Expert on Disney: Can ‘Little Mermaid’ enchant audiences into forgetting culture wars?May 15, 20232 min read
Tulane University professor Peter Kunze, an expert on Disney’s history and societal impact, is available to speak to media on all things House of Mouse, from the feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the cultural weight Disney’s casting decisions carry as it revamps old films for new audiences.
With Disney’s latest live action feature “The Little Mermaid” set to hit theaters May 26, Kunze said any lingering complaints about the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel fail to consider that the film has always included African-Caribbean influences.
“'The Little Mermaid’ has always used Black musical styles like calypso and other Caribbean influences in songs like ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Kiss the Girl,’” Kunze said. “This movie doubles down on that and creates space for inclusion.”
As Disney continues to remake its animated features as live action movies, some have called for the media and entertainment company to be even more progressive. The planned live action remake of “Lilo & Stitch” was criticized for casting lighter-skinned actors, and actor Peter Dinklage took aim at Disney’s announcement of a planned remake of “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves.”
Kunze said Disney tries to walk a fine line to avoid controversy.
“They’re not trying to be progressive, and they're not trying to be conservative,” Kunze said. “They're trying to work the middle. The problem is, as our society becomes more and more polarized through a range of factors, the middle is going to draw the ire of the left and the right.”
Kunze said the irony of Disney coming under fire now by the “anti-woke” crowd is that the modern Disney renaissance was catalyzed by Howard Ashman, a theater talent and gay man whose vision, songs and casting decisions helped “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” cement Disney as an animated musical powerhouse in the 1990s.
“This is the point where Disney went from being a theme park company to being a major media conglomerate,” Kunze said. “And a lot of these individuals who have been written out of the story of the Disney Renaissance, at least by the company, were gay.”
Kunze discusses this and more in his new book "Staging a Comeback: Broadway, Hollywood, and the Disney Renaissance," due out in September.
Peter Kunze Assistant professor of communication and media industry analysis
Peter Kunze is a film industry expert and Disney historian who teaches courses on Disney's impact on U.S. culture.