Last Wednesday afternoon, just as many were finalizing their Fourth of July plans, it was announced that singer, actress, and Atlanta native Halle Bailey will star in Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. While unexpected, the casting of Bailey, who is one half of singing duo Chloe x Halle, is great for many reasons. The film’s director, Rob Marshall, perhaps said it best: Bailey “possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance—plus a glorious singing voice—all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.”
Halle, 19, and her sister Chloe, 21, have been on a steady rise since they began covering songs on YouTube in the early 2010s—it was a cover of Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” that got them noticed and signed by Queen Bey’s Parkwood Entertainment label in 2013. Their 2018 debut album, The Kids Are Alright, which the siblings executive produced and co-wrote, won over critics and fans for its youthful portrayal of self-love and relationships that doesn’t skimp on substance. The album showcases the lush vocal arrangements that shine so strongly during their live performances and earned them a Grammy nomination for Best New Artists earlier this year. Their rendition of “America the Beautiful” from February’s Super Bowl in Atlanta is a great example of their vocal prowess—including the resonance, airiness, and agility of Halle Bailey’s vocals in particular—but if you’re still doubting the sisters’ talent, they’ve also been praised by legendary producer Quincy Jones.
Of course, mentor Beyonce will star as Nala in this summer’s live-action remake of The Lion King, so Disney isn’t exactly a stranger to Parkwood talent. The Bailey sisters also star in Grown-ish, a spinoff of ABC’s Black-ish, which airs on the Disney-owned cable network Freeform. Halle Bailey’s Grown-ish character is a bit more outspoken than Ariel was in the beloved 1989 animated film, and taking on the starring role in The Little Mermaid will certainly be more of a challenge. But the singer’s real-life personality (contrasted against that of her older sister Chloe) seems much more aligned with the wide-eyed, inquisitive mermaid than the college-aged character she portrays on Grown-ish.
While celebrities such as Janelle Moane, Mariah Carey, Halle Berry, and Chrissy Teigen have praised Bailey’s casting as Ariel, there has been some social media backlash surrounding the fact that Disney cast a black actress to portray Ariel. But suggesting a fictional mermaid can’t be a black girl with locs is as ridiculous as suggesting Santa Claus, Rue from The Hunger Games, James Bond, or Spider-Man must be white.
Freeform had this to say about the critics, specifically the ones making the argument that Ariel should be Danish since the Disney animation was based on Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s 1830’s fairy tale: “Ariel is a mermaid. She lives in an underwater kingdom in international waters and can legit swim wherever she wants . . . but for the sake of argument, let’s say that Ariel, too, is Danish. Danish mermaids can be black because Danish people can be black . . . Black Danish people can also genetically have red hair. But spoiler alert—bring it back to the top—the character of Ariel is a work of fiction. So after all this is said and done, and you cannot get past the idea that choosing the incredible, sensational, highly-talented, gorgeous Halle Bailey is anything other than the inspired casting that it is because she ‘doesn’t look like the cartoon one,’ oh boy, do I have some news for you . . . about you.”
As for the film’s other iconic roles, Melissa McCarthy is reportedly in talks to play evil witch Ursula, while Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay are rumored for the roles of Ariel’s pals Scuttle and Flounder. Terry Crews volunteered himself to play King Triton with a photoshopped photo on Twitter and fans have joined in to suggest other celebrities for roles in the film, but no other official announcements have been made. If the rumors are true, Bailey will certainly have to prove she has the acting chops to lead an all-star cast.
But take a listen to Jodi Benson, then in her late 20s, singing “Part of Your World” in the original film. It’s hard to imagine a young singer today who better possesses than Bailey the grace and vocal skills needed to convey the emotions of a curious mermaid trying to find her voice (and her literal footing) in the world.