Ariel Swims into a New Series

Disney Jr.’s Ariel, a new animated musical series for preschoolers inspired by The Little Mermaid, had its debut on June 27. It follows 8-year-old mermaid princess Ariel as she and her friends embark on underwater adventures throughout their fairytale kingdom and beyond. With the new series comes both reimagined and familiar versions of beloved characters, along with new additions.

One such reimagining is for Ursula, known in The Little Mermaid as a villainous, manipulative sea witch. In Disney Jr.’s Ariel, Ursula acts as the princess’s loving and understanding aunt. “The Ursula character had to change, sort of out of necessity,” explains Lynne Southerland, executive producer. “Our audience is 4- to 6-year-olds, and they’re not going to be drawn to any story where someone is mean and aggressive or doing bad things to their favorite character.”

Southerland adds: “Ursula is integral to the story; she is a member of the family. It’s not like we could just throw her away. So, we reshaped her into someone who belongs in this version of Ariel.”

Keeping the age range and appetite of the audience in mind is, indeed, crucial. When using known IP, it’s a delicate balance between maintaining the story’s cozy familiarity and still making thoughtful adjustments.

Amber Riley (Glee), who plays Ursula in Disney Jr.’s new iteration, quipped, “I got involved because, selfishly, I just want all my nieces and nephews to see me play her.” An icon is an icon. Certain characters and facets of IP are indispensable.

Alongside Riley, Disney tapped quite a few known talents for this series. Taye Diggs (Rent) voices King Triton, Ariel’s father, while Mykal-Michelle Harris (mixed-ish) stars as the titular mermaid princess. Disney benefits from its powerhouse brand recognition, which certainly helps attract celebrities and, in turn, makes the show stand out that much more in a crowded market.

“Any opportunity to work with Disney is something that you have to seriously consider,” Diggs explains. “I’m also right in that age bracket where I grew up on The Little Mermaid. To be a part of a new construct meant a lot to me.”

Harris adds, “I was really excited to get involved with [the project]. The reason that this type of show is so important is because it shows such a diverse group of characters. It really is important to show that type of cast in front of young kids.”

Diversity is a main tenant of Disney Jr.’s Ariel. “The next generation comes into the world cable-ready,” says Southerland. “We’ve laid a path, and now this group of kids is born ready for things that we couldn’t be ready for. They’re ready to live in a world where everyone doesn’t look like them.”

“Kids are like sponges,” Harris says. Those different life experiences, viewpoints and more are crucial, both when it comes to shaping the next generation and keeping them interested. Southerland comments, “We’re tapping into where kids are.”

Whether it’s known or new IP, animation or live-action, the intention behind the content is the key to helping it shine through. “You don’t know when you’re doing things the impact they can have until you turn around and look behind you,” Southerland reflects. “I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked on some shows that people now come up to me and say, I watched that 100 times.”

As Disney Jr.’s Ariel cements its place in the vast library of Disney content, Southerland says, “I really believe it will join as something that kids will turn on over and over again.”