Disney’s latest live-action film, “The Little Mermaid,” has received a strong response at the US box office, but it has failed to resonate with audiences in China and South Korea. Since its release on May 26, the film has reportedly earned only $3.6 million in China. The lackluster performance at the box office is being attributed to racist criticisms from certain quarters, which have raised concerns about the casting of black actress Halle Bailey in the lead role of Ariel.
In its first five days, the film managed to earn just $2.7 million in China, significantly less than the $20 million earned by “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” during its first week. In South Korea, “The Little Mermaid” has grossed $4.4 million since May 24. According to the Korean Film Council, the film attracted approximately 472,000 viewers in its first week, considerably fewer than the 643,000 viewers who watched the new Fast and Furious film, “Fast X,” which opened a week earlier than “The Little Mermaid.”
While Halle Bailey’s casting has been celebrated as refreshing and representative by many around the world, it has not been well received in China. In the United States, young black girls have praised Disney’s decision, feeling represented on the big screen due to Bailey’s titular role. “The Little Mermaid” has also performed well in the domestic box office, ranking second over the past weekend according to Comscore.
Interestingly, the criticism has also impacted the film’s IMDb score, as it has been subjected to “review bombing,” where users leave negative reviews to lower its rating. IMDb has addressed this issue by warning about unusual voting activity and making adjustments to how it calculates ratings.
Globally, the film has earned $27 million, with $186 million coming from the US box office and $141 million from international audiences, according to Comscore. However, the film’s underperformance in China is expected to have an impact on its overall box office revenue, as China is the second-largest film market globally.
Fans in mainland China have expressed their objections to the movie online, primarily expressing disappointment with Bailey’s casting. On Douban, a popular Chinese movie review website, users gave the film a score of just 5.1 out of 10. Some have expressed disappointment over the casting, stating that the image of Ariel in their minds is of a white character. Discriminatory comments about Bailey’s skin color have also been made.
Similar sentiments have been expressed by some in South Korea. On Instagram, one user mentioned feeling that the movie had been “ruined” and used the hashtag #NotMyAriel. Certain sections in Japan have also expressed displeasure over the casting, criticizing Ariel’s portrayal even before the film’s release in the country.
Chinese state media has questioned the casting decision as well. In an editorial published prior to the film’s debut in China, the state-run tabloid Global Times stated that it had sparked a debate about representation in entertainment and highlighted the challenges of adapting beloved traditional tales. The publication described Disney’s decision to cast Bailey as an attempt to include minorities in major productions and be perceived as “politically correct.”
Disney has not yet responded to the controversy. The film’s director, Rob Marshall, previously stated that Bailey was chosen solely based on her talent. He emphasized that she set the bar extremely high and outperformed other candidates during the casting process.