New 'Little Mermaid,' 'Snow White' stars say their 'modern' characters won't be defined by needing a man's love

Call it the Elsa Effect. Or maybe it’s just progress.

But both Rachel Zegler and Halle Bailey— respective stars of the upcoming live-action Disney reboots Snow White (2024) and The Little Mermaid (2023) — said their “modern,” diverse versions of the iconic animated princesses will be far less tethered to those age-old “true love” storylines.

“In 1937, the cartoon [Snow White and the Seven Dwarves] was so focused on her finding true love, and it’s not even in her mind at all in this film,” Zegler (West Side Story), 21, tells us Friday at Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif., where she was joined by co-star Gal Gadot (watch above).

“She’s so focused in becoming the leader that her father tells her that she can be. And she’s really trying to find the courage to stand up to the Evil Queen [Gadot] and how to find her own agency and rule a kingdom. And she meets so many incredible people along the way. And maybe she finds love. Maybe she finds friendship. But what’s really important is that she finds her own voice.”

And while Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) will still be a major character in next year’s The Little Mermaid, Bailey says her Ariel also won’t be defined by a romantic attraction.

“We keep a lot of the meat of the film that made us all fall in love with this film,” says Bailey, 22. “It’s really her, and her gumption. And just excitement for the life above [her] world. So it’s amazing, but it’s also updated with the current times.

“I think she really just goes for what she wants. She’s not scared. And it’s not all about a boy. It’s all about what she wants for herself, and her life.”

Zegler, who is Latinx, and Bailey, who is Black, are also representative of Disney’s ongoing efforts to embrace diverse, color-blind casting across its properties.

The animated 2013 mega-hit Frozen broke the Disney princess mold in many ways by not giving its lead character Elsa (Idina Menzel) a love story, an element that was maintained in 2019’s Frozen II. We’ve seen a similar trend in superhero movies for both men and women with films like Captain Marvel and Shang-Chi, both of which didn’t include the once-requisite romantic subplot.

Speaking of superheroes, the Marc Webb-directed musical Snow White will feature Gal Gadot as her first Big Bad, something the Wonder Woman star is excited about, among other new things she gets to do.

“It was different than anything I’ve ever done before,” she says. “I went bigger, more theatrical. I acted with my body, with tone of voice, with everything. I sang, I danced, it was great.”

And of course, she went more evil. “Oh, just wait,” Gadot teases.

The Little Mermaid opens May 26, 2023; Snow White releases in 2024 on a date still to be determined.

—Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick