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The Little Mermaid release date, cast, characters and story

Based very loosely on a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, Disney's animated The Little Mermaid was released to rave reviews in 1989, kicking off in earnest the "Disney Renaissance" that would continue into the '90s. Before it hit, the then-troubled studio was on the verge of getting out of the animation game altogether in favor of faster, cheaper live-action fare (interesting, given their current strategy of remaking their animated classics in live action). In 1985, they moved the once-prestigious animation department out of the building that had stood since Walt's own golden age and into temporary offices and trailers. The shake-up turned out to be a blessing — during the years "in exile," the department produced some of Disney's most famous films, starting with The Little Mermaid.

When the film was released on November 17th, 1989, it was celebrated as a comeback. Together with the films that followed in its wake — particularly the Oscar glory of Beauty and the Beast, the crowd-pleasing bombast of Aladdin, and the cultural juggernaut that was The Lion KingMermaid defined a generation. Today, it feels as though Disney is trying to recapture the magic of those originals by repeating the same stories in a live-action format. We've already seen remakes of The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King performed by flesh-and-blood humans — well, flesh-and-blood humans and a lot of visual effects work. Now, they're going back to the movie that started their Renaissance. Here's everything we know so far about the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

What's the release date for The Little Mermaid?

One thing we don't yet know about The Little Mermaid is exactly when we'll be able to watch it. Rumor has it that production won't even start until April 2020, and given that Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were each in production for about two years before they hit screens, we may have to tread water until around 2022. 

There are a few clues as to the exact date. In May 2019, Disney released a schedule with the dates for many of their upcoming releases, starting in 2019 and going all the way through to 2027. Naturally, details get pretty sparse the later you go — many projects don't even have titles yet, and the only film we know for sure that's happening in 2027 is Avatar 5! But there are four dates set aside for untitled Disney live-action projects in 2021, and four more in 2022, so it's a safe bet that one of those will be The Little Mermaid.

Who's directing The Little Mermaid?

The live-action Little Mermaid project has a captain at its helm. Rob Marshall first found recognition with an Oscar winner for Best Picture, 2002's murderous musical Chicago. After another adults-only movie, Nine, he earned his Disney stripes with musical Into the Woods. Adapted from a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, the film brings in multiple fairy tale characters, making it practically perfect practice for The Little Mermaid. And in 2019, Marshall proved that he could take beloved classics that haven't been touched for decades and update them for a new audience, with his turn directing Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to 1964's Mary Poppins.

While doing press for Mary Poppins Returns, Marshall didn't give away too many details about The Little Mermaid, but he did tell Entertainment Tonight, "We're trying to make the adaptation from an animated film to a live-action film, which has its unique challenges, that's for sure, especially because half the movie is underwater. So we're going to be figuring out how we do that. It's very exciting though, I have to say." 

Who's writing The Little Mermaid?

We also know who's plotting the course (er, writing the script) for the Little Mermaid's remake voyage. Jane Goldman wrote the first draft, with David Magee later revising it. Goldman has mainly worked on the darker side of family drama and the fantasy genre. She adapted Neil Gaiman's Stardust for the big screen in 2007, and contributed to the screenplays for the NSFK (not safe for kids) teenage superhero movie Kick-AssX-Men: First Class, the Tim Burton-directed Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and the very un-Disney Kingsman films (which, ironically, Disney now owns after their purchase of Fox).

On paper, Magee's skills and career read like the other side of the script-writing coin. He's transformed a lot of potentially dark material into family friendly (and visually beautiful) dramas. His writing credits include Finding Neverland (detailing a wholly wholesome version of Peter Pan writer J.M. Barrie's relationship with his young muses), the screen adaptation of novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which cut out the book's cocaine use and antisemitism), and the screenplay for Life of Pi, which heavily reduced the book's discussion of religion, not to mention its gorier scenes. He also previously collaborated with Marshall, when he wrote the screenplay for Mary Poppins Returns. It will be interesting to see how Goldman's dark imagination and Magee's lighter tones mesh with Hans Christian Andersen's fish tale.

How dark will The Little Mermaid's story get?

Since this movie is based on the 1989 animated classic, it will probably stick close to the Disney version of the story, just like the studio's other live-action remakes. However, its other inspiration is the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, which was published in 1836. Of course, that fits right in with Disney's history of brightening up grim source material. It also fits right in with Jane Goldman's history of embracing darker elements in children's films.

The mermaid in the fairy tale also longs to become a human, but not just because of a prince. Unlike humans, mermaids don't have immortal souls — they live for 300 years and then they disintegrate into sea foam. Harsh, right? There is a handsome prince, whom the mermaid rescues in a storm, immediately falling in love with him. If she can convince him to love her back, she can earn a soul. 

As in the film, a sea witch trades the mermaid's beautiful voice for human legs — but every step feels like she's walking on knives. She can't return to the sea, and if the prince falls in love with someone else, she'll turn into sea foam. When he does marry another woman, the sea witch makes an offer: if she kills the prince, she can go home to the ocean. The mermaid loves the prince so much that she decides against it, accepting her fate as sea foam — but she is magically spared and turned into an air spirit. After 300 years of good deeds, she'll get her soul. It's not exactly Disney, and it sure is dark, but the new creative team certainly has some interesting ideas to pull from if they want to differentiate the new Mermaid from the old.

Halle Bailey is our Ariel

Rumors about this remake have been swirling since at least 2016, but the project finally got its legs on July 3rd, 2019, when we learned that singer and actress Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel. Bailey first found fame on YouTube, as the younger half of R&B sister act Chloe x Halle. The girls were just 11 and 13 when they started their channel, covering songs by acts like Beyoncé, who actually signed the pair to her label Parkwood Entertainment in 2015. In addition to her music career, Halle has appeared on the small screen in the Black-ish spin-off Grown-ish. Marshall said of her casting,"After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle 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."

Unsurprisingly, given Disney's strict secrecy, Bailey is keeping graciously tight-lipped about the part. She told Entertainment Tonight, "It means so much to me, I feel very honored and really grateful for the opportunity. Ariel was one of my favorite princesses growing up, so it's a dream come true, so I'm very excited and happy." She added that she didn't know if she would have Ariel's famous bright red hair, but did reveal that she's hoping to sing "Part of Your World."

Bailey has support from two OG Ariels

In addition to being a gifted singer and actress, Halle Bailey is the first woman of color to be cast as a Disney princess who was portrayed as white in the original movie. While many celebrated Disney's decision, not everyone was happy. Apparently, some people could accept the existence of mermaids but only if they're white mermaids — an opinion they unfortunately decided to air with the rest of the world using the hashtag #NotMyAriel.

Bailey had some key supporters in her corner. The Disney-owned TV network Freeform posted an open letter to the haters, pointing out that like Danish people, Danish mermaids can certainly be black — and also reminding them that Ariel's a fictional character. Two other Ariels also came to Bailey's defense. Jodie Benson, who originally voiced the heroine in 1989, said, "I think the most important thing is to tell the story… What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts." And Diana Huey, who played Ariel in a touring production of the Little Mermaid Broadway musical in 2017, recounted the racism she encountered from adults who couldn't deal with a Japanese American Ariel. She added, "You guys, it takes place under the sea in a magical kingdom of mythical creatures that don't actually exist. So yeah, we can have them look however we want them to look."

Is Melissa McCarthy playing Ursula?

Every Disney movie needs a villain you love to hate, and The Little Mermaid gave us one of the most memorable in Ursula, the voice-stealing, soul-trapping tentacled sea witch. When it comes to filling the role originally voiced by Pat Carroll, there's a definite frontrunner… but she's keeping us guessing.

Oscar-nominee Melissa McCarthy is rumored to have been cast as Ursula, but she's coyly refusing to either confirm or deny it (maybe even Ursula is scared of Disney's secrecy rules). On August 5th, 2019, McCarthy responded to an implication that she would play Ursula: "What do you mean? I don't know…" in a tone that can only be described as wink-wink-nudge-nudge, before being whisked from the scene. Speaking to Jimmy Kimmel a week before, McCarthy played dumb. "It seems like it would be an awfully fun thing to do. I'd love it if Disney gave me a little ringy dingy! We'll see!" she said with an enormous wink. "If it did, it would be very wonderful!"

McCarthy did tell Kimmel about her own history with The Little Mermaid: "Yeah, I feel like everybody has watched that… I was a nanny when that first came out, and one of the little girls I was watching, we watched it every single night for about a year and a half. I'm not kidding at all. I literally was like, I know it, I know it to my core." Was it Disney she had to convince? 

Awkwafina is playing Scuttle

Another exciting rumor that immediately got the internet buzzing was rapper/actor Awkwafina being attached to The Little Mermaid as Scuttle. Though she remained cagey about the scuttlebutt for a while, she officially confirmed the rumor in the October 2019 issue of Marie Claire

In the original film, Scuttle is a seagull who is supposedly an expert on humans (spoiler alert: not so much.) Awkwafina's spot-on comedic timing is perfect for the part, and she's already proven that she can make a character her own thanks to her role in 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, in which she stole numerous scenes as the main character's best friend. Director Jon. M. Chu said of her performance, "In the book, it's a completely different character… but when you have Awkwafina, you gotta let her stretch. You gotta let her be who she is." 

The chance to appear in a Disney movie is just another point on Awkwafina's steep upward trajectory. After finding YouTube fame in 2012 as a rapper, her big screen breakthrough came with Ocean's 8 in 2018, followed two months later by Crazy Rich Asians. Her movie work continued in 2019, with a lead in indie drama The Farewell and a part in Jumanji: The Next Level. She's also set to develop and star in a TV series for Comedy Central that will be based on her life in Queens. And she's already involved with Disney via Marvel: she'll be appearing in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in 2021.

Harry Styles turned down Prince Eric

There's one actor who definitely will not be part of this movie's world. Harry Styles is best known as one-fifth of British boy band One Direction, and also for being everybody's crush from 2010 to 2015. On July 16th, 2019, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Styles was in talks to play dashing Prince Eric. Nearly a month later, AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas both posted now-deleted tweets that said Styles' role had been confirmed, prompting mass excitement online. However, those hopes were dashed like a ship in a storm when The Wrap reported that Styles had actually turned down the role.

Although Disney prince might seem like a smart career move for a singer transitioning to movies, it's worth noting that Eric never actually sang in the animated version. And Styles has already appeared in a respectable movie: he played a young soldier in Christoper Nolan's Dunkirk. No, it wasn't based on his fame: Nolan admitted that he didn't fully grasp that Styles was the Gen Z equivalent of a Beatle when he cast him!

Even when Styles was still in the race, there was speculation about other possible Erics. Contenders to the Danish crown include DCEU Flash Ezra Miller and Call Me By Your Name's Timothée Chalamet, both famous for meaty, dramatic roles. Also on the wishlist was Noah Centineo, who as king of the Netflix rom-com could well be looking for the kind of career boost that comes with being a Disney prince. Let the fight for the throne commence!

Who else might join the cast of The Little Mermaid?

Although Harry Styles bowed out of playing Prince Eric, other celebrities are practically begging to join the cast. Before we learned about Halle Bailey's casting, former Disney star Lindsay Lohan was making it clear that she'd like to play Ariel. In August 2018, she shared a screenshot from the 1989 animated movie showing Ariel and Ursula, with the caption "My dream Role with #merylstreep" written over it in pink neon font. "The Little Mermaid is my favorite movie since I was a kid. Whenever I put that movie on, it makes me happy," she told Variety, joking that she was going to "harass [her] agent about it."

While Lohan was aiming to play the princess, rapper Lizzo went after the villain. In response to the rumors that Melissa McCarthy had signed up to play Ursula, Lizzo retweeted a video of herself dressed as the sea witch for Halloween, singing the signature song "Poor Unfortunate Souls." Meanwhile, model and queen of Twitter Chrissy Teigen is less picky — on August 13th 2019, she tweeted, "just putting it out there that I am thirsty to be in the little mermaid, will pay." Her offer got over 77,000 likes, but whether Disney will take her up on it remains to be seen.

Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton

You probably remember King Triton as Ariel's crowned, bare-chested, trident-wielding father, with a majestic white beard and flowing white hair, not to mention a few major anger management and control issues. Despite his bad temper, Triton was still supposed to be a good guy just looking out for his little mermaid, so it's interesting to learn that Javier Bardem, who has made a career out of playing chilling villains, is apparently in talks for the role.

Although Bardem has also played the occasional romantic lead (notably in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Eat Pray Love), it was his role as psychotic serial killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men that earned him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and cemented his reputation as the go-to guy for playing characters who are remorselessly evil. 

However, Bardem told USA Today, "Funny enough, I have only done three pure villains." In addition to Chigurh, he pointed to James Bond nemesis Raoul Silva of 2012's Skyfall and Captain Salazar from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Bardem said that the reason he was drawn to these roles was because "they all had layered characters and [were] very interesting people to follow. Being the villain is a very important key in those stories. That's why people remember those characters." No doubt his take on Triton would be memorable, too.

Jacob Tremblay will (perhaps) voice Flounder

Before Finding Nemo made clownfish into instantly recognizable underwater celebrities, Ariel's adorable guppy friend Flounder was probably the most famous animated fish in the world. Luckily, the lovable character is coming back for another lap, and we may already know who'll be providing his voice. 

If you're thinking that you've heard of Jacob Tremblay but can't remember why, you may remember him from 2015's Oscar-winning drama Room, in which he played the son of Brie Larson's character. Since then, he's appeared in Wonder with Julia Roberts in 2017, followed by 2018's The Predator and the reboot of The Twilight Zone.

Tremblay was back in the spotlight in August 2019, thanks to the comedy Good Boys, which managed to top the box office despite its R rating. While doing press for the not-very-Disney project, he fended off questions about playing Flounder with a level of professionalism certain older actors could learn from. He told Entertainment Tonight, "I've also heard the rumors, yeah. It isn't confirmed yet, so I guess we'll have to see, but I mean, what kid wouldn't wanna be in a Disney movie? I mean, that would be pretty cool… I remember watching The Little Mermaid. I'm a big fan of all Disney movies." Grade-A diplomacy.

The composers are a Disney dream team

Finding the right cast is important, but another crucial aspect is the soundtrack. This is especially pressing because this was an issue audiences had with The Lion King remake. People aren't always ready to hear new versions of songs they've known by heart since they were kids — even if it's Beyoncé and Donald Glover singing them.

Luckily, Disney found two of the biggest names in the business to reel in the goods. Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the Hamilton composer) signed up for the project way back in August 2016 — the same year he made his Disney animation debut with Moana. He's also worked with Rob Marshall before, having starred in Mary Poppins Returns. 

While Miranda is normally the one generating excited whispers, the composer is a little starstruck by the man he's working with. Alan Menken composed the music for the original movie alongside his late writing partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, and went on to bring many other iconic Disney soundtracks to life. We're talking Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tangled. He also came back for the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast, which may explain why that soundtrack fared better than The Lion King's. Miranda is keenly aware of the pressure to live up to his idols. He told Billboard, "I will definitely fall short because no one can write like that." Except, maybe, Miranken.

Prepare to learn new songs

Don't panic: as with other Disney live action remakes, we'll get to hear at least some of the songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's OG soundtrack. There's one song Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda (a.k.a. Miranken) will likely both want to keep. Discussing the impact The Little Mermaid had on his early life, Miranda told Entertainment Weekly, "I started taping the Oscars because I wanted to see Geoffrey Holder's performance of 'Under the Sea.'" But the duo is also working on brand new material. In July 2019, Menken tweeted a photo with a caption explaining that they were "working on a new song for an upcoming film. Bet you can't guess which one!" The photo showed Miranken surrounded by posters and merch from the animated version of The Little Mermaid

There's already been one potential unauthorized leak of the new material, but this isn't some unscrupulous internet dump. Miranda admitted that his young son — who is delightfully named Sebastian — kept humming one of the songs after he'd played it for him. "I had to have a copyright, NDA conversation with him, like, 'Hey buddy, that's a surprise for when your friends see the movie. You're four, I can't have you sign an NDA. But you can't sing that song in class.'" We suspect Miranda was also a little bit proud.

The original Sebastian could come back for an encore

Speaking of Sebastians, Menken isn't the only OG member of The Little Mermaid fans want to see return. Many would like to hear Samuel E. Wright, the actor who originally voiced the Caribbean crustacean, reprise his famous role. In October 2019, Variety reported that Hamilton star Daveed Diggs (note the Lin-Manuel Miranda connection) was in "final talks" to voice the crab. Of course, that doesn't mean Wright couldn't cameo somewhere else in a fun nod to Mermaid's animated origins.

Looking back on the 1989 movie, Wright said that when he found out he'd be working on a Disney project, "I flipped out, because I always wanted to work for Disney, ever since I was a little kid." The first audition didn't go so well — as he recalled in another interview, Wright sped up the original version of "Under the Sea" when he performed for Menken and Howard Ashman, and threw his whole body into the part: "I jumped on tables, and I flipped around — I'm sure [Menken] thought I was going to kill him or something. And after I finished, they actually looked at me and said, 'Don't call us, we'll call you'… A year later, I got a call."

As for Wright's song preferences, he said that he loves the lyrics of "Under the Sea," but the Broadway star in him falls for the musicality in "Kiss the Girl." After The Little Mermaid, Wright became the original Mufasa in the Broadway production of The Lion King, and returned to the Disney animation fold to voice the evil Kron in Dinosaur. Here's hoping they call him back again.