The long-term trend may be the growing importance of overseas box office to Hollywood studios, but the weekend numbers for the launch of Disney’s The Little Mermaid give an echo of a former time, when it was the domestic market that captured all attention. This remake of the 1989 animated film scored a strong $95.4 million over the weekend period in North America (and $117.5 million including the Memorial Day holiday Monday), but only a troubling $68.3 million for international territories.
In contrast, Universal’s Fast X debuted the previous week with $67 million in North America and $251.5 million overseas – although, to be fair, the Fast & Furious franchise has long been noted for its particularly strong international appeal.
The Little Mermaid performed decently in its top international market Mexico (with a debut that converts to $8.5 million) and OK in UK/Ireland (£5 million, or $6.3 million) – the latter impacted by the abundance of hot sunshine at the start of the half-term school holiday. But the numbers look especially weak in South Korea (only the eighth-biggest international market, with a $2.8 million debut), China (11th biggest, and $2.5 million) and Germany (12th-biggest, and $2.4 million).
And it may be no coincidence that these weaker territories are where the casting of black actress Halle Bailey in the lead role of mermaid Ariel has seemingly been a point of contention. Hollywood trade outlet Deadline reported that the film had been subject to “review bombing” by internet trolls, many of whom are presumed not to have actually seen this version of The Little Mermaid.
On the Internet Movie Database, a message about the user rating declares: “Our rating mechanism has detected unusual voting activity on this title. To preserve the reliability of our rating system, an alternate weighting calculation has been applied.” The unweighted mean average on the film is 4.7 out of 10, with almost 40 per cent of users giving it the minimum score of 1 out of 10.
The site’s algorithm has adjusted that user rating to 7.0 out of 10. The site doesn’t disclose how its rating mechanisms work (because it wishes to preserve them from concerted attack), but options might include ignoring votes by recently registered users, by those who have rated very few titles, and users whose pattern of votes to date skews highly negative.
Deadline reported that in Germany, Moviepilot initially showed a dismal rating of 0.7 out of 10 prior to release, which has since risen to 4.9 out of 10. The trade outlet also quoted South Korean website Zapzee which ran with the story “Backlash against ‘Black Mermaid’”. On Korean ratings portal Naver, there had been a trend of negative reviews attracting hundreds of likes, and positive reviews hit by hundreds of thumbs down. On the day of release, the rating was 1.96, which has since risen to 6.67.
Fellow trade publication Variety reported on the dismal China box office. State-controlled Chinese tabloid The Global Times commented that “it takes a leap of imagination to accept the new cast”, given that “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”.
The editorial insisted this is not about racism, but instead “lazy and irresponsible storytelling strategy”. The next day, another editorial commented: “A number of netizens from western countries on Twitter have attacked Chinese audiences, alleging that poor box office numbers are due to racial discrimination. This is to impose their politically correct standards on Chinese audiences, and use this to sow discord between China and African groups.”
Variety commented that the release of The Little Mermaid “again raised the question about how willing Chinese audiences are to watch films with prominent Black characters”. It’s perhaps relevant that the Wakanda-set The Black Panther grossed $105 million in China in 2018 – 16 per cent of the $649 million overseas total on the film. For comparison, in the same year Avengers: Infinity War grossed $360 million in China – 26 per cent of the $1.37 billion overseas total.
Box office outcomes for Disney’s live-action (or photo-realistic) remakes of animated classics have been widely variable over the years, as have the proportions achieved by them domestically in North America and overseas. It’s also worth considering that the original The Little Mermaid grossed more in North America ($111.5 million) than it did overseas ($99.8 million) – although that partially reflects the less-developed state of the international box office back in 1989.
Disney can at least take comfort from the fact that it has landed The Little Mermaid in cinemas – successfully in North America, and with mixed outcomes overseas – following a run of animation remakes that either premiered on the Disney+ streaming service (Peter Pan & Wendy, Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp) or were accorded a hybrid release during the Covid pandemic era (Mulan).
Meanwhile box office numbers are in for the latest UK and Ireland weekend, showing a so-so £10.3 million market total – a disappointing outcome given the strong titles currently on release (The Little Mermaid, Fast X and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3), and way down on the £19.8 million market total for the equivalent session in 2022, which saw the arrival of Top Gun: Maverick.
Strong sunshine at the weekend proved a hazard for cinema operators, who will now be hoping for solid business throughout the half-term holiday. How wide that business spreads across the films in play remains to be seen – the top three titles collectively took 86 per cent of UK and Ireland box office at the weekend, with dozens of other films fighting over scraps. Our top 10 weekend chart, below, shows how skewed the current market is, with the top film grossing 79 times the box office of the title in 10th place.
UK and Ireland box office
Top 10 Films May 26-28
1. The Little Mermaid, £5.01m from 724 sites (new)
2. Fast X, £2.26m from 646 sites. Total: £10.2m (2 weeks)
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, £1.59m from 684 sites. Total: £31.7m (4 weeks)
4. The Super Mario Bros Movie, £292,000 from 611 sites. Total: £52.3m (8 weeks)
5. Hypnotic £217,000 from 413 sites (new)
6. Sisu £145,000 from 282 sites (new)
7. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, £95,000 from 407 sites. Total: £617,000 (2 weeks)
8. Tomorrow X Together World Tour, £67,000 from 88 sites (new)
9. The Royal Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty, £64,400 from 84 sites. Total: £448,000 (2 weeks)
10. Beau Is Afraid, £63,300 from 157 sites. Total: £429,000 (2 weeks)
Thanks to Comscore; @cSMoviesUK