We are living in the era of the remake. And while I have, for the most part, avoided them, when buzz began to spread about the now-finally-released remake of “The Little Mermaid,” I knew it was one I’d need to see.
Disney’s original version of “The Little Mermaid” came out in 1989 when I was six years old. My family had it in constant rotation in our weekly Blockbuster haul, until — I imagine — my mom finally realized it would be more cost efficient to just buy a copy at Sam’s Club. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I watched that VHS, but Ariel and her long red hair are a dominant presence in my childhood memories.
I would go to the pool in the summer, a swim cap protecting my jheri curl or braids protecting my natural hair. I would dive in, squeezing my legs together like a fin, find my way towards the edge, and muster my childhood biceps to surge my body from the water — flicking my head back and doing my damndest to recreate the iconic rock scene at the end of “Part of Your World.”
My braids were too heavy to catch much wind, and my swim cap left me with little more than a few droplets of rubber scented water dripping down my back — but I don’t remember feeling unsatisfied in the moment.
I was well into my adulthood when the phrase “representation matters” started to catch on, and I was able to pause, rewind the VHS of my life, and begin to re-examine my prologue. So, when I walked into the theater to experience Disney’s new remake of “Little Mermaid,” I knew what I was supposed to be feeling, and what I was supposed to be on the lookout for. Because seeing a Black Ariel should feel re-affirming, right?
This would be my first time back in a movie theater since the pandemic, so I went all out for the experience. I bought tickets for “The Little Mermaid” at a luxe theater with a bar, dinner service, and fancy, plush reclining chairs. After ordering a whiskey and ginger drink, I went to butter my popcorn and overheard a little Black girl say, “I love your edges” to the Black woman behind the concession stand. And I thought to myself, Ah this is it. This is the experience that everyone has been expecting me to feel.
But, after nearly four years of conversation about what a big deal it was to have a Black Ariel, the bigness of it had — for me at least — worn off a bit. It’s not like Black Ariel's Blackness mattered in any consequential way to the story, anyhow. Besides: 2023 Theresa has different expectations for the world than 6-year-old Theresa did, so at this point it would have felt more surprising had Disney chosen a white Ariel.
What I was surprised by was how much the remake kept true to the original. Every scene felt so intensely familiar, even if it all hit a bit differently now.
It’s not like Black Ariel's Blackness mattered in any consequential way to the story, anyhow.
I happily chomped on my popcorn and Bunch-a-Crunch as Ariel swam around her underwater treasure trove, and smiled when she twisted the fork around her locs rather than using it to comb her hair. My friend and I exchanged “ughs” at Daveed Diggs’s decision to stay true to Sebastian’s pseudo-Caribbean accent, but by the time “Under The Sea” played — I was dancing in my seat, happily sipping my cocktail, and whispering to my friend that I had officially forgiven him.
I appreciated the “use your words” consent additions to “Kiss The Girl.” I was somewhat surprised that it took me this long to realize that King Triton was high-key actually abusive. And I was predictably annoyed by the basic storyline of “girl loses herself to get the guy.” But that’s the thing. Those were all feelings I was — in many ways — expecting to feel.
So when they came up, I floated right past them without much pause, and let myself sink deeper into my cozy luxe recliner and derive a sense of temporary comfort from those familiar tropes.
But as I drove home from the theater that night, I began to feel a creeping sense of longing. Maybe it was the remnants of fresh heartbreak? I’d been dumped the week before; and this was following a four-year dating hiatus, so let me tell you: it stung.
Or maybe it’s that I am — for only the second time in my life — allowing myself to date non-cismen. I’m feeling constantly aware of how nonexistent Q+ characters were in any of the media I consumed as a child, and am wondering if I might have figured myself out sooner had things been different.
Maybe there’s also a part of me who was wishing there could have been a little queer kid in the theater last week, who could have seen Ursula played by a drag queen, who might have more genuinely represented her original muse.
Maybe it was nothing more than my decision to have popcorn, Bunch-a-Crunch, and whiskey for dinner — but I left that theater still hungry for something. It took me a few days to realize that what I wanted was something more than a remake of “The Little Mermaid.” I wanted a full-scale re-envisioning.
Is there a world in which Ursula is an asexual femme struggling to embrace body positivity, while she goes to weekly brunch with Flotsam and Jetsam, her gay besties?
And what about Ariel’s sisters? Tell me about the one who is 40-years-old, bought a coral reef condo on her own, and just watched her youngest sister get married while she endlessly swipes the dating apps hoping the mer-person of her dreams will bubble across her cell phone screen.
Heck, I’m even interested in King Triton’s back story. Tell me more about losing and grieving your wife, tell me about DMing with Sebastian after you tore apart your daughter’s room and realized that you’d messed up. Tell me about what under-the-sea Tinder is like for a single dad of seven daughters.
I refuse to believe I’m alone in wishing Disney would (also!) take the risk of telling a different version of this classic story.
I already know Ariel. Thirty-four years since the original, her face has changed but the story stayed the same.
I’m glad that the little Black girl I saw last week got to see a Black woman with beautiful Black hair working at the movie theater where she saw a Black Ariel hoist herself out of the ocean. And I’m glad that a new generation of kids will now imagine Halle Bailey’s locs and beautiful brown biceps when they squeeze their eyes tight, practice their mermaid dives, and burst to the surface of the water.
Did I enjoy the 2023 version of “The Little Mermaid?” Yes, I sure did.
And I refuse to believe I’m alone in wishing Disney would (also!) take the risk of telling a different version of this classic story.
If I could make a wish upon a magic star, what I’d ask for is that we — the children of the ‘90s, the era of basic-Disney princess originals — could get “The Little Mermaid” re-envisioning that I have to imagine so many of us are craving. We want to see how all the other people (and mer-people) in Ariel’s world live. We want to see them walk, see them run; we want to hear their stories.
Ultimately, the lingering let-down I experienced with this remake is because I’m a lot like Ariel — I want the same thing she did. Which is to say, that I just always want more.
This segment aired on June 2, 2023.