Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Had a Strong Opening, but There Are Signs It Is Treading Water

Joan Marcus

While the opening on the holiday weekend has been quite good, prospects for “The Little Mermaid” are not as great as press reports insist.

Even for those not interested in seeing the summer release from Walt Disney studios, there has been interest to see how the performance of the live-action reboot of “The Little Mermaid” was going to turn out. The fact that the studio opted to cast against type and place the lead role with POC performer Halle Bailey ensured there was curiosity about how Disney would be rewarded for its woke decision with content.

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While not regarded as quite as stark a woke message content move as other Disney offerings which failed last year – such as “Lightyear,” “Strange World,” and “She-Hulk,” as well as other streaming decisions – the choice to recast the race of the title role was seen as enough of a departure from the source material to raise eyebrows. As a result, people on both sides of this issue were interested; woke content proponents (including many in the press) were rooting for success, and those tiring of the woke lecturing in entertainment were curious to see if this would be another bust.

So what is the result? Well…people on either side might find evidence in their favor. So first, the success. Variety says the weekend was “massive” for the film. At The Root, they raved “Despite the haters The Little Mermaid smashes the box office.Over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, “The Little Mermaid” took in an impressive $118 million in box office gross. Critics have favored the film and audiences that have turned out have graded it well. It stands as the fifth-best Memorial weekend debut

The film is performing better than the latest comparable to measure against, the live-action remake of “Aladdin,” starring Will Smith, which opened this weekend in 2019. However, all is not wildly successful. For starters, projections had the film earning about $120 million, or slightly more, so it came close, but not quite, and there are indicators as to why. “Mermaid” barely edged out the $116 million earned by “Aladdin,” and that was four years ago. That film was cheaper to make and had a lower promotional outlay. When analyzing the opening of both movies, you see waning support for this new release. 

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While “Mermaid” had a better debut with Thursday-Friday numbers coming in $6.5 million ahead of the “Aladdin” debut, unlike that release, “Mermaid” did not retain the same level of interest throughout the weekend. On Saturday morning, as an example, it was said the film would finish as the third-best Memorial weekend debut. So as the holiday frame went forward we saw a lessened interest, not a growing passion for the film.

AP/Reuters Feed Library

After the strong Thursday night preview numbers, Deadline Hollywood raved about the film’s prospects: Once a mass-appealing Disney princess movie fires up from its opening, it doesn’t let go. We’re just getting started here. Yet — the film did lose its grip. After its hot opening, “Mermaid” fell significantly for three days: -21 percent, -8.7 percent, and then another -19 percent by Monday. This is a sign of lesser passion behind the project. By comparison, “Aladdin” held roughly the same figures for the first three days — about $30 million, with a dip of -16 percent on Monday. 

Also, a sign of unease for the studio is the outlay for this success. For essentially the same return, Disney did not have the same investment with these two titles. “Aladdin” cost $183 million to produce, while “Mermaid” sports a budget of $250 million. Then you have the marketing costs to consider, so once you factor in the revenue split with theaters, Disney is probably looking at a gross of around $650-700 million before realizing a profit.

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Now, “Aladdin” certainly achieved this – with international receipts basically doubling domestic, taking the worldwide total to just over $1 billion. But overseas, that title showed remarkable longevity, with some of the most successful territories seeing it earning seven times its opening, and in some Asian markets like South Korea and Japan, it was even more significant. Meanwhile, in China, “Mermaid” is a bust, with the resistance to a POC character delivering a meek weekend haul of only $2.5 million.

What appears evident is the combination of studio and press effort willing this movie over the finish line — for now. It is looking like “Mermaid” managed to reach these numbers based on a significant push. There were months of marketing and even $80 million of partner promotions with other companies (a record amount for a Disney live-action title.) All of that was needed to get this film to this good-but-not-fantastic level. And it shows signs of weakness.

As it stands, there is not any reason for any news reports to deliver a verdict on “The Little Mermaid.” In a couple of months, however, we will have a better read of things, and the indications are it will not be something worth raving about for Disney.

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