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What We Talk About When We Talk About That ‘Little Mermaid’ Teaser

The reactions to the release of the “live-action” Little Mermaid teaser were so predictable we hardly need to go over them here. Even if you didn’t pay any attention to the online chatterboxes on social media, you can probably guess the basic plot points, especially if you know the role of Ariel went to Halle Bailey.

The notion of a Black mermaid seemed to upset the already fragile apple carts of a number of internet racists’ minds, who made a lot of idiotic noise about Disney’s “woke agenda.” It’s not entirely clear that these people had any cherished memories of watching The Little Mermaid as kids. Nor is it clear why a group that seems so predominantly led by manly men and their very manly goals suddenly cares about mermaids. But care they ostensibly did, and they were met with a righteous backlash, led by Bailey’s not-insignificant and extremely online fandom.

This is all for the best. There is never a bad time to shut racists up, and a Little Mermaid teaser is as good an opportunity as any. The more racists are made aware that their white supremacist vision of the world is unwelcome online or anywhere, the better for us all.

But there was another group of Little Mermaid teaser critics who also made their opinions heard online. A group that seemed very unconcerned or even excited about Bailey’s performance, but less enthused about the rest of the teaser. Complaints of the footage appearing too dark and muddy popped up, as did complaints about how unimaginative the underwater world looked. These people found their criticisms lumped in with the racist attacks, and received the according online vitriol. Bad faith motives were assigned to good faith criticisms, and the ensuing noise, a great deal was said but very little actually discussed.

There’s a lot going on here, and nuance around complicated issues has never been social media’s strong suit. It’s true that a lot of the backlash to The Little Mermaid teaser was explicitly racist. It’s also true that some critics with racial animus will dress their criticisms up in more legitimate-sounding language to bury their actual intolerance.

But here’s another thing that’s true: The teaser itself does look drab and colorless. Side-by-side comparisons to the original animated teaser do it no favors, nor do comparisons to other teasers for upcoming underwater adventures like James Cameron’s Avatar sequel and the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever teaser.

In short, not everyone criticizing the Little Mermaid teaser was racist. But all the racists were definitely criticizing the teaser.

And then there is Disney itself. Rarely has a company put so much work into being lazy. The House of Mouse’s latest scheme for conquering the planet involves recycling its greatest hits as something we have all collectively agreed to call “live action.” The results have ranged from divertingly average (Beauty and the Beast) to truly abysmal (the recent Pinocchio). The one attempt that might be considered a creative success, Pete’s Dragon, was a box office flop, but the rest have made a killing at the box office and on streaming.

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These movies have proved that Disney doesn’t necessarily have to do great work to make good money, and that’s a lesson they have taken to heart. These remakes have been largely bereft of even the simple joys revisiting a classic tale might provide, swapping a thoughtful reinterpretation of the source material for shot-for-shot recreation, replacing world class hand drawn animated with lifeless CGI. The result is like hearing a high school clarinet cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — amusing, maybe a little sad, mostly useful for reminding you of how good the original is. But as long as people keep paying to see it, why would Disney try to do something different?

It’s possible that The Little Mermaid will surprise us all. There is plenty of talent involved. Bailey’s vocals are marvelous. Lin-Manuel Miranda is on deck for some new original songs, which sounds promising. Melissa McCarthy as Ursula is pretty inspired casting. And the initial teaser isn’t always indicative of the final product. A little contrast and brightness would go a long ways. The movie could deliver.

But if it doesn’t, it will be important to both criticize it thoughtfully and engage with those criticisms thoughtfully. Not every critique can be taken in good faith, but Disney is capable of not just giving actors of color high profile roles, but also excellent ones that can stand the test of time along with the company’s finest work. But they won’t do it unless demand more from them than just thingamabobs.

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