Disney continues its streak of adapting hit animated classics into live-action epics with The Little Mermaid. Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton, is infatuated with the surface world, but mermaids are forbidden from exploring it due to the dangers of humans. However, Ariel breaks the rules and saves Prince Eric, whom she falls in love with. After a confrontation with her father, Ariel turns to the sea witch Ursula for help. Offered the opportunity to trade her voice for legs and the opportunity to explore the human world with Eric, she strikes a bargain, but this deal could have deadly consequences for both the world of humans and mermaids alike.
The Little Mermaid is directed by Rob Marshall, written by David Magee, and produced by John DeLuca. Legendary Disney composer Alan Menken, who scored and co-wrote the music for the animated Little Mermaid, returns to compose and co-wrote new music for the live-action adaptation with producer Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Little Mermaid stars Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jonah Hauer-King, and Jacob Tremblay.
Screen Rant spoke with director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca about their latest Disney musical The Little Mermaid. Marshall explained the secret to making a live-action Disney adaptation and reminisces about Halle Bailey’s audition. DeLuca shared why they incorporated mermaid mythology and what it was like working with legendary Disney composer Alan Menken.
Rob Marshall & John DeLuca on The Little Mermaid
Screen Rant: You guys blew me away. Seven-year-old me was flipping upside down. This is such an incredible film. Rob, what’s the secret to making a live-action Disney adaptation stand out from the original animated film?
Rob Marshall: It’s a different genre. So you can do something much differently than you did with an animated film. You can bring depth to it, you can bring more feeling, more scope, more story, and hopefully more emotion. That’s what we were excited about. These characters it’s sort of life or death experiences that they’re dealing with. Things that they want so much.
Ariel’s character needs desperately to be part of a different world. She feels displaced and wants something more. Wants to break down those barriers and walls between her world and the above world. Very powerful message to us as we were working on the film about tolerance and acceptance of someone that’s different than you.
I have to say that was the goal for us, to deepen it and make it something more powerful. At the same time, of course, you have the beauty of the film, the fun of the film, the joy, and the humor, all of that. But I feel it’s like a bigger meal in a way. You have more you can create with a live action film.
The music in this film is magical. It captured me just as the original did back in ’89. John, what was it like working with these two genius musical composers, Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda?
John DeLuca: It’s great. You couldn’t ask for better collaborators. Lin of course we know. We have history with him, but Alan was new and the most open soul. That’s why he’s so great. That’s why his genius stays alive. He listens to everyone. He’s not unlike [Rob]. He just he listens to everything and the best idea wins. He doesn’t have this huge ego. This impenetrable ego that says I’m right. He’s there. He’s like a child, like the seven year old that you’re speaking of and Lin has the same. Lin’s a kid.
So when we wrote our first draft we would decide where the new songs should be, and then we came out with a template. We said, “This is what it should be. This is what we want it to say for the story.” And they just embraced it. And they just said, “More and more, just give us more.” And it was that true collaboration as if they had never done anything of merit. So that’s the best way to work.
I love what you guys do with Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle. I think Eric has a great song in this film, too. You guys captured the essence of the original characters that everyone fell in love with, but you make them completely your own. Can you talk to me about balancing that, Rob?
Rob Marshall: The most important part was the fact that the genre is different. So now we’re in a photo real world. That’s very important to remember, this is not an animated film. Even our underwater isn’t as fantastic as people might expect it to be. It is not. It’s our blue planet world. That’s what it is. And so we get to go under that water and feel real people and it’s funny, I really wanted people to feel the truth and the reality, even underwater, even in a fantastic world.
I want people to believe those characters, so they’re engaged and care about them. One of my favorite things that people have said about this, that have seen it, they said, “It feels so real. It feels so fully real.” They’re talking about merpeople. That’s such a huge compliment because I know that when you believe in something, you can be engaged in it and you care deeply. That’s why I think the film is more emotional, because I think you truly believe all of it.
There are some really cool touches in this that I think add to the animated film that happened in ’89. What inspired the inclusion of mythology, like the siren songs influencing the mermaids and people hearing about that stuff?
John DeLuca: I love that mythology. I always loved, I remember as a kid, I saw a picture of the mermaids luring the men to their deaths and that was really fascinating to me. So I knew we had to get it in. It just goes along with the misunderstanding of of the other. Whether it be real, whether it be fiction, it’s something we all grow up with and that was truly our goal. Our tale is to break down those myths we all have of people who are mermaids luring men to their deaths. That was part of the fun.
Rob Marshall: We love that Eric doesn’t believe that. He doesn’t believe in that and the sailors, of course in our film are so fearful of them, because they’re different than them. It’s about acceptance between two worlds.
I’ve gotta talk about Halle, she is incredible. You guys cast the perfect Ariel. Talk to me about when you guys saw her for the first time, and when you knew immediately, “Yup, that’s our Ariel.”
Rob Marshall: You won’t believe this. She was the first person to come through the door.
John DeLuca: We had seen her on a show and we both said to each other.
Rob Marshall: What about her?
John DeLuca: There’s something special. The quality, the presence, the other worldliness. So we brought her in first.
Rob Marshall: We said, “Would you like to sing or read first?” And she said, “Well, I like to sing.” So she sang “Part of Your World.” I remember she shut her eyes and started to sing the song. By the end of the song I was in tears, I thought this is so moving. She’s so deeply connected to what she’s singing about and what she’s feeling. I remember turning to [John] saying, “Have we found Ariel?” This is the first person.
John DeLuca: We could’ve saved so much time and energy if we had just trusted our gut.
Rob Marshall: We saw hundreds and hundreds of girls after that because we really needed to make sure this was the one, but she set the bar so high with all of it. She had the incredible passion and strength, but she also had vulnerability. Like you were saying a sort of an otherworldly or ethereal feel and look and naive. She was only 18 when [she] first auditioned for us. So it was the full package.
John DeLuca: And then this star like quality on top of which was even greater.
Rob Marshall: She came back many times and we did a screen test with her, but ultimately we didn’t even have to choose. She claimed the role for hers.
About The Little Mermaid
A live-action adaptation of the 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid follows Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton, longs to explore the human world. However, mermaids have been forbidden from the surface world by King Triton. Breaking the rule Ariel meets Prince Eric and falls for him. Triton, enraged, confronts his daughter which sends her into the arms of Ursula, the sea witch, who the young mermaid makes a dangerous deal with in the hopes of meeting Eric again.
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