How star-studded cast brought ‘The Little Mermaid’ to life
Director Rob Marshall is no stranger to movie musicals and the gifted thespians who help bring their stories to throbbing life.
His big-screen adaptations of “Chicago,” “Into the Woods,” “Nine” and “Mary Poppins Returns” have demonstrated his theater-honed skill to marry music with narratives of varying complexities, so seeing thrilling feats of musical derring-do is nothing new to the 62-year-old filmmaker-choreographer.
But the first time the filmmaker heard Halle Bailey sing Ariel’s signature song “Part of Your World,” he found himself crying unabashedly. But so did we when we saw a clip of Halle performing the tune during a special preview of that soon-to-be-iconic “The Little Mermaid” sequence at the Disney Content Showcase in Singapore last year.
In that short footage alone, the 23-year-old singer-actress imbues the beleaguered young mermaid with so much truth, emotional clarity and a lived-in feel for a character that she began embodying as soon as she got the role when she was 18.
“The Little Mermaid,” which will open in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, is Disney’s live-action adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1989 animated film based on the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
Set in the 1830s on a fictitious island in the Caribbean, the movie tells the quintessential story of a curious 18-year-old mermaid, Ariel (Halle), who wants to explore the forbidden world beyond the limiting confines of her father King Triton’s (Javier Bardem) kingdom under the sea.
After saving the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) during a deadly storm, Ariel’s desire to learn more about the human world, not to mention the sensitive prince who makes her teenage heart skip a beat, intensifies.
She then strikes a deal with her estranged aunt, the sinister sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), and trades her magical siren song for legs and a chance to experience the strange new world above the ocean.
But when Ariel realizes the sea witch’s treachery, she must do everything she can to break Ursula’s spell with the help of her trusted friends, the crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and the seabird Scuttle (Awkwafina). But can Ariel and Eric’s budding romance transcend age-old conflict and bridge the gap between their two divided worlds?
‘We are all one’
For its seasoned director, there’s more to this fairy tale than forbidden love and a megalomaniac’s quest for power. Rob said, “The contemporary themes explored by this story felt to me like an antidote to the world’s divisions and a vital reminder that we are all one,.”Of course the conflict facing the young leads’ forbidden romance makes their tale even more relatable. Rob’s creative partner John DeLuca said that he sees it “as a ‘Romeo and Juliet’-esque tale of misunderstood youths in a world of clashing ideologies.”
He explained, “Our heroine is the classic outsider, not unlike Han Christian Andersen himself. After losing her voice, she struggles to find it and ultimately does so through her indomitable perseverance.”
In the first of the two-panel press conference also attended by Jonah, Javier, Melissa, Awkwafina, Jacob, Daveed and Noma Dumezweni (who portrays Eric’s stepmom, Queen Selina), Halle described how much her character has helped shape her as a teenager finding her footing in the world of adults.
“I feel like Ariel has truly helped me find myself … this young woman version of me … ,” she said. “After all, it’s been five years of my life now. From 18 to now being 23, those were very intense and transformative years for me as I was developing into a young woman.
“What really resonated with me were the themes of the film that had Ariel going through with her passions and speaking up for herself. That may be scary, but she went for it just the same.”
When asked what her reaction was when she learned she got the part, Halle said she cried the whole day.
“We had celebrated my sister Chloe’s birthday the day before. We rented an Airbnb for that, so when we came home and were unloading everything, I got a call from an unknown number, which was actually from Rob.
“I don’t answer unknown numbers, but when my baby brother came running to me and said, ‘Answer your phone … answer your phone,’ I was, like, OK—and Rob was on the line, saying, ‘Hello. I’m looking for Ariel.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ So I was crying the whole day (laughs)!”
If being anointed a Disney princess was significant for Halle, becoming a Disney prince was just as big of a deal for Jonah, the 27-year-old British actor who is best remembered for his role in 2019’s “A Dog’s Way Home.”
“What’s special about this is the fact that the whole film feels very grounded in reality,” the actor pointed out. “Yes, the Disney prince and princess aspect of it is exciting and fun. But watching the movie [at the world premiere] last night made all of us realize that even though we’re living in this fantasy space, it feels really connected to the real world.”
More than just romance
While Jonah readily acknowledges how the love angle in Ariel and Eric’s relationship makes people rally behind their characters, he also noted that there was more to it than good, old romance.
“An important element to this is their friendship,” he stressed. “Disney romances are always filled with the lead characters’ instinctive attraction to one another. We all want to see that. But they both really felt like they were teaching each other things.
“Ariel and Eric are kindred spirits who feel a little restless, because they’re stuck behind the four walls of their respective castles. They’re very much looking outwards and not in. And it means that their relationship feels really earned.
“They’re excited and fascinated by each other’s worlds, although they don’t actually know it until the end. I think Melissa pointed this out yesterday … that it’s a really good message for what it means to be in love, because it’s a relationship that is ultimately tied to friendship—that’s the fundamental thing about it. It makes their love story special.”
As for Javier, he said it was love at first sight the minute he set his eyes on Halle on set. “I just fell for her,” he admitted, beaming. “Halle has this thing where you just can’t help yourself but love her unconditionally—and that happened on the first day of the shoot. It was just easy for us to connect as father and daughter.
“After that, we just had fun with the process. More than that, I was mesmerized by the quality of her performance, let alone all that [prodigious] singing. As an actress, I loved how emotionally courageous Halle was to be willing to go to places she’d never been.”
While everybody is expecting a humongous spectacle out of the “The Little Mermaid’s” live-action iteration, Daveed said that it’s the film’s intimate story that will resonate with people the most.
“It’s perceived to be this massive [enterprise], but for us, it wasn’t,” he asserted. “We worked on this film like it was a small thing … At rehearsals, it felt like we were doing community theater. We were pushing boxes around to make sets and we got into this groove where it was, like, ‘That’s how you make art!’
“We made something that we understood, so it was something that we could wrap our arms around and believe in. So, seeing it magically come to life on a massive screen is crazy!”
For Awkwafina, what makes the movie doubly satisfying is seeing the diverse faces of the cast. She mused, “This film truly reflects the world we live in. And [that’s a great thing because] everyone deserves to see himself or herself onscreen.”
Bringing Ursula to life
With a role that’s just as iconic as those of the production’s leads, Melissa was asked what for her were the best and most challenging parts of filming the musical.
The Oscar-nominated comedienne said, “The best part of filming was … every little minute of it! And rehearsing while inside this crazy 60-foot clam shell (laughs).
“But it was really challenging for me to try so desperately not to cry every time Halle sang a melody, because I was like, ‘I don’t want her to think I’m crazy,’ as tears were running down my face.’
“Rob Marshall sets up this world that explains why I fell in love with plays. It feels so small and yet you know it’s this enormous thing. But it just feels like if we all do our best, maybe we can make a great show out of it. It becomes so personal and everyone’s doing his or her best, while Rob is there in the corner wrapped and swaddled in cashmere (laughs), just cheering all of us quietly.
“It’s just an appreciation of every human in the production and all the moving parts that it takes to make a movie work. Having a cheerleader like that is like … I can’t even explain how fortunate I feel! I’m sure we all feel the same way about this.
“If the world had that kind of leader running everything, we wouldn’t be so mad at each other. So the challenge for us was to work hard for Rob and just keep up with this incredible cast!”
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