THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Little Mermaid’

The one that started a renaissance.

After the artistically disappointing animated films of the 1970s, the following decade was providing little hope for the future of the animation department of Walt Disney Pictures. While films like The Fox and the Hound and The Great Mouse Detective had proven relative success stories at the box office, they lacked the true Disney magic of decades past.

After the colossal failure of The Black Cauldron in 1985, Disney’s animators lived in constant fear CEO Michael Eisner was looking for any excuse to swing the axe and shut the entire department down for good. Despite the animators’ anxiety, Vice President of Feature Animation Peter Schneider and head of Walt Disney Pictures Jeffrey Katzenberg were determined to recapture the golden lustre of Disney’s animation heyday and, as Katzenberg put it, “wake Sleeping Beauty.” And the answer was waiting in the form of one red-headed mermaid.

The idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s classic 19th-century fairy tale The Little Mermaid first surfaced at the Disney studio way back in the late 1930s. At the time, Walt Disney was considering producing a package film featuring animated shorts of several of Andersen’s tales. However, after the huge success of Disney’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt felt it was best to focus on crafting further animated feature films. As such, the adaptation was shelved, where it would remain for five decades.

When you take a look at Anderson’s original story, it’s easy to see why no one at Disney touched the project for 50 years. A decidedly dark tale, The Little Mermaid concluded with the titular heroine discovering her beloved prince has chosen another bride, leading to the heartbroken mermaid’s death, which borders on sacrificial suicide. In addition to this solemn ending, the mermaid’s pact with a sea witch involves the removal of her tongue in exchange for a pair of human legs, which constantly feel as if she’s walking on sharp knives. Hardly the makings of a classic Disney princess fairy tale.

In 1985, animator and director Ron Clements stumbled across a copy of Andersen’s fairy tale while browsing through a bookstore in Los Angeles. Without knowledge of Disney’s prior plans to adapt the tale, Clements felt the story provided a strong basis for a possible animated feature, particularly given the studio had never set one of their animated films underwater. Clements soon wrote a two-page treatment, with plans to present his idea at the studio’s upcoming workshop pitch meeting.

As previously mentioned, Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider had invited the animation department to pitch suggestions for possible future animated projects, which became known as the “Gong Show.” Brimming with confidence, Clements presented The Little Mermaid to Katzenberg, offering a more Disney-friendly version of Andersen’s tale with a happy ending more akin with traditional fairy tales. Much to Clements’ chagrin, Katzenberg passed on the pitch, fearing it was too similar to the studio’s planned sequel to live-action mermaid comedy Splash.

However, just the very next day, Katzenberg had a change of heart and approved the project for development alongside Oliver & Company, in line with his goal of releasing one new animated feature film every year. Clements partnered with his The Great Mouse Detective directing partner John Musker to expand the two-page draft into a 20-page rough script, expanding the role of both the mermaid’s father and the sea witch. But work was soon put on hold while the studio focused on a little project starring an animated rabbit.

In an unprecedented collaboration between Disney and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was hailed by Katzenberg as the hybrid of live-action and animation that would ultimately save Disney’s animation department. Spielberg convinced major studios including Warner Bros., Fleischer Studios, Turner Entertainment, and Universal Pictures to license to use of their animated characters within the film. This would mean characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, and Betty Boop would share the screen with Disney’s cavalcade of animated stars for the very first time.

As the project shaped up to be a major success for the Disney studio (it would eventually become the second highest-grossing film of 1988), it boosted the executive team’s confidence in the future of animation. As such, Katzenberg threw more money and resources at The Little Mermaid than any other animated film in decades. While Clements and Musker continued to flesh out their rough script, the project truly began to take shape when songwriter Howard Ashman joined the team in 1987.

After contributing one track to the soundtrack of Oliver & Company, Ashman became heavily involved in the writing and development of the entire The Little Mermaid project, bringing his wealth of experience with crafting musicals after the runaway success of his 1982 Off-Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors, which had just finished a record-breaking five-year run.¬†Ashman felt the studio needed to return to the Disney animated musicals of the past which inherently followed the Broadway musical formula with songs forming a part of the film’s overall narrative.

While it would soon become the base formula for practically all Disney animated films of the next decade, the idea of essentially producing an animated Broadway musical was a huge risk in the late 1980s, given the public’s interest in musicals was practically non-existent. But Clements and Musker had tremendous faith in Ashman, allowing the songwriter to essentially configure the entire narrative of The Little Mermaid with the songs he wrote with composer Alan Menken.

Ashman proposed changing the supporting crustacean character from an English-butler named Clarence to a Jamaican crab named Sebastian, which shifted the entire music style of the film to something far more lively. But the true masterstroke arrived with the creation of the impassioned track “Part of Your World,” which invited an audience into the desperate yearning of the film’s young protagonist and created a new Disney princess with more substance than all those who preceded her.

Echoing the classic Broadway trope of the “I Want” song where the musical’s leading lady croons of what she’s longing for in life, “Part of Your World” keenly unfurled everything an audience needed to know about Ariel in less than four minutes. Much to the entire team’s horror, Katzenberg pushed to have the number cut, namely due to noting one petulant child threw popcorn on the floor during the song at a rough cut test screening. Yes, one bratty little kid almost cost us one of the greatest songs in Disney animation history.

Clements and Musker both desperately begged Katzenberg to rethink his request, comparing it to Louis B. Mayer’s unfathomable initial suggestion “Over the Rainbow” be cut from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Ashman reportedly joked he would strangle Katzenberg if the number was dropped. Katzenberg relented by allowing the animators to fully colourise and animate the sequence for a second test screening. Thankfully, the second audience were far more responsive, and the number was saved, with the track going on to form a key part of Menken’s overall score throughout the entire film.

In what would stand as Disney’s most ambitious animated project since Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid would require the resources of both the animation department in Glendale, California and the newly-created animation facility in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. While Disney had animated underwater sequences in the past, namely Fantasia and Pinocchio, they had never tackled a project quite like The Little Mermaid, which required lengthy segments both under and above water with varying degrees of light and perspective.

The animation team closely studied the original cels of Pinocchio from Disney’s archive, which still stood as the gold standard of underwater animation. To further assist with their designs, the animators visited the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach to study the colours, movement, and aesthetic of underwater sea life, while also closely examining photos of underwater caves for the film’s darker moments. Ultimately, the film would require the most special effects animation for a Disney animated feature film since Fantasia, including the creating of over a million bubbles.

While The Little Mermaid experimented with the use of the emerging technology of computer-generated imagery, it would stand as the final Disney animated feature film to utilise traditional hand-painted cels, further echoing its connection to the classic fairy tales of the past. The bulk of the film’s animation was created using the Xerox photocopy technology, with scenes painted over the photocopied drawings directly from the animators. However, several scenes were far too ambitious to achieve through hand-drawn animation alone.

To craft these complicated sequences, the team turned to the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which had been utilised for their two previous films, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company. Objects and layouts were created using 3D wireframe models, which were then printed onto animations cels to be hand-painted in the traditional manner. The team also blended CAPS technology with ink and paint for the final shot of Ariel and Eric sailing away under a rainbow.

For the movements of Ariel, animators Glen Keane and Mark Henn turned to the classic Disney practice of live-action recreations of the film’s key scenes for animation reference; a process the studio hadn’t used for years, given their recent films rarely starred lead human characters. While Keane modelled Ariel’s face and body on popular young television actor Alyssa Milano, her physical movements echoed those of Groundlings comedienne Sherri Stoner, who performed scenes in a swimming pool. This gave the animators a keen sense of how Ariel’s body and hair would move underwater, while also allowing Stoner to improvise movements above water including the now-iconic moment where Ariel blows the hair out of her eyes.

To bring Ariel to life, Ashman suggested Broadway actor Jodi Benson, who the songwriter had worked with during his disastrous Broadway production Smile, which closed after only 48 performances. Rather ironically, the musical featured a number where Benson’s character Doria dreams of one day going to Disneyland. Benson’s soprano vocals inspired Keane to craft Ariel with big beaming eyes to capture the heart of the actor’s endearing performance.

In a curious move that proved to be a stroke of genius, animator Ruben Aquino based his design of the film’s antagonist Ursula on the drag performer Divine, in an effort to return to the bombastic female villains of Disney’s past. With purple-hued skin, bright red lipstick, thin eyebrows, outrageous white spiked hair, and gaudy blue eyeshadow, Ursula genuinely represented a design aesthetic more akin to that of the drag world. The role was originally offered to The Golden Girls star Bea Arthur and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. When they both passed, the role was given to television and stage actor Pat Carroll, whose deep, menacing voice fit the part perfectly.

The Little Mermaid was released on November 17, 1989, to a rapturous response from critics. Roger Ebert hailed the film as the “kind of liberating, original, joyful Disney animation that we all remember from Snow White,” while Variety declared it as “Disney’s best animated feature since Sleeping Beauty.” The reaction from the general public was equally enthusiastic, with The Little Mermaid earning $84.4 million at the U.S. box office, breaking the record for the highest gross from an animated film during its initial run. It grossed an additional $185 million worldwide to end the year as the ninth highest-grossing film of 1989.

At the 62nd Academy Awards, The Little Mermaid became the first Disney animated feature film to earn an Oscar nomination since The Rescuers in 1977. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song for “Under the Sea” and Best Original Score, marking the first time a Disney animated film had won either category since Dumbo in 1941. The film also earned two Grammy Awards for Best Album for Children and Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, while the subsequent soundtrack release sold over two million copies. It has since been certified six-times platinum, marking sales of over six million albums.

It’s difficult to truly quantify how the success of The Little Mermaid changed Disney animation. While films like The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company had laid the foundation for Disney’s eventual revival, The Little Mermaid finally recaptured the original Disney magic which had all but vanished since Walt Disney’s death. By returning to the studio to its musical roots, Ashman had uncovered the key to the renaissance period now calling on the horizon.

For all its dazzling animation, terrific voice performances, and entertaining narrative, it’s the music which ultimately makes The Little Mermaid such a remarkable piece of cinema. What Ashman and Menken created was nothing short of masterful. Whether it’s the desperate longing of “Part of Your World,” the giddy joy of “Under the Sea,” the sweeping romance of “Kiss the Girl,” or the deliciously wicked fun of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” the soundtrack leads the narrative in perfect harmony. It’s one of the finest examples of the fusion of story and music the screen has ever seen.

The endlessly lovable Ariel makes a terrific protagonist, offering an endearing new Disney princess for the next generation. Sure, it’s easy to criticise Ariel as just another love-sick Disney female, but her longing for more from life begins well before she locks eyes on Prince Eric. As syrupy sweet as their love story may be, it’s hard not to be swept away by the charm of two star-crossed lovers finding their “happily ever after.” But, as we’ve seen with numerous Disney animated films, a great protagonist is nothing without an equally terrific antagonist.

In the wonderfully menacing and fabulously camp Ursula, Disney finally rediscovered the formula of what constituted a great Disney villain. Much like Maleficent and the Evil Queen, Ursula consistently steals focus with her over-the-top performance, with an evil plan that’s typically Disney dastardly. Carroll’s performance remains one of the greatest in animation history, filled with the sass and fury that genuinely bursts off the screen.

As previously discussed, The Little Mermaid was the first film I saw in a cinema, so it undoubtedly holds a special place in my heart. As an introduction to the world of films, it’s hard to imagine a better example to show a young child than the film which ushered in a new renaissance of Disney animation. The Little Mermaid gave the animation department the confidence to continue Walt’s legacy and returned the Disney studio to the top of family-friendly entertainment.

To this day, The Little Mermaid remains as popular and beloved as it was in 1989. Its legacy is almost unrivalled in the entire canon of Disney animated films. New generations of young ones continue to discover this absolute gem every single year, falling under Ariel’s spell as we did 31 years ago. It opened the door to a treasure trove of spectacular animated films to come. It changed the very idea of what Disney were capable of. And they were just getting started.

Is The Little Mermaid a Disney Classic? There’s no debate on this one. The Little Mermaid is unquestionably a Disney Classic of the highest calibre.

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