The Little Mermaid's Halle Bailey Isn't Alone: Inside Disney's Many Controversial Live-Action Casting Choices

The Mouse House is known to cause a bit of fan uproar every now and then.

By Billy Nilles Jul 16, 2019 10:00 AMTags

It was meant to be a moment of celebration for Halle Bailey.

When Disney and director Rob Marshall announced the the Grown-ish star and singer, one half of R&B duo Chloe x Halle, had landed the coveted role of Ariel in the studio's upcoming live-adaptation of The Little Mermaid, it was, without a doubt, a career high for the young girl who'd only been on the scene since her and sister Chloe Bailey's viral cover of "Pretty Hurts" drew the attention of Beyoncé herself and got the duo signed to the superstar's management company, Parkwood Entertainment, in 2015.

She'd be making her feature film debut in one of the studio's wildly-lucrative live-action adaptations, slipping on the iconic princess' tail as she dreamed of a life up on land far from her kingdom of Atlantica. She was, much like Ariel, on the cusp of being part of that world.

And then the trolls came out.

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Donald Glover's Advice to Halle Bailey on "Little Mermaid" Role

While there were those who applauded Disney's colorblind casting when it came to the character, there were others still who took to the internet to voice their displeasure at the idea of an African-American woman playing a character previously drawn as white. #NotMyAriel they wrote on Twitter, apparently overlooking the fact that their beloved character is, you know, an imaginary creature.

While Disney and Marshall haven't spoken about the racist backlash, Disney's Freeform (where Bailey stars on Grown-ish) shared an "open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls" on their Instagram account, addressing the haters. "But spoiler alert - bring it back to the top - the character of Ariel is a work of fiction," the post read. "So after all this is said and done, and you still cannot get past the idea that choosing the incredible, sensational, highly-talented, gorgeous Halle Bailey is anything other than the INSPIRED casting that it is because she 'doesn't look like the cartoon one,' oh boy, do I have some news for you...about you."

While Bailey's received the support of Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel in the 1989 animated version, and Donald Glover, who knows a thing or two about adapting iconic Disney roles as he's the new voice of Simba in The Lion King—due in theaters on Friday, July 19—she can also take solace in the fact that she's far from the first person whose casting announcement by the iconic studio has caused a bit of controversy.

Naomi Scott in Aladdin

When it was announced that Naomi Scott would be bringing Princess Jasmine to life in the recently released live-action adaptation of Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, it came on the heels of reports that the studio was allegedly having trouble finding Arab and Asian actors who could sing. So, there was already a bit of fan outrage in the air surrounding the film. As Scott is biracial, of mixed British and Gujarati Indian descent, some found her casting as Disney perpetuating the notion that South Asian and Middle Eastern people are interchangeable. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly about the casting choice in December 2018, Julie Ann Crommett, Disney's Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, said that Scott's background was, in fact, crucial to representing a community that saw themselves reflected in Aladdin, while arguing that the fictional city of Agrabah was a hybrid city. 

"I think what's interesting about Naomi was that — and we had a deep conversation about it — there are South Asian individuals who associate with Aladdin and with Jasmine as well, and I think there was a sense of we should reflect some part of the community in the principle cast so that we're actually being inclusive of who sees themselves and identifies with this text," she explained. "What we've done intentionally with Naomi's character as part of the plot is that her mother is actually from a different land, and it's very clear in the movie that her mother is from a different land that's not Agrabah and that's drawing on a lot of her motivations in terms of how she sees the future of Agrabah as a welcoming place that embraces people from other places because her mother was from somewhere else."

Jack Whitehall in Jungle Cruise

The casting of English comedian Jack Whitehall in the upcoming film Jungle Cruise, co-starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Emily Blunt and based on the Disney Parks attraction of the same name, didn't sit well with some fans once rumors began to swirl that the straight actor would be playing a gay man. Per a report from The Sun, Whitehall's character, brother to Blunt's female lead, would be "hugely effete, very camp, and very funny." So, while it was a huge step in terms of representation for the studio, marking Disney's most significant gay film character in history, the decision to have him played by someone straight was upsetting to some. Not only that, but the decision to apparently have the character lean in to regressive stereotypes about gay men, if The Sun's report is to be believed, further angered folks on social media. With the studio and Whitehall staying silent about the report, we'll have to wait until July 24, 2020, when Jungle Book hits theaters, to see just how this all shakes out.

Billy Magnussen in Aladdin

Aladdin further faced fan scrutiny when it was announced that the film had added a new white male character to its story, with Into The Woods' Billy Magnussen landing the role of Prince Anders, a suitor for Jasmine from the kingdom of Skånland. Ultimately, the character wound up being nothing more than a comic foil for Aladdin, but some questioned why Disney and Ritchie felt the need to add a white character into the mix to begin with. Speaking with EW in December 2018, the director defended the character's inclusion, explaining, Our narrative is about, we are going to marry Jasmine off and it's a question of appropriate suitors, so there's different ways of recognizing and illustrating the appropriate characteristics that our rather sophisticated Jasmine needs in order to have a relationship that's based on equal merit...So we have princes that are not as sophisticated as Jasmine, but nevertheless, they look good on paper."

As he explained, a decision was made early on to have "an international, Middle Eastern and Asian crowd," thereby making "Billy Magnussen and his entourage...the only northern European characters in the whole movie, and that's because they represent (the Scandinavia-inspired) Skånland, a country somewhere in the North of Europe."

Mulan's Love Interest

Fans were thrilled when Disney announced in 2015 that it planned to produce a live-action adaptation of Mulan, though they were worried that the studio might wind up whitewashing the titular heroine. After a petition over the handling of casting reached over 100,000 signatures, Disney announced that the title role would most definitely be Chinese and they'd be hosting a global casting call for the role. (Liu Yifei eventually won the role.) In 2016, however, an anonymous open letter posted to AngryAsianMan.com alleged that the spec script bought by Disney for the adaptation featured a European trader who decided to "help the Chinese Imperial Army...because he sets eyes on Mulan" and eventually "gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan." Naturally, people weren't thrilled. Quickly, Vulture ran quotes from "a source close to the film" who assured that the film, which Disney had re-written by new writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, would feature an Asian love interest. 

"The spec script was a jumping-off point for a new take on the story that draws from both the literary ballad of Mulan and Disney's 1998 animated film," the source told the outlet. "Mulan is and will always be the lead character in the story, and all primary roles, including the love interest, are Chinese."

While it remains to be seen whether or not the film, due in theaters march 27, 2020, will feature any of the original's beloved music, fans can rest assured the cast is exclusively Asian and includes legends like Jet Li and Gong Li.

The "Browning Up" of Aladdin

As if Ritchie's Aladdin hadn't weathered enough criticism, along came yet another report about its cast. In January 2018, extra Kaushal Odedra, described as a stand-in for one of the leads, was quoted in The Sunday Times, recalling seeing as many as 20 "very fair skinned" actors in line outside make-up tents "waiting to have their skin darkened"—despite the reported 400 background performers of Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean or Asian descent. "Disney are sending out a message that your skin colour, your identity, your life experiences amount to nothing that can be powered on and washed off," Odedra told the outlet.

Disney was quick to explain what, exactly, was going on on Ritchie's set. "Great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen," a studio spokesperson responded. "Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in."

Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

By the time Disney was interested in adapting the iconic radio series The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp was the face of the studio, having helped the Mouse House essentially print money with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. As such, no one was really telling him "no"—which explains how he came to be cast as Tonto, the Native American sidekick to Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger. Plenty felt that Depp had no right playing the Comanche, but the actor told The National Post in 2013 that believed he had some Native American heritage in his family tree. "I was told I was Cherokee as a kid. I was told I was Creek as a kid and Chickasaw," he said. "I've always had a fascination and a connection, so this film's a great opportunity to chip away a little bit at the [Tonto] cliche." Prior to filming, he met with Comanche elders and had been made an honorary member of the Comanche nation, something Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey told TIME in 2013 he appreciated—though he still thought it would've been nice to see a Native person starring in the film in Depp's place.

Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3

Marvel fans were not thrilled when the studio, at that point owned by The Walt Disney Company, announced that Sir Ben Kingsley would be joining Iron Man 3 as Tony Stark's iconic archenemy the Mandarin. Why? Because, as the name suggests, the character in the comic books is Chinese. But co-writer and director Shane Black was quick to dispel any notion that the character and its portrayal would be offensive. "His nationality is not even clear because he is shrouded in secrecy," he told Yahoo! Movies in 2013. "He has crafted himself in the manner of the Mandarin, of a warlord. And I think that's great because you get to do the comic book but you don't...have to deal with the specifics of Fu Manchu stereotyping. "We're not saying he's Chinese, we're saying he, in fact, draws a cloak around him of Chinese symbols and dragons because it represents his obsessions with Sun Tzu in various ancient arts of warfare that he studied."

When the film hit theaters in 2013, fans were surprised to see that Kingsley wasn't actually playing the Mandarin after all, rather a British actor the film's other villain had hired to portray the terrorist persona. Fans were then double outraged that the iconic villain had been erased in such a way, prompting the studio to release the One-Shot film All Hail the King, released on Thor: The Dark World's home media, revealing that the real Mandarin was still out there. As Black told Uproxx in 2016, Marvel saw so many negative things they made a whole other movie just to apologize called [All Hail the King.] In which they said, 'No, no, the Mandarin is still alive. That wasn't him. There's a real Mandarin.' The only reason they made that was an apology to fans who were so angry."

Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange

Similarly, when Marvel announced that Tilda Swinton would be playing the Ancient One in 2016's Doctor Strange, there was criticism that a character drafted as a Tibetan man in the comics was, once again, being whitewashed. Director Scott Derrickson defended the decision to morph the character into a Celtic mystic, saying at the film's London press conference that he felt the casting decision was the lesser of two evils. "The Ancient One and Wong in the comics were 1960s Western stereotypes perpetuating the old Fu Manchu mentor to the white hero and Wong was the kung-fu manservant. What was I supposed to do with those? My first thought was to make the Ancient One a woman and middle-aged, not a fanboy's dream girl. My first thought was that would be an Asian woman but then it felt like it was falling into the Dragon Lady stereotype—the domineering mystical woman with a secret agenda," he explained. "I wasn't going to perpetuate that stereotype. And it would make it all about a Western character coming to Asia to learn about being Asian. It was a minefield. I needed an actress who could be domineering, secretive, etherial, enigmatic, mystical… Tilda Swinton. She's above all of us. It suddenly made sense.

"Asians have been whitewashed and stereotyped in American cinema for over a century and people should be mad or nothing will change.  What I did was the lesser of two evils, but it is still an evil," he continued. "Plus we changed Mordo [Chiwetel Ejiofor's character] from white to black and I look at it all and think, 'Yeah, I got that right.' The issue is diversity and racial sensitivity. Diversity in casting is the responsibility of directors and producers and I take it very seriously. My cast is incredibly diverse in gender and race."

Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid

When Disney announced that Grown-ish star and R&B singer Halle Bailey had landed the role of Ariel for their upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid adaptation, there were some who expressed outrage over the idea of an African-American actress playing a character most famously recognized as being white with red hair. The hashtag #NotMyAriel began trending. However, the studio stood behind their colorblind casting decision. "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," director Rob Marshall said in a statement.

A release date for The Little Mermaid has yet to be announced.