid homage to the legacy of the animated film’s original team. One of those people was the lyricist Ashman, who wrote “Part of Your World,” a song that, all these years later, still speaks to anyone on the margins wishing they could belong.
The original Little Mermaid was one of the last Disney projects the Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter worked on before losing his battle with HIV in 1991 at age 40. (A Disney+ documentary Howard recounts his extraordinary life and career.) To help Marshall understand Ashman’s passion for the project and inject that feeling into every musical moment, Marshall did his research, worked closely with Menken (who says he still adores Ashman to this day), and even watched footage of Ashman working his magic. And because of all that, Marshall says he felt a deep connection to Ashman during the process of bringing the live-action movie into the world.
“Hopefully we’ve honored his legacy with this film because I know that it was very important that this piece had great meaning,” Marshall reflects. “There was some wonderful footage of him working with Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel, and you can see he’s trying to imbue the sort of passion for wanting something else in ‘Part of Your World.’ I hope that we’ve done him proud, but I do feel that we have a deep connection there, and we are very aware of his work.”
“It’s a very powerful voice this young girl has,” Marshall says of the life Ashman breathed through songwriting into the beloved Disney heroine. “And it takes her past where she ever imagined could she could achieve.”
And speaking of Disney heroines, the new Little Mermaid wouldn’t be what it is without the help of the film’s two biggest female stars: Halle Bailey, this generation’s Ariel, and Melissa McCarthy, who takes on the role of the larger-than-life, villainous diva and sea witch Ursula.
After the casting of its Black lead, online trolls fomented a racist backlash and threw vitriol at Bailey, a pop singer and an alum of Freeform’s popular young adult series Grown-ish. Marshall says there was no agenda to hire an actress based on the color of her skin, and that ever since seeing Bailey perform at the 2019 Grammys with her sister Chloe (the duo performed a rendition of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love”), he knew she would be the perfect Ariel.
“We saw hundreds and hundreds of women. But no one ever surpassed the bar that she had set,” says Marshall of the casting process. “She finally did a screen test. We sent the screen test to Disney. They said immediately, ‘Yes, she’s the one.’ And it was just this perfect combination of Halle at that time in her life where she was kind of innocent, but wise; this crazy combination, very passionate, incredibly bright. Also vulnerable, but the strength of youth that she had. It all just fit together.”
While Ursula may seem like a daunting role to take on, especially knowing that drag legend Divine was the original inspiration for the look and attitude of the character, Marshall also knew McCarthy had the chops. After all, according to Marshall, McCarthy told him, “I started my whole career in drag.” (And who could forget her gender-bending SNL performance as former White House press secretary Sean Spicer?)
“The fact that she has had that history in drag herself playing characters in drag shows, she understands where it comes from,” Marshall says of McCarthy. “She’s so surprising in this film. She is doing things you have never seen her do. It is a full experience with her because she, of course, is funny. But she has such depth as [Ursula]. You will feel for her. She’s so surprising. And she sings magnificently, and she just took this part with every ounce of her. John [DeLuca, Marshall’s partner and frequent producing collaborator] and I worked with her, and she was unbelievable. She wanted to be directed. She wanted to be guided. She wanted this so badly. And that passion that she has is all over the screen. And I think people really will be surprised by what she accomplishes in this movie.”
The admiration goes both ways, according to McCarthy. “Bottom line, everything feels different and frankly better with Rob,” she says of collaborating with Marshall. “His brain is a perfect balance between artistic flash and technical precision. He’s a quick laugh and a long-studied planner. Both performers and audiences alike are the winners. His lineage from dancer to choreographer to director have not just been built but earned. Rob Marshall is who I want to be when I grow up!”
Looking back at Marshall’s career, from a humble Broadway dancer to a celebrated, Oscar-nominated director crafting films that generations of viewers know and love, it’s easy to see why McCarthy feels that way. Working in the entertainment industry as your true authentic self during times where being out could kill your career takes an incredible amount of courage. But according to Marshall, he’s been privileged to have been accepted and uplifted by the many legendary people he’s worked with.
“I’ve been lucky because I’ve never really had to struggle in that area at all in terms of identity,” he says. “Maybe it was just blind. But it always felt like a very natural thing for me, and I’ve always felt welcomed. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from theater and maybe coming from musicals, maybe it’s more accepted there. But I’ve always felt accepted, which has been a great gift in my life.”
It’s a gift that he hopes to see future generations of LGBTQ+ filmmakers and creatives receive when they forge their own paths. “The truth is I’ve just followed the truth of my life,” Marshall reflects. “It’s never been something I’ve been kind of trumpeting out there. I’ve just sort of been doing it. Going out there and doing it.”
“The thing is, people can tell right away if you’re not truthful in your life, whether that’s personally or whether that’s in your work. You have to let what you feel come out,” he reflects. “I’ll never forget, I had a great teacher and friend whose name is Anthony Minghella, who directed beautiful movies like The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He said to me once, ‘You’re hired for your taste.’ And I thought, well, that’s kind of true. That’s it. Your taste has to be authentically you. Let yourself come out in your work, how you feel, who you are. Whether you’re even aware of it, that comes across in your work. So it’s important to be a full person, a whole person, so your voice can come out.”
The Little Mermaid hits theaters May 26. You can watch the official trailer below.
The Little Mermaid | Official Trailer
This article is part of the Out May/June issue, available on newsstands May 30. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.