[Editor’s note: The following interview contains some spoilers for “The Little Mermaid.”]
When “The Little Mermaid” filmmaker Rob Marshall thinks about his remake of the beloved 1989 Disney animated original, he’s clear: It is its own thing.
“It’s so funny how people hold onto things,” Marshall said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “They don’t realize that this is a different genre. You have to make it work as a live-action [film] as if there were never an animated film. It’s your chance to do things that work for the story. It’s all about story. It’s like taking a beautiful opera, a beautiful play, and doing it again. You look at it through a new lens. It’s not 1989, it’s 2023, so what can we bring to it and still hold on to the most important things that really still work, but then kind of reimagine it?”
For Marshall’s ambitious live-action take on the story — one that has been told plenty of times since Hans Christian Andersen first wrote his fairy tale back in the 19th century — Marshall and screenwriter David Magee stuck pretty closely to Ron Clements and John Musker’s animated gem, but also peppered their feature with a slew of new additions and tweaks to tell this tale through a new lens.
Ahead, Marshall, plus stars Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King, walk IndieWire through some of the bigger changes in their live-action offering, from leaning into the original Andersen fairy tale, piling on new songs to help round out characters, and yes, why Scuttle is no longer a seagull.
Marshall’s film opens on a more adult note than its animated predecessor, kicking off with an epigraph attributed to “Little Mermaid” author Hans Christian Andersen’s original (and decidedly more downbeat) 1837 fairy tale: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
For Marshall, using that line was all about setting an early expectation of the themes of his live-action version of the classic tale. “Personally, I went back right away to the Hans Christian Andersen tale, that’s where this all came from. I wanted to do a re-imagination of the actual story,” Marshall said. “The opportunity that you have with a live-action film — which is very different than an animated film, it’s a very different genre — is you can bring more scope, more depth, more emotion to the piece.”
Marshall saw connections between the more adult-skewing world Andersen crafted for his stories and the one Marshall wanted to build for his live-action tale. And using such a serious line helped bridge the gap between them.
“I thought, why are we making this film now?” the director said. “There’s no reason to make this film unless it has something important to say. It was there in the 1800s, 1830s, when it was written, it’s not fearing someone that’s different than you. It’s about tolerance and the passion and what [Ariel] goes through to build that bridge to that other world. I found it very profound, very moving. … I wanted to keep the elements of the piece, but why not give it some more depth?”
Star Bailey also felt the resonance of Andersen’s story, a true fish-out-of-water tale with a heartbreaker of an ending, with both Marshall’s film and the beloved 1989 animated version.
“I think we all have felt like the outcast in some way, we all resonate with feeling that we want something greater for ourselves, and [Andersen] just did a beautiful job at communicating that in this story,” the newly minted Princess Ariel told IndieWire. “Even with the [animated] version, it’s a lighthearted version of those same concepts, and understanding what it means to be different, and also going after what you want, and not being scared of the other and of our differences. And in our version today, I think both of those elements are included.”
Hauer-King, who plays Ariel’s human love Prince Eric, echoed Bailey’s sentiments. “I think it’s really wonderful that we’ve drawn, I think even more, on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than the 1989 cartoon,” he said. “We could draw on that, we could draw on the original Disney film, and then bring a lot of ourselves to it as well. As Halle said, Andersen’s story is one about outsiders, it’s about people who haven’t been heard, it’s about people who have been on the fringes. … I think we’ve really tried to tap into that.”
And Bailey shared that Andersen’s quote offered some foreshadowing when it came to actually filming the feature. Mermaids? They really can’t cry, but their human performers sure can.
“’Part of Your World,’ it was a three-day sequence, and it was such an emotional song, and I was very much crying and crying when I was filming it,” Bailey said. “But because we’re underwater, they ended up editing out all of [my] tears that were falling. You want to feel all of those emotions that she’s feeling, but you know that because she’s a mermaid, she can’t really cry in the water. Feeling that pain and emotion and desperation that she has for herself and her future and that she wants to go after was a really cool thing to play.”
Beefing up their feature also allowed Marshall and screenwriter Magee to build in a handful of new songs, including one that might surprise audience members, if only because it’s something that should have existed all along: a song for Eric.
“We realized, of course, Eric had no song in the original,” Marshall said. “I don’t know anything about him! So it was very obvious we needed to give him an ‘I Want’ song. It’s his ‘Part of Your World.’ And [with it], he becomes a three-dimensional character. It’s a different genre. You’re moving from a 2D piece to a 3D piece with real people.”
For Marshall’s film, Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which Hauer-King’s Prince Eric sings in a moment of tremendous frustration and desire. It’s after he’s been saved by Ariel, and armed with only one piece of knowledge about her (she’s got a great voice), an emotional Eric takes to the beach to express his confusion and wants through song. And, yes, it feels an awful lot like “Part of Your World.”
“It’s very clear from the animated film that Eric has very little to do,” Marshall said. “I mean, we don’t understand who he is, what’s his want, what’s his need? And I thought, let’s find out what his journey is. Let’s understand what his trajectory is, and it’s this parallel one to Ariel’s. He doesn’t feel like he fits in, he doesn’t feel [like] people aren’t hearing him. I love that they find each other through their connection in terms of what they want.”
Hauer-King didn’t find out about “Wild Uncharted Waters” until he was nearing the end of the audition process for the role, though he knew his Prince Eric would be tasked with singing this time around.
“I’d been singing random musical numbers up til that point, and then they presented me with the sheet music,” he said. “I took one look at it and heard it and was just blown away. It made me want to be even more involved with the project because it’s such a special song. Musically, melodically, it’s so wonderful.”
And, just like the audience, the song gave the actor the chance to really get to know his character on a deeper level.
“We get to know him so well through this song. We understand him so much better. We understand what he’s longing for and what his hopes and his dreams are. And we understand some of his frustration and his pain and longing for this girl that saved him and longing for something bigger,” the actor said. “Obviously, it was sort of terrifying because I knew that meant that I’d be singing next to Halle.”
Hauer-King joked, “And that’s a horrible experience, given how exceptional she is. But I just sort of did my best!” (Bailey chimed in, “Jonah did amazing. He killed it. I don’t know what he’s talking about!”)
Here’s another song-and-dance surprise: Ariel only has one song in the original animated film. One! “Our lead actor in the piece had one song in the animated film,” Marshall said. “Ariel has ‘Part of Your World’ and the reprise, and that’s it. I thought, that’s insane. She needs another song! I want to understand and hear what she feels specifically when it’s a life-changing moment when she comes on land for the first time, so what a great thing to be able to do that.”
To accomplish that end, Menken and Miranda cooked up “For the First Time,” a brand-new song that Ariel “sings” even when she’s lost her voice (it plays out as an internal monologue, a pretty clever way around the curse that Ursula has put on the gentle Ariel in exchange for her temporary legs).
“Of course, by that time, she’s lost her voice, but we could use this technique of actually hearing her internal thoughts and song,” Marshall said. “We were also able to use it as a musical concept where you take a song and it wraps around a whole montage, so it takes her from [getting] on land till the moment she meets the prince and past that. It was exciting to actually pull that all together with one big new song for her.”
Bailey was thrilled by the addition of the new song, and the star shared that Marshall offered her a surprising inspiration for her performance of it. “He actually had me go back and watch this amazing movie, ‘Yentl,’ that Barbra Streisand directed and starred in, and she was just amazing,” Bailey said. “She had a lot of internal songs where she would be voicing how she feels, but it was all inside, and so you would see her face, but you would hear her voice singing. I went back and I studied that movie, and I got it instantly. I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I just really tried to play every emotion that Ariel had and was feeling on her face during those times.”
After a mute Ariel lands in Prince Eric’s kingdom and is kindly taken in by the royal family and their staff, Marshall and Magee wanted the chance to add more texture and dimension to the would-be lovers’ growing bond. Before the pair head out to visit the kingdom (which ends with the iconic “Kiss the Girl” sequence), Ariel and Eric find themselves exploring Eric’s sprawling library, bursting with items he’s gathered during his many seafaring adventures. Ariel, herself a collector and a lover of other cultures, can barely contain her joy over their mutual obsessions.
“We created that whole scene in the library where they learn that they’re both interested in other cultures,” Marshall said. “They also want to explore, and they’re adventurous in that way too. So they learn to connect in that way.”
“That was actually the first scene we did together,” Bailey said. “We screen-tested that scene together, which was really cool. It’s a really great start to their genuine connection and friendship, because you understand why they gravitate towards one another after seeing Eric’s version of Ariel’s grotto in his library.”
Hauer-King is a big fan of the addition, too. “It’s one of my favorite scenes, because I think it really captures their relationship. It really shows us that they’re equals and that they’re fascinated by each other’s worlds,” Hauer-King said. “They’re teaching each other things. He’s telling her about the lands. She shows him this incredible sea stone. You get a sense of their shared humor as well, and I think it really sets up their relationship and sets up their friendship too.”
In the film’s third act, Ariel’s wacky pal Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina) is tasked with delivering some important information to the mermaid and her faithful crab Sebastian (voiced by Daveed Diggs). But, given Scuttle’s inability to accurately communicate, the message gets a bit muddled. Armed with a new song from Menken and Miranda (“The Scuttlebutt”), she at least has a fun time attempting it.
“Any time in a film musical [where] you can replace a scene with a song, that’s always the goal,” Marshall said. “Awkwafina is so special, so funny, and so wonderful. I love the character, because it’s hard for the character to put sentences together and [she] makes no sense whatsoever, so thought it’d be so fun to create a patter song. She talks so fast and is always kind of making mistakes, that we thought we could actually put that to song. We thought, well, it makes so much sense to create a patter song, a rap song for Scuttle, because it’s how she speaks anyway.”
The result is a zippy, instantly quotable new jam that plays to the strengths of all involved. “It was exciting to create that and bring Daveed into that with her, who’s also an amazing rapper, as we know,” Marshall said. “For me, the goal when I’m creating new music, it has to feel earned. In a musical, when you have someone sing and it doesn’t feel earned, it feels weird, like, why are they singing? It was about making sure that all these songs feel like they’re part of the fabric, should feel earned and seamless to the scene work.”
Speaking of Scuttle…while the new look of some of Ariel’s pals has already been widely debated, Marshall was eager to explain why he switched not just the appearance of Scuttle, but her actual species. This time around, Scuttle isn’t a squawking seagull, she’s a diving bird, another kind of seabird known as a gannet.
“I wanted to make it that Ariel had never ever been to the surface. Ever,” Marshall said. “That was the goal for me. She’s never broken that rule, [so that helps] raise the stakes for that moment when she finally does it. If she’s up and down, up and down, it’s not a big deal. The fact that she breaks the rule, her father has shut down the surface of the ocean. No one’s ever allowed to go. The mother, his wife, died at the hands of humans. At that moment, he shut down the surface.”
So, if Ariel has never even been to the surface, how would she know a seagull? Easy enough: she doesn’t.
“After she sings ‘Part of Your World’ and she goes [to the surface] for the first time, it’s so shocking and so thrilling. It’s better storytelling,” Marshall said. “But then I realized, well, Scuttle, how does she know everything that’s up there? We decided to make her a diving bird so that she could come down and Ariel could meet Scuttle in the water and get all that information there, not above.”
Marshall and his team considered a variety of diving birds before settling on Scuttle’s new look as a Northern gannet, the largest of its species. And while some fans might balk at the change, it’s a seriously smart one, and one that Marshall knows is essential.
“We looked at different ones. There was a cormorant, there was a gannet,” Marshall said. “They stay underwater for many, many minutes and then go back up. We looked at all the different versions of what they looked like. It just seemed so fun and wonderful and it just fit Awkwafina more. We liked it so much more and so I chose to do that, but it’s really important.”
Disney releases “The Little Mermaid” in theaters on Friday, May 26.