Disney’s forthcoming live-action Little Mermaid is set to star actress and singer Halle Bailey, of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, as Ariel, Variety reports. That means that one of Disney’s most iconic princesses is going to look quite different. This Ariel will be black.
That’s a giant deal, and not just because Ariel is a popular Disney princess with arguably the best “I Want” song in the Disney canon. Ariel is also the princess whose character design set the mold for the astonishingly homogenous run of giant-eyed, small-nosed Disney princesses we’ve met since The Little Mermaid debuted in 1989.
In 2015, a Tumblr user named Alex made a post titled “Every woman in every Disney/Pixar movie in the past decade has the exact same face.” She traced the face shapes for male and female characters from the past 10 years of Disney/Pixar movies, and she found that while the men had a variety of face shapes — square jaws and short noses! round jaws and long noses! the list goes on — the women’s face shapes were nearly identical: they all had round cheeks, giant round eyes, and tiny button noses. In extreme close-ups, it was almost impossible to tell the difference.
“Same Face Syndrome” is most noticeable in Disney’s current era of CGI animation, but it goes back to the traditional animation of the Disney Renaissance. Classic Disney heroines like Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, Aladdin’s Jasmine, and Tarzan’s Jane also share the basic Disney Same Face character modeling — round face, big eyes, small nose — and Ariel, who ushered in the Disney Renaissance when The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, set the mold for them.
That means that for the past 30 years, Disney has been selling a very specific face as its cultural ideal for girls, one that is anatomically impossible but that exaggerates mostly European features. (Ariel was loosely modeled after Alyssa Milano.)
And now, the white, red-headed character who originated that face is going to be reimagined as a black girl. In terms of Disney iconography, that’s an exciting step forward.
As to whether it means that the movie will be better than the other live-action Disney movies … well, that remains to be seen. The “gay Le Fou” plotline in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast proved that Disney isn’t above making a gesture at inclusivity and representation for the positive headlines without actually doing the work necessary to make that representation feel meaningful.
But Disney has also proved with 2014’s Maleficent that these live-action remakes are at their best when they have a strong point of view about their source material and aren’t afraid to remix it heavily. Bailey’s casting might be a signal that the new The Little Mermaid is willing to look back at the original with a critical eye — but at this point, we really don’t have enough information about the new movie to say for sure.
We know that it has a strong cast: in addition to Bailey, Melissa McCarthy is in talks to play Ursula; Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jacob Tremblay (Room) have already signed on to play Scuttle the seagull and Flounder the fish, respectively. We know that Alan Menken is teaming up with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda to write new songs for this version, and that it’s directed by Rob Marshall of Chicago and Into the Woods … and that’s about it.
What we can say for sure is that the character who originated Disney Same Face Syndrome just got a new face. That’s exciting, no matter how you’re going to look at it.