“She’s REAL!”

A little brown-skinned girl ran back to her mother from the giant tank where she’d just met a mermaid. The shimmering lady swimming in the tank in a movie theater parking lot was an inspired, sweet tie-in to the opening of Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid.”

It was as easy for this adorable tiny human and all the others tittering excitedly around the tank and the lobby to believe they’d witnessed a genuine mermaid as it was for them to believe that Ariel, the titular underwater princess played by Halle Bailey, could have brown skin and flowing red natural locks.

Because they saw it on screen and knew it was possible, that was enough. It’s real to them.

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On Saturday, I took a multigenerational and multi-ethnic group of kids and grown-ups with me to the new Warehouse Cinemas at Baltimore’s The Rotunda to see “The Little Mermaid.” I wanted to know just what this new version might mean to them. Would my friends in their 20s and 30s who were introduced as young girls to the fair-skinned animated Ariel accept the new one? Or would Bailey’s version, as some objectors insisted, ruin their childhoods? And would the little ones, like 7-year-old Alma Korman and her 5-year-old sister, Lucia, who are white, be confused that this Ariel looked so different?

Surprise! Everybody liked it, and all childhoods stayed safe and intact. It even charmed Gen Xers like me and my Baltimore Banner colleague Julie Scharper, who is Alma and Lucia’s mom. Scharper and I had always cast a side eye at the original Ariel and her choices. “I thought of it as a feminist tragedy,” the 44-year-old explained as our kids sat on the theater’s lawn after the movie, listening to a ska band. “Why would you ever give up your voice and your ability to swim for some stupid guy?”

SPOILER: This new Ariel still makes some bad choices, but director Rob Marshall has imbued Bailey’s version with more strength, more personality and more time to get to know dreamy Prince Eric (dreamy human Jonah Hauer-King), so that their chemistry makes sense. “I feel she had more soul in this movie. She was more ditzy in the animation,” said my co-worker Jasmine Vaughn-Hall, 30, who is Black.

Marshall also surrounded Bailey with multi-ethnic supporting roles: Ariel’s dad, King Triton, is played by Spain’s Javier Bardem; the goofy, talking bird Scuttle is voiced by Asian American actor and rapper Awkwafina; and Black South African and British actor Noma Dumezweni is the regal adoptive mother of Prince Eric, who is white. Anyone who thinks a cast like this is out of the question while seeing nothing wrong with singing mermaids and sea witches is fooling themselves that their issues are only about artistic purity.

It makes sense to want to see yourself represented on screen, right? If nonwhite people having that opportunity threatens you, that’s on you.

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Dakota Long, 3, investigates the mermaid outside Warehouse Cinemas. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Children gather to examine the mermaid tank (courtesy of Circus Siren Pod) before taking in the film. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“I grew up with Brandy as ‘Cinderella,’ so we thought nothing of a Black princess, or an Asian prince who had Whoopi Goldberg as his mom,” said my new friend Bukky Adey, 30, of Baltimore, whose close crop of crimson locks resembles Bailey’s in the film. She was always more of a “Mulan” fan, but she enjoyed the film. “It wasn’t what I call a ‘Black’ movie. It’s not ‘Black Panther.’ But she’s definitely less boring. Her hair alone!”

I’m not going to pretend that Disney cast Bailey, a Black actress, out of some altruistic impulse. A lot of audiences expect representation and will buy tickets to see it. But it means more than money to viewers. I didn’t grow up seeing princesses that looked like me in the 1970s, but it seems normal to Black women in their 30s like Adey and Vaughn-Hall, or to Leah Brennan, 25, a Baltimore Banner copy editor who is white.

“I’m glad there’s more representation in the whole princess genre,” said Brennan, who participated in her high school’s production of “The Little Mermaid” as a dancing chef, jellyfish and seagull. Bailey as Ariel “was so wide-eyed and whimsical. To see so much emotion in her eyes, it was really beautiful.”

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As enthusiastic as these kids and adults were about the possibility of seeing themselves reflected through the indigo-colored waters, some haters say Disney has taken away the only (white) red-haired princess — yet Merida from “Brave” and Anna from “Frozen” still exist — and that casting a Black mermaid is a slap against ancient Danish mythology — the original fairy tale was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.

Balderdash! The original animated Ariel, luminously voiced by Jodi Benson, still exists on Disney+, and Benson herself appears in a cameo in the live-action film. She has spiritually and physically embraced Bailey as her green-tailed successor. If you don’t like it, ask yourself why it bothers you that some little girl who doesn’t look like you might believe she could be a princess, too?

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For most of us, being a princess is no more realistic a career path than becoming a mermaid. The desire is not about the crown, though. It’s about being cared for and treasured and special, and believing that you deserve to be. I want more than that for my kid, and for Scharper’s, but I know it’s important, and giving that chance to more people doesn’t take anything away from you. We can all share, just like Alma, who now has a favorite Ariel.

“This one,” she said. “Because the mermaid was real.”

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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