"When that controversy arose, from narrow-minded people, I thought, 'Wow, that really feels like it's coming from another century. Are we really still there?' " director Rob Marshall said
The Little Mermaid director, 62, addressed the online comments made when Bailey was announced as Ariel back in 2019, telling Deadline, "I didn't think that it was a big deal, casting a woman of color. I thought, 'that's an archaic way to see the world.' "
He added, "When that controversy arose, from narrow-minded people, I thought, 'Wow, that really feels like it's coming from another century. Are we really still there?' "
However, he said there have been many positive things that came from the announcement as well, including the fact that the casting choice allowed little children the opportunity to see themselves in this story.
"But the bonus that came with that casting, and I wasn't aware of it at the time, is seeing these young girls of color and young boys of color looking at her and thinking, 'Wow, I'm represented,' " he said. "It was very, very moving to me."
He went on to say that the film and its casting gave him "deep pride" and said the backlash was an "important reminder" that there are still ways to go in Hollywood.
"It is an important reminder that this is still sort of new, the idea that women and men of color are cast across the board," he said. "We're still developing and growing in that area. It is important that people are represented, and vital that people see themselves and can imagine themselves and don't have to feel like outsiders."
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Describing Ariel's story as very "modern," the Mary Poppins Returns director also drew comparisons between the narrative in the story and what some people are facing in the real world.
"It was interesting to me that this whole idea of prejudice in the world is really what the film's about," Marshall said. "[Ariel] teaches her father that there's nothing to be afraid of with those who are different from you."
"As the world in many ways becomes more divisive, this felt like an antidote to all of that. The whole time making the film, it felt like an antidote to this divided place we're in, an important reminder that we're really all one," he explained.
Bailey, 23, has also addressed the negativity, telling PEOPLE she has learned to rise above the criticism.
"I don't really think about the naysayers," she said. "I just think about the people that are positive and lift me up."
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"It's exceptional to be able to see a figure that you look up to that also looks like your auntie or your sister," continued Bailey, who credits Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, Brandy in Cinderella and Anika Noni Rose in The Princess and the Frog as her inspirations.
"When I was able to see them, I felt like I was worthy," she adds. "Now that I'm on posters and inspiring these little girls that come up to me, it's very surreal. I just want to continue making them proud of me."
The Little Mermaid is in theaters May 26.
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