Remakes often get bad rep. “There aren’t any original ideas!” or “They’re ruining my childhood!” – the list of complaints go on and on – Rob Marshall, John Deluca and Alan Menken would know, they just adapted Disney’s The Little Mermaid for the big screen.
It has been 34 years since the original animated film was released and while naysayers keep flipping their fins, the filmmakers know they won’t get too far. Especially not after all the hard work they’ve put in to make The Little Mermaid the magical adaptation that it is.
In a recent press conference that Geek Culture attended, the trio shared that adapting The Little Mermaid had its own set of unique challenges but they wouldn’t have it any other way after working on it for almost half a decade.
“Well, it was a dream premiere. There’s nothing like that. It was a dream come true for all of us. It was very emotional. It’s taken us four and a half years to create this film so to have it play like that with our entire cast was just, I don’t know, it was one of the great moments in our lives,” said director Marshall.
Marshall is best known for Memoirs of a Geisha and musicals Chicago, Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Return. Coming from a theatre background, Marshall understands the challenging bits and bobs of creating a musical movie but jokes that if he doesn’t do them – who will?
“We feel at home and you know, who else is gonna make these massive musicals? People don’t take those risks anymore. It’s like there’s a fine line. It’s a balancing act. You could literally go off the rails, and it’s Saturday Night Live in two seconds, right? When someone starts to sing, it’s either completely organic and feels earned, or it’s the moment of, “Ooh. They’re singing, and it’s weird!,” laughed Marshall.
The Little Mermaid stars African-American singer Halle Bailey as Ariel, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Javier Bardem as King Triton, Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder and Awkwafina as Scuttle, and upon seeing how the cast had little to no theatre experience, Marshall made the filmmaking process as intimate and encouraging as possible. It also helped that Marshall had Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hollywood’s current favourite songwriter and creator for all things movie musicals – on board. Miranda joined The Little Mermaid as a producer but also helped write new songs Scuttlebutt and Uncharted Waters.
“Movie musicals are a hybrid of theatre and film. I always feel that my job as a director is to protect the actors. Make them feel safe in a space where they can screw up and be terrible, and then get better and not feel judged. It feels intimate. I never want any actor to feel pressure of the film” said Marshall.
“We love working with actors who are new to musicals because they approach it from the right place. You know, they’re singing as the character, and they’re bringing that sort of scene to life through song – and they don’t even realize it! A lot of actors are afraid to sing ’cause they think it’s this thing they have to, like, fit into but it’s actually an extension of their acting work. That’s all it is, you know? And that’s the kind of singing we love.”
Speaking of singing, tackling the iconic songs and filming them were daunting tasks. Producer Deluca admitted that shooting Under the Sea was the most complex thing in the film, and both he and Marshall even left the Academy Award-winning song to the side for a long time. Composer Menken, who composed the original songs in the 1989 classic, didn’t take offence to it though, especially since he is aware of the crazy expectations fans have. If anything, Menken wants the entire process to be smooth-sailing and collaborative, and even gave Bailey creative license and put her own little twist to the iconic hit, Part of Your World.
“I think the composer role can be intimidating to actors. I don’t want them to be assaulted with ‘Alan thinks this and this person thinks that.’ Just make it your own, and after you make it your own, and if I have anything to say, I’ll say it. But oh my god, she [Bailey] is so talented. You can’t take your eyes off her,” shared Menken.
“The emotion is just right there on her face and in her voice. She’s just, she’s Halle Bailey and she’s Ariel. We had our recording sessions, then [Marshall] allowed me to see the movie when it was just first put together very roughly and Wyatt [Smith], the editor, kept tapping to bring over boxes of tissues for me because when we got to Part of Your World, I was just weeping.”
Menken weeping is no exaggeration. In fact, it was Bailey’s singing of Part of Your World that scored her the role as Ariel. Marshall and Deluca shared a similar emotional experience when auditioning Bailey.
“Well, when she first auditioned and sang the song for us, I turned to Rob and there were tears streaming down his face,” shared Deluca.
“I mean, here’s the thing. The first actor we saw for this role was Halle. The first thing she did is she came in and sang for us and she sang that song. She shut her eyes and started to sing the song and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I just thought ‘She’s so deeply connected to what she’s singing about’. It’s so emotional. It’s so beautiful and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been doing this for five minutes. Have we found Ariel?’ – and we had!” added Marshall.
“But we didn’t know that. We saw hundreds of other actors after that, and Halle kept coming back in. And we saw every ethnicity. We saw everybody. And she claimed the role for hers. That’s what happened.”
The Little Mermaid also introduced new songs, including Wild Unchartered Waters and For The First Time. Wild Unchartered Waters is a solo song for Prince Eric, performed by King, whereas For The First Time is a new song for Ariel where she expresses her inner thoughts about finally exploring and experiencing life on land. These new songs, according to Menken, were to give each character a musical opportunity as well as to enhance storytelling.
“It’s a group process. Rob and John, David Magee, Lin-Manuel Miranda and me got together and we went through how the story’s being adapted by David, and how the structure is. And then where are the potential spots? So it’s simply as simple as that. Those decisions are made, first of all, by character, by moment, but also by sequence of a score, and what’s needed at a certain moment. We chose the moment when Prince Eric, he’s been told, ‘Don’t go back out there, you can’t’ and he just thinks about this girl. It’s a love song to her, and it’s a love song to the sea and to his uncharted waters, his life ahead of him so it ends up being a real important theme throughout the movie,” Menken elaborated.
“Then we had the first time she’s on land – and that was so much fun because I gave Lin a very sort of lilting tune and he said, ‘Can we give a kind of a bap-a-bap, mm-bop-Bop?’ and then boom, the song where she’s so excited! Everything is so new and so wonderful and then he doesn’t think of the girl and realises she can’t speak and then she’s so, for the first time, heartbroken.”
Time will tell if Unchartered Waters and For The First Time will reach the icon status like Menken’s earlier songs for the film, but said achievements were not always in the forefront of the composer’s mind when creating them.
“You write for the character. You write for the moment. You write for the concept of how you’re telling a story. What is the tone of the story? What is the exact moment? You set up the DNA. I have a palette of musical colours, like, you’re painting them and then you start to shape those colours. For instance, Part of Your World, you could say that’s Ariel’s colours,” he explained when asked about what inspires him to create these iconic songs for The Little Mermaid.
“And then, you know, part of it comes from also experience of just doing it a lot for many years. You let go, and you just sort of pour into that shape that you’ve created. You create a mould, a shape. Where does the song start? Where does the song end? How does the character progress dramaturgically throughout the song? Are we gonna open it for dialogue? Everything that’s happening, the world we’re in, the palette we’ve decided to use, and then, you just go into that mould,” he continued.
“You just have to be free to both create and react and create and react until you go, ‘Oh, I’m in love with this.’ You have to be in love with it.”
The Little Mermaid swims to theatres on 25 May 2023.