The Little Mermaid is getting doused in select foreign markets amid a racist backlash over the casting of Black actress Halle Bailey in the role of Ariel.
The movie has grossed a mere $3.6 million its first 10 days of release in China, by far the worst showing among Disney’s live-action adaptations. It is also struggling badly in South Korea, where it has earned $4.4 million through June 4. Sources close to the movie, as well as box office analysts, say Disney knew Little Mermaid could face challenges, but is surprised by the extent of the backlash and its impact.
The social media outcry over Bailey’s casting has been particularly vociferous in both markets. Sources believe this has resulted in unverified audience reviews bashing the movie. In South Korea, such reviews have even made headlines.
Negative audience reviews have also populated social media in China. And just before the film opened in that country, the government-affiliated The Global Times ran an editorial lambasting Disney’s motives.
“The controversy surrounding Disney’s forced inclusion of minorities in classic films is not about racism, but its lazy and irresponsible storytelling strategy,” stated the op-ed. “Many Chinese netizens said that like Snow White, the image of the mermaid princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales has long been rooted in their hearts and it takes a leap of imagination to accept the new cast.”
The editorial further questioned whether Disney’s “political correctness” is motivated by financial interests or genuine concern for representation.
Bailey landed the role in summer 2019 after an extensive search that included hundreds of actresses.
“She immediately set the bar so high that no one surpassed it,” director Rob Marshall told THR last month. “We saw every ethnicity. There was no agenda to cast a woman of color. It was really just, ‘Let’s find the best Ariel,’ and Halle claimed the role.”
Bailey’s performance has been widely lauded by critics and (verified) audiences alike.
In China, Hollywood earnings have been down dramatically since the pandemic. The biggest U.S. hits so far this year have been Fast X and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, both nearing the ends of their runs with current totals of approximately $125 million and $78.8 million, respectively. Those are solid numbers, but much less than each franchise’s predecessors. F9: The Fast Saga (2021) earned $217 million and F8 (2017) took $392.8 million in China, while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) brought in $100 million. And all other U.S. tentpoles have fared significantly worse this year.
But even against a collective backdrop of diminished China potential, the scale of The Little Mermaid’s flop is conspicuous. The Jungle Book (2016) and The Lion King (2019) were outright blockbusters in China, earning $150 million and $120 million, respectively, while Aladdin (2019) took in a solid $53.5 million. Even Cruella, which was released during the pandemic, earned $24 million, far more than Little Mermaid ultimately will.
“It’s disappointing,” says the Little Mermaid insider.
Adds a source outside the studio who tracks the performance of Hollywood event pics: “We did not expect the racist reaction and therefore, for the picture to underperform internationally.”
In the U.S., The Little Mermaid has been doing good business despite protestations by some regarding Bailey’s casting. The movie has earned north of $186 million in its first 10 days and is pacing on par with breakout live-action hit Aladdin. In its second weekend, Little Mermaid dropped an estimated 58 percent in North America as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse entered the marketplace.
Box office analysts believe Little Mermaid could top out at $350 million domestically. Aladdin’s domestic haul was $355.6 million.
Overseas, Aladdin reached $695.1 million for a worldwide total of $1.05 billion. South Korea, however, accounted for $91 million, while China contributed $53.5 million. It remains to be seen where Little Mermaid lands internationally. It finished June 4 with a foreign tally of $140.5 million after debuting a week earlier to a disappointing $68.3 million (Disney had counted on at least $80 million). The good news: The female-skewing audience held well in a number of markets, and it continues to play particularly well in Latin America.
Japan is another key market for Little Mermaid, where it opens in the coming days (Aladdin earned a sizeable $112.5 million in that territory).
Disney’s final marketing push in Japan trumpets the film’s strong verified audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the movie’s promising start in North America. The studio also continues to focus on the acclaim Bailey has earned.
As for combating user reviews made in poor faith, observers say it’s harder to do internationally.
“Domestically, you can search by verified [audience] reviews,” notes one box office analyst. “Internationally, you cannot.”