‘The Little Mermaid’ tanks in China and South Korea amid racist backlash

Jun 6, 2023, 8:51 PM

Ariel and Prince Eric in a scene from 'The Little Mermaid.' (Disney)...

Ariel and Prince Eric in a scene from 'The Little Mermaid.' (Disney)


(CNN) — “The Little Mermaid” has bombed with moviegoers in China and South Korea amid racist critiques in some quarters over the casting of Black actress Halle Bailey as main character Ariel.

Disney’s live-action remake has made only $3.6 million in mainland China since opening there on May 26, according to Box Office Mojo.

It brought in just 19.5 million yuan ($2.7 million) in its first five days, compared with 142 million yuan (nearly $20 million) for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” in the first five days of that film’s opening, according to Chinese box office tracker Endata.

In South Korea, “The Little Mermaid” has grossed $4.4 million since May 24.

‘The Little Mermaid’ makes box office splash with $95.5 million opening

The movie attracted some 472,000 viewers in its first week in theaters there, less than the 643,000 fans who showed up for new “Fast and Furious” film “Fast X,” over the same duration, according to the Korean Film Council. “Fast X” opened a week before “The Little Mermaid.”

The chilly reception came as viewers in both countries questioned the choice of Bailey as the star of the movie, a decision that has been celebrated elsewhere.

In the United States, young Black girls have hailed Disney’s decision, saying they feel represented on the big screen because of her titular role.

“The Little Mermaid” has also done well at the domestic box office, ranking as the number two movie over the past weekend, which is only its second so far in theaters, according to Comscore.

But on IMDb, the film has allegedly been hit by “review bombing,” a practice where users leave negative reviews on a title to try to lower its rating. The issue led IMDb last week to warn of “unusual voting activity” and tweak how it calculates the ratings.


A cold reception


Globally, the film has now brought in an estimated $327 million, with $186 million of that coming domestically and $141 million driven by international audiences, according to Comscore.

China, the world’s second largest box office, has contributed a negligible amount.

Fans in mainland China have shared their objections to the movie online, mainly expressing disappointment with Bailey’s casting.

On Douban, a popular Chinese movie review website, users scored the film just 5.1 out of 10.

On Maoyan, a Chinese movie review and box office tracking platform, one user said they were “puzzled” as “the ‘Little Mermaid’ in my mind is White.” Several others made discriminatory comments about Bailey’s skin color.

“The fairy tale that I grew up with has changed beyond recognition!” wrote another Maoyan user.

Similar sentiment was found on social media in South Korea. On Instagram, one user wrote that the movie had been “ruined” for them, adding “#NotMyAriel.”

In Japan, where the film has yet to open, it has also faced criticism from those who say the portrayal of Ariel appears to differ from the one they remember. “Don’t trample on my cherished childhood memories and the image of Ariel,” one online forum user wrote.

Chinese state media has also egged on such reactions.

In an editorial published a day before the film’s debut in China, state-run tabloid Global Times said it had “caused a debate about representation in entertainment and highlighted the challenges of adapting beloved, traditional tales.”

The publication also suggested Disney’s decision to cast Bailey was part of a wider effort to include minorities in studio productions, and be seen as “politically correct.”

“The controversy surrounding Disney’s forced inclusion of minorities in classic films is not about racism, but its lazy and irresponsible storytelling strategy,” it said, echoing views expressed on social media in China, Japan and South Korea.

Disney declined to comment.

The film’s director, Rob Marshall, had previously refuted the idea that Bailey was hired for anything other than talent.

“She immediately set the bar so high that no one surpassed it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter 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.”


Strong showing elsewhere


“The Little Mermaid” has performed better in other Asian markets such as the Philippines and Indonesia, raking in $4.4 million and $4.1 million, respectively, according to Comscore data.

It also ranked as the most popular film in Italy and second most popular in Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil and Mexico over the past weekend, the analytics provider said. Fans turned out in strong numbers in countries spanning the globe, from Singapore to Finland to the United Arab Emirates.

All that helped make its international performance in its second weekend “stronger than ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Maleficent’ and equal to ‘Cinderella,’” according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

“The bottom line is that every movie has its own distinctive box office trajectory, unique audience appeal and within the context of the competitive and cultural landscape, will have various marketplace challenges and advantages,” he said.

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‘The Little Mermaid’ tanks in China and South Korea amid racist backlash