Disney movies have a certainty to succeed at the box office. The flop that was Dumbo still made money, and the critically middling type of movies like Beauty and the Beast still walked away with 1.26 billion USD. There isn’t much risk involved with their properties. I might have to eat my words with the live action remake of The Lion King, which has been critically panned by early viewers, but I still believe that the masses have enough Disney nostalgia that they will support it regardless. There are already articles predicting its success.
The main question to ask is this: do they use this position of certainty for good? While I complain about Disney’s dominance in the blockbuster spaces, I have come to the realisation that their position actually provides them with a lot of opportunity to push forward a greater sense of diversity and representation.
This brings us to our discussion of the live action remake of The Little Mermaid. Firstly, we had the casting of Halle Bailey in the titular role. This set most of the internet ablaze with applause but also angered some who felt casting an African-American young woman would not be doing justice to the red-haired, fair-skinned mermaid. All these qualms and arguments about racial authenticity are disappointing, because it shows that as a society we are still so caught up with the idea of race. Even the possible casting of Harry Styles as Prince Eric had people wondering why he was in the running when he’s a white British guy, meaning that Bailey’s love interest has to be African-American like herself – for parity of course.
Obviously, Disney and director Rob Marshall don’t give a hoot, because now we have news that Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton. While Bailey’s casting has credence, the casting choice of Bardem feels a bit out of left-field. People on social media were confused on how Bardem can legitimately be the father to Bailey’s Ariel. They have a point – is it merely diversity for diversity’s sake? Because there are other times where it seems Disney doesn’t think about race enough.
They were criticised for their casting of biracial Naomi Scott in the role of Jasmine for the live action remake of Aladdin (she is of British and Indian descent). Casting a South Asian actress for a character of Middle Eastern descent is problematic, since it sends the message that all brown people are the same. Disney tried to cover the contention of this by claiming that Agrabah is a fictional town with many ethnicities, making Scott’s casting viable. This might be the case if we didn’t already know that the 1992 Aladdin was meant to be set in Baghdad, which was changed because of the Gulf War.
I guess one only has to look the part, and not actually be what the role requires. Don’t even get me started on the news that Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin was ‘browning up’ actors for the ensemble scenes. Of course there might be the argument of practicality, and perhaps the difficulty in finding a large group of actors of Middle Eastern descent, but I do think widening the casting calls as well as the search is well within Disney’s capabilities. There was also the case of fans petitioning for Mulan to be played by an Asian actress. The role eventually went to Liu Yifei, and while you might argue that Disney was always going to cast a race appropriate actress for Mulan, it just says quite a fair bit if fans were so worried about this they felt the need to petition.
So yes, maybe things have gotten better, or maybe The Little Mermaid’s casting choices are just a way for Disney to show how ‘woke’ they are, especially after the criticism their previous decisions have received. They even went out of their way to scold naysayers who disagree with Bailey’s casting, tweeting out a strongly worded reply on their freeformtv twitter account in response to the #NotMyAriel hashtag that’s been going around.
Disney recognises that diversity and representation are the buzzwords of 2019. We want diverse narratives, we want to see more women protagonists and female stories, and they want to give it to us because they are a business, not because they care in any way about these narratives. This is good news for POC actors, since this means greater opportunities and more chances of booking gigs. The news is not as great for viewers, with empty and vacuous storylines dominating our screens and taking our money.
Maybe I need to spend more time at home with Netflix, where the diversity in narratives feels less contrived.