Unsurprisingly, Disney continues to churn out live-action remakes of all their beloved animated classics: this year alone, we’ve gotten modernized versions of Dumbo and Aladdin, and The Lion King will premiere a few weeks from now. Next year, we’ll get a live-action Mulan, and possibly The Little Mermaid, with Snow White arriving soon after. And as long as the Mouse House makes these movies, there will continue to be a loud opposition to this trend of redoing and revamping films that don’t technically need a 21st Century update – and, while the remake-resistance has been wrong before (Will Smith’s Genie looks like a Smurf!), they’re also often right about a lot of stuff, a lot of the time (Emma Watson can’t sing!).
Right now is one of those times. Let’s break down both big news stories that dropped, yesterday and today, and why this weekend is going to be a really stressful one for everybody at Disney.
First, yesterday’s news: even though the live-action The Little Mermaid is still a long way away, an actress has been cast to play the film’s villain, the sea-witch Ursula. That actress is…Melissa McCarthy.
Now don’t get me wrong, Melissa McCarthy is a great actress, she has been nominated for an Academy Award twice, and she can be both dramatic and funny. I was actually pleasantly surprised at first, when I heard she had become the first person to join the cast: it seemed like an instant win for all involved. McCarthy hasn’t been selling a lot of tickets recently, and The Little Mermaid needs a big name, just like Aladdin needed Will Smith. Then I started seeing the arguments against McCarthy’s casting, and I was dubious – I immediately assumed it was nothing more than the usual backlash towards any remake.
And then I decided to dig a little deeper, and I realized that there are a ton of valid complaints here:
- While Ursula was originally voiced by a white woman in the 1989 movie, the character has been changing in more recent iterations, with black actresses like Yvette Nicole Brown or Whoopi Goldberg playing or voicing her in the TV show Once Upon A Time and movie Descendants 2, respectively. The change inspired some to think that, in this live-action Little Mermaid, a woman of color would portray the iconic Disney villain – rappers Queen Latifah (who did a Disney-sponsored photoshoot in 2011 while dressed as the character) and Lizzo were both high up on most peoples’ fancasts, with Lizzo even getting in on the fun and dressing up as Ursula while performing “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. To make Ursula white again and reverse years of progress, seems like a slap in the face.
- It’s no secret that the original Ursula is a thinly-disguised – and, frankly, offensive – caricature of American drag queen Divine, and because of that the character has become something of a “gay-energy icon” in recent years, with many wanting to see her fully reclaimed in a more positive light by the LGBTQ+ community. As a nod to her origins, fans thought it would be fitting if the live-action version of the character was portrayed by a drag queen – but apparently Disney isn’t ready to do something that bold, even though drag queens are fast becoming some of the most popular celebrities in America.
- Just as important as both of these points is the fact that Melissa McCarthy is not a singer. She has sung, yes, and she was once even part of a duet with Barbra Streisand herself – but her vocals aren’t all that impressive, and her singing style is pretty nondescript, nothing like the hugely over-the-top, charismatic voice of Pat Carroll’s original Ursula. Again, there are any number of more talented musicians who could have brought something truly fascinating to the part, and might even have warranted new songs being written specifically for the character: Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Lady Gaga, Adele, or Keala Settle all come to mind. Gaga and Adele have both won Oscars for their original music, too (and Gaga has also dressed as Ursula before).
Pretty much the only reason I can think of to cast McCarthy is because of her undeniable enthusiasm for body-positivity: Ursula’s cool confidence about her own image has made her an icon of body diversity (she’s an icon for a lot of people, I’ve learned). Maybe that’s something that Disney wants to lean into – maybe they want to use Ursula to address some important social issues. Then again, Disney is the same company that tried to slim down Ursula for their Disney Villain toy line in 2012. Is this a belated apology for that incident, or mere coincidence?
Whatever the reasoning might be for casting Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, what’s done is done. While the actress is apparently still in early talks, it looks like other, more promising, candidates for the role are admitting defeat, with Lizzo tweeting out a sad-face emoji in response to the news. The internet is pretty much unanimously outraged, and hopefully Disney rethinks their casting choice before it’s too late.
But today, Disney has only caused themselves even more pain and grief: a new report suggests that the live-action Mulan (which I’m actually looking forward to) will not include Mulan’s fire-breathing dragon sidekick, Mushu – instead, he will be replaced by a phoenix, something that Disney purists aren’t too thrilled about. Did I mention that there also won’t be any of the original songs that made the animated Mulan so good? No I’ll Make A Man Out Of You. No Reflection. No Honor To Us All. Just instrumental music.
Yeah, so…that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’m really interested to hear what you think? Do these things bother you? Are you excited for the live-action The Little Mermaid and Mulan? Expect more updates on both of these stories from Disney’s D23 event later this summer, and stay tuned!