“This was a very contemporary story already in the 1830s about this young girl who feels displaced and wants to go on a journey of self-discovery to another world,” The Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall said of his approach to a live-action adaption of the beloved fairytale. Just after the blue carpet Hollywood premiere, the cast and creative team assembled for a press conference to give an inside look at how they transformed an animated classic into a new summer blockbuster. For Rob Marshall, his research began with the original fairytale, which inspired the film’s opening, a quote from Hans Christen Anderson to help ground the story. “Because we were bringing more depth and emotion, which you can in a live-action piece, that's what this genre helps you do. The idea that, because a mermaid has no tears, and she feels more, she suffers more, it felt to us like it set the table for this more emotional telling of the story.”
Revisiting the original fairytale also helped determine real-world locations that would stand in for the film’s fictional island. “Because of the Danish influence of Hans Christian Andersen, the rocks with the sea was very important to us,” producer John DeLuca explained about how Sardinia was chosen. “I love this small beach we found in Sardinia. And thankfully, Rob went along with it. And it just helped not only us in our imaginations and with the tale, but it helped that when the actors arrived there, it grounded us in a place and let us tell the Caribbean feeling of the song. It was very important for Rob having ‘Kiss the Girl’ and ‘Under the Sea’ with the flavor of those songs to give it that Caribbean locale. And they have the most beautiful waters and the most beautiful beaches.”
Speaking of the songs, Disney Legend Alan Menken is back alongside lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda to expand the score he created in 1989 with Howard Ashman. Menken reflected back on an early meeting with Rob, John, screenwriter David Magee, and Lin-Manuel Miranda to earmark places for new songs. “We chose the moment when Prince Eric, he's been told, ‘Don't go back out there, you can't,’ and he just thinks about this girl. It's a love song to her, and it's a love song to the sea, and to his uncharted waters. So his life’s ahead of him, it ends up being a real important theme throughout the movie. Then we had the first time [Ariel’s] on land. It was so much fun, because I gave Lin a very sort of lilting tune, and he said, ‘Can we give a kind of a bap-a-bap, mm-bop bop.’ So it's a three-against-two kind of feel. I said, ‘Okay, let's do that,’ and then boom, the song where she's so excited, everything is so new and so wonderful. And then he doesn't think it's the girl and realizes she can't speak. And then she's so, for the first time, heartbroken. And then ‘The Scuttlebutt,’ which is just, that's a surprise gift of him, because I gave him this Caribbean tune and Lin did a rap over it that was so perfect. He used the music, but it had this rhythmic pulse to it. It was just pure Lin-Manuel Miranda.” While there are three new songs in the film, a fourth was written and cut. “Javier sang a song that, it happens all the time in musicals, we didn't need in that particular spot.”
For Rob Marshall, the emotional heart of the story is between Ariel and her father, King Triton. While Triton’s song may have ended up on the cutting room floor, actor Javier Bardem shared how easy it was to create the father/daughter bond with Halle Bailey. “Right in the moment I met her, I just fell for her. I mean, she has this thing where you just can't help yourself but love her unconditionally. That was done on the first day. So, the rest will be just have fun with it and enjoy the process, and I feel it was easy for us just to connect together. I was always mesmerized by the quality of her as a performer, let alone the singing, that I knew. But as an actress, how willing and courageous she is. And in going to the places that she had to go to, that was amazing.”
“I feel like Ariel truly has helped me find myself and this young woman version of me,” Halle Bailey revealed, adding that she cried when she found out the role was hers. “It's been five years of my life now, from 18 to now being 23, so those are very intense transformative years as you're developing as a young woman. But I feel like especially these themes of the film and what she had to go through with her passions and drive and speaking up for herself, and even though it may be scary, she went for it. I feel like those things I really try to adopt and give to Halle now. So, she's taught me so much.” The Little Mermaid marks Halle’s first major film role, and while the film is about to be gifted to the world, she considers the entire team a newfound family. “They're so talented and have inspired me for so long… I'm just happy to be surrounded by them.”
In this version of the story, Prince Eric is very much a kindred spirit to Ariel. Among the challenges of bringing the character to life for actor Jonah Hauer-King was the fear of singing “Wild Uncharted Waters,” one of the new songs. “It is horrendous having to sing in a film with a Grammy-nominated artist,” Jonah shared. “That's not fun for anyone with everyone's incredible voices.” However, the first audience’s response to the song at the premiere convinced the actor that he pulled it off. “It was an amazing night. I think the reaction from the audience to all of the music was incredible. It felt like such a warm reaction. There was so much great energy in the room, and it was quite special.”
Like Ariel, Eric has an overbearing monarch for a parent, played by Noma Dumezweni, who previously worked with Rob Marshall and John DeLuca on Mary Poppins Returns. “They're theater babies,” she shared, herself a Laurence Olivier Award-winner and Tony nominee for her role as Hermoine in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “For me, having a rehearsal on set is such a rare thing when I'm moving into the TV and film world. It's such a joy to go, all right, this is what we're aiming for, so we know it, and then we can be free when we're doing it. Which is what I love about rehearsal.”
Rehearsals were key to capturing the underwater sequences, with live-action soundstage shoots enhanced with visual effects in post-production. “I was never literally on my feet,” Melissa McCarthy revealed of her role as the squid-like sea witch Ursula. “We were either up in rigs, or there were all different magical things. If you were diving, it was one rig. If you were spinning, it was another. But never on the ground. And there's an amazing team of dancers and stunt people that were our fins or feet.” With a team manually operating lifts and stand-ins for tentacles, every movement had to be pre-planned.
“We worked on it like it was a small thing,” explained Daveed Diggs, who voices Sebastian but was also involved in the rehearsal process. “In that work session, it really felt like we were doing community theater. We were pushing boxes around to make sets. And we got in this groove where it was, like, that's how you make art. We made something that we understood, that everybody could wrap their arms around, and that we really believed in and knew inside and out.” The scale of the film didn’t feel as big as it is for the Hamilton star until the premiere. “To show up when they're shutting down the street and the posters are huge, and then you watch the film, and it's on this massive screen, and the world, it's a whole world that I never saw at all, you know what I'm saying? I recorded some voices, and I dipped. So, like, I never saw any of that. And so to just sit there and be struck by it, it is really cool to see a thing that you thought only existed in your imagination. It really felt like we were just building a world in our heads, but then it was there on the screen.”
“We were all together for quite some time in the studio in England,” added Jacob Tremblay, who voices Flounder following another fishy voice role as the lead character in Pixar’s Luca. “We got to know each other so well. And that definitely really helped with the voice work. Because I preferred it so much better than being in a booth… It was definitely a privilege that we all got to be together, and we got to do our scenes together.”
“I am Scuttle, like, after like two margaritas on a Tuesday,” joked Awkwafina. For a comedian of her caliber, recording dialogue with other actors allowed more opportunities for improv. Rob Marshall shared an anecdote from the premiere of Awkwafina being surprised by a line that was kept in that she did purely to make the director laugh in the moment. While Awkwafina’s face doesn’t appear in the film, she also shared her excitement for the diversity depicted on screen through the film’s human characters. “I think it reflects the world we live in. And I think that everyone deserves to see themselves on screen. And I think that this movie also celebrates really amazing performances as well.”
“From Bob Iger to Alan Bergman to Sean Bailey, all of them are there to literally support artists,” concluded Rob Marshall about why he loves directing films for Disney, with The Little Mermaid marking his fourth film for the studio in addition to directing the TV movie musical adaptation of Annie. “This is a massive film with a massive budget, but I never felt that from them. They really, truly respect artists… They wanted us to re-invent and re-imagine. They're not looking for a frame-by-frame remake. That's not something they were looking for. We feel at home. And who else is gonna make these massive musicals? People don't take those risks anymore. I mean, musicals are very tricky. We talk about this all the time. There's a fine line. It's a balancing act.”
Disney’s live-action musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid opens in theaters on Friday, May 26th.