Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action and its hail to African folklore

When Grammy-nominated singer Halle Bailey was first named as the lead in Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action film, a surprising amount of hostility surfaced on on social media. But while some commentators believe Bailey playing Ariel is a disservice to the original Danish story, casting a mermaid of color is more accurate to folklore that surfaced long before, in 1000 BC.

For well over a century, many have viewed Northern Europe as the birthplace of mermaid myths and legends. When Hans Christian Anderson first published The Little Mermaid back in 1837, and then in English in 1845, the story took the world by storm.

In 1961, NBC’s Shirley Temple’s Storybook aired their adaptation of The Little Mermaid with Temple herself playing the mermaid. In 1976, Soviet Russia came up with their own live-action film adaptation of the story, following a 1968 animated version.

23 years later, Disney’s 1989 animated adaptation starring the immaculate voice of Jodi Benson premiered in theaters and won two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Grammys and many other awards. Anderson’s story was more popular than ever. But no one ever asked from where the Danish writer got his globally renowned idea.

So let’s go back even further. Unlike Disney’s Ariel or the fish-tailed darling of Denmark, the West African legend Mami Wata has existed for six centuries.

Mermaid lore predates Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid

Translated as “Mother of the Water,” Mami Wata is described as a mermaid-like figure, with a woman’s upper body, flowing hair, and the hindquarters of a fish. Unlike Ariel, who had to sacrifice her voice to walk on land with the man she loved, Mami Wata can walk and talk wherever and whenever she wants.Shrines to the ocean deity line the coast of western Africa, from Senegal to Ghana to Angola.

“She’s strong…She’s elegant. She’s captivating,” said Senegalese painter Kiné Aw of Mami Wata in an interview with The Washington Post back in 2019. “I never perceived Ariel as a white person. I saw her as a mermaid.”

And mermaids have appeared in many ways, to many cultures across many centuries, with the first account of mermaids dating back to 1000 BC in Syria (then Assyria). There, it’s believed that Atargatis, the goddess of fertility, cast herself into a lake and transformed into a mermaid. In Brazil, a “Lady of the Waters,”  was known to be an immortal woman, blamed for situations where men disappeared in the Amazon.

Disney's The Little Mermaid live-action and its hail to African Folklore

WUHAN, CHINA – MARCH 19: A replica of the Little Mermaid statue in Denmark stands at the abandoned Wanguo Park on March 19, 2018 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. The park replicas were abandoned during the course of construction 18 years ago and have since become part of the landscape of Wuhan’s East Lake Park tourist attraction, which features the longest green road in China at 101.98 kilometers long. (Photo by Wang He/Getty Images). Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action and its hail to African Folklore.

A famous folktale from Ancient Greece claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessaloniki, was transformed into a mermaid and lived in the Aegean sea after her death in 295 BC. The Koreans and the Chinese, on the other hand, have long believed mermaids to be a good omen and beautiful creature that would warn fisherman of impending storms.

In the Yoruba religion, Yemaya or Yemoja is a West African water spirit with a more sweet-natured reputation. Known as the goddess of the ocean, Yemaya is associated with positive qualities to help regulate social and spiritual practices. Spelman College English professor R. Nicole Smith said in an interview with CNN that some artists have depicted the African deity as a mermaid.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – AUGUST 01: General view of The Statue of the Little Mermaid on August 1, 2012 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Rob Ball/Getty Images)

Though there’s nothing really Disney-esque about Mami Wata, known to sink ships and shape-shift to lure certain people to their death, she is an impressive, ancient symbol of a mermaid who knows her own power. It’s a concept Bailey shared was a core foundation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action film.

“I think what’s beautiful about this version is that Ariel is not afraid to show her strength and her passion,” said Bailey at the D23 expo last weekend. “You know, there’s so much power in all that she is and the fact that she is just so headstrong and willing to go for what she wants, I think, is more clear in this film. And I’m just so excited for people to see the new version.”

Disney's The Little Mermaid live-action and its hail to African Folklore

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Halle Bailey and Rob Marshall attend D23 Expo 2022 at Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California on September 09, 2022. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney). Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action and its hail to African Folklore.

Filming on Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action took place in Sardinia, an island between Italy and the African country of Algeria. It’s the same Mediterranean Sea where the stories of mermaids and merfolk first began to be reported. In addition, Ariel’s father in the film, King Triton, will be played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, adding more Mediterranean Sea representation to the diverse, star-studded cast.

According to Andrew Apter, interim director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA, Mami Wata “represents a fusion of the European sailors’ spirit world and West African spirit worlds.” In a similar way, Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action reimagining will be a fusion of historical folklore, Disney magic, and the musical heart and soul of Anderson’s mermaid heroine.

According to Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel from the animated feature, that’s what matters most.

“I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters,” said Benson in an interview at Florida Supercon in 2019. “What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart, and their spirit, is what really counts…And no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter our race, our nation, the color of our skin, our dialect…or my hair is whatever color, we really need to tell the story.”

Bailey has also opened up about her deep desire to do Ariel, and the spirit of her story, justice, and that she was fully aware of the weight of this role.

“Because this film has meant so much to me in my heart since I was a little girl, I really felt like the little girl inside of me was like, ‘Ok Halle, you can’t mess this up. You have to do your best,'” said Bailey in another interview at D23. “So, I think just listening to my younger self in my ear and making her proud made my current self proud.”

Are you looking forward to Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action film, coming to theaters in May 2023? Let us know in the comments below!