The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Little Mermaid is a 1989 American animated musical romantic fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Pictures. The 28th Disney animated feature film, the film is loosely based on the Danish fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. The film tells the story of a mermaid princess named Ariel who dreams of becoming human, after falling in love with a human prince named Eric. Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, with music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who also served as co-producer alongside John Musker), and art direction by Michael Peraza Jr. and Donald A. Towns, the film features the voices of Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Buddy Hackett, and René Auberjonois.

The Little Mermaid was released to theaters on November 17, 1989 to largely positive reviews, garnering $84 million at the domestic box office during its initial release, and $211 million in total lifetime gross worldwide. After the success of the 1988 Disney/Amblin film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid is given credit for breathing life back into the art of Disney animated feature films after a string of critical or commercial failures produced by Disney that dated back to the early 1970s. It also marked the start of the era known as the Disney Renaissance. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”).

A stage adaptation of the film with a book by Doug Wright and additional songs by Alan Menken and new lyricist Glenn Slater opened in Denver in July 2007 and began performances on Broadway January 10, 2008 starring Sierra Boggess.

In May 2016, Disney announced that a live-action adaptation is currently in development.

Ariel, a sixteen-year-old mermaid princess, is dissatisfied with underwater life in the kingdom of Atlantica and is fascinated by the human world. With her best friend Flounder, Ariel collects human artifacts in her grotto and often goes to the surface of the ocean to visit Scuttle, a seagull who offers very inaccurate knowledge of human culture. She ignores the warnings of her father King Triton, the ruler of Atlantica, and Sebastian, a crab who serves as Triton’s adviser and court composer, that contact between merpeople and humans is forbidden.

One night, Ariel, Flounder, and an unwilling Sebastian travel to the ocean surface to watch a celebration for Prince Eric’s birthday on a ship. Ariel instantly falls in love with Eric. Shortly afterward, a violent storm arrives, which wrecks the ship and tosses Eric overboard. Ariel rescues him and brings him to shore. She sings to him, but immediately leaves just as he regains consciousness to avoid being discovered. Fascinated by the memory of her voice, Eric vows to find the girl who saved and sang to him, and Ariel vows to find a way to join him and his world. Noticing a change in Ariel’s behavior, Triton questions Sebastian about her behavior and learns of her love for Eric. Triton confronts Ariel in her grotto, and destroys the artifacts she collected with his trident. After Triton leaves, two eels named Flotsam and Jetsam convince Ariel to visit Ursula the sea witch.

Ursula makes a deal with Ariel to transform her into a human for three days in exchange for Ariel’s voice, which Ursula puts in a nautilus shell. Within these three days, Ariel must receive the “kiss of true love” from Eric. If Ariel gets Eric to kiss her, she will remain a human permanently. Otherwise, she will transform back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula. Ariel accepts and is then given human legs and taken to the surface by Flounder and Sebastian. Eric finds Ariel on the beach and takes her to his castle, unaware that she is the one who had rescued him earlier. Ariel spends time with Eric, and at the end of the second day, they almost kiss but are thwarted by Flotsam and Jetsam. Angered at Ariel’s close success, Ursula disguises herself as a beautiful young woman named Vanessa and appears onshore singing with Ariel’s voice. Eric recognizes the song and, in her disguise, Ursula casts a hypnotic enchantment on Eric to make him forget about Ariel.

The next day, Ariel discovers that Eric will be married to Vanessa. Scuttle discovers Vanessa’s true identity and informs Ariel, who immediately pursues the wedding barge. Sebastian informs Triton, and Scuttle disrupts the wedding with the help of various sea animals. In the chaos, the nautilus shell around Ursula’s neck is destroyed, restoring Ariel’s voice and breaking Ursula’s enchantment over Eric. Realizing that Ariel is the girl who saved his life, Eric rushes to kiss her, but the sun sets and Ariel transforms back into a mermaid. Ursula then kidnaps Ariel. Triton confronts Ursula and demands Ariel’s release, but the deal is inviolable. At Ursula’s urging, Triton agrees to take Ariel’s place as Ursula’s prisoner, giving up his trident. Ariel is released as Triton transforms into a polyp and loses his authority over Atlantica. Ursula declares herself the new ruler, but before she can use the trident, Eric intervenes with a harpoon. Ursula attempts to kill Eric, but Ariel intervenes, causing Ursula to inadvertently kill Flotsam and Jetsam. Enraged, Ursula uses the trident to expand into monstrous proportions.

Ariel and Eric reunite on the surface just before Ursula grows past and towers over them. She then gains full control of the entire ocean, creating a storm and bringing sunken ships to the surface. Just as Ursula is about to destroy Ariel, Eric steers a wrecked ship towards Ursula, impaling her with its splintered bowsprit. With Ursula defeated, Triton and the other polyps in Ursula’s garden revert to their original forms. Realizing that Ariel truly loves Eric, Triton willingly changes her from a mermaid into a human permanently and approves her marriage to Eric. Ariel and Eric marry on a ship and depart.

Cast

  • Jodi Benson as Princess Ariel
  • Christopher Daniel Barnes as Prince Eric
  • Pat Carroll as Ursula
  • Jodi Benson as Vanessa (Ursula’s human alter-ego)
  • Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian
  • Jason Marin as Flounder
  • Kenneth Mars as King Triton
  • Buddy Hackett as Scuttle
  • Ben Wright as Grimsby
  • Paddi Edwards as Flotsam and Jetsam
  • Edie McClurg as Carlotta the maid
  • Kimmy Robertson as Andrina, Arista, Adela and Alana
  • Caroline Vasicek as Aquata and Attina
  • Will Ryan as Harold the Seahorse
  • Frank Welker as Max the Sheepdog and Glut
  • René Auberjonois as Chef Louis

The Little Mermaid was originally planned as part of one of Walt Disney’s earliest feature films, a proposed package film featuring vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen tales. Development started soon after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the late 1930s, but was delayed due to various circumstances.

In 1985, Ron Clements became interested in a film adaptation of The Little Mermaid while he was serving as a director on The Great Mouse Detective (1986) alongside John Musker. Clements discovered the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale while browsing through a bookstore. Believing the story provided an “ideal basis” for an animated feature film and keen on creating a film that took place underwater, Clements wrote and presented a two-page treatment of Mermaid to Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg at a “gong show” idea suggestion meeting. Katzenberg passed the project over, because at that time the studio was in development on a sequel to their live-action mermaid comedy Splash (1984) and felt The Little Mermaid would be too similar a project. The next day, however, Katzenberg approved of the idea for possible development, along with Oliver & Company. While in production in the 1980s, the staff found, by chance, original story and visual development work done by Kay Nielsen for Disney’s proposed 1930s Andersen feature. Many of the changes made by the staff in the 1930s to Hans Christian Andersen’s original story were coincidentally the same as the changes made by Disney writers in the 1980s.

That year Clements and Musker expanded the two-page idea into a 20-page rough script, eliminating the role of the mermaid’s grandmother and expanding the roles of the Merman King and the sea witch. However, the film’s plans were momentarily shelved as Disney focused its attention on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company as more immediate releases. In 1987, songwriter Howard Ashman became involved with the writing and development of Mermaid after he was asked to contribute a song to Oliver & Company. He proposed changing the minor character Clarence, the English-butler crab, to a Jamaican crab and shifting the music style throughout the film to reflect this. At the same time, Katzenberg, Clements, Musker, and Ashman revised the story format to make Mermaid a musical with a Broadway-style story structure, with the song sequences serving as the tentpoles of the film. Ashman and composer Alan Menken, both noted for their work as the writers of the successful Off-Broadway stage musical Little Shop of Horrors, teamed up to compose the entire song score. In 1988, with Oliver out of the way, Mermaid was slated as the next major Disney release.

More money and resources were dedicated to Mermaid than any other Disney animated film in decades. Aside from its main animation facility in Glendale, California, Disney opened a satellite feature animation facility during the production of Mermaid in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (near Orlando, Florida), within Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park at Walt Disney World. Opening in 1989, the Disney-MGM facility’s first projects were to produce an entire Roger Rabbit cartoon short, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and to contribute ink and paint support to Mermaid. Another first for recent years was the filming of live actors and actresses for motion reference material for the animators, a practice used frequently for many of the Disney animated features produced under Walt Disney’s supervision. Sherri Lynn Stoner, a former member of Los Angeles’ Groundlings improvisation comedy group, and Joshua Finkel, a Broadway actor, performed key scenes as Ariel and Eric respectively. Jodi Benson had already been cast as Ariel’s voice actor by this time, and her recorded dialogue was used as playback to guide these live-action references. Before Benson was cast, Melissa Fahn was considered for the part.

Mermaid‘s supervising animators included Glen Keane and Mark Henn on Ariel, Duncan Marjoribanks on Sebastian, Andreas Deja on King Triton, and Ruben Aquino on Ursula. Originally, Keane had been asked to work on Ursula, as he had established a reputation for drawing large, powerful figures, such as the bear in The Fox and the Hound (1981) and Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Keane, however, was assigned as one of the two lead artists on the petite Ariel and oversaw the “Part of Your World” musical number. He jokingly stated that his wife looks exactly like Ariel “without the fins.” The character’s body type and personality were based upon that of Alyssa Milano, then starring on TV’s Who’s the Boss? and the effect of her hair underwater was based on both footage of Sally Ride when she was in space, and scenes of Stoner in a pool for guidance in animating Ariel’s swimming.

The design of the villainous Ursula was based upon drag performer Divine. An additional early inspiration before Divine was Joan Collins in her role as Alexis Carrington in the television show Dynasty, due to a suggestion from Howard Ashman, who was a fan of the series. Pat Carroll was not Clements and Musker’s first choice to voice Ursula; the original script had been written with Bea Arthur of the Disney-owned TV series The Golden Girls in mind. After Arthur turned the part down, actresses such as Nancy Marchand, Nancy Wilson, Roseanne, Charlotte Rae, and Elaine Stritch were considered for the part. Stritch was eventually cast as Ursula, but clashed with Howard Ashman’s style of music production and was replaced by Carroll. Various actors auditioned for additional roles in the film, including Jim Carrey for the role of Prince Eric, and comedians Bill Maher and Michael Richards for the role of Scuttle.

The underwater setting required the most special effects animation for a Disney animated feature since Fantasia in 1940. Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film, in addition to the use of other processes such as airbrushing, backlighting, superimposition, and some computer animation. The artistic manpower needed for Mermaid required Disney to farm out most of the underwater bubble effects animation in the film to Pacific Rim Productions, a China-based firm with production facilities in Beijing. An attempt to use Disney’s famed multiplane camera for the first time in years for quality “depth” shots failed because the machine was reputedly in dilapidated condition. The multiplane shots were instead photographed at an outside animation camera facility.

The Little Mermaid was the last Disney feature film to use the traditional hand-painted cel method of animation. Disney’s next film, The Rescuers Down Under, used a digital method of coloring and combining scanned drawings developed for Disney by Pixar called CAPS/ink & paint (Computer Animation Production System), which would eliminate the need for cels, the multiplane camera, and many of the optical effects used for the last time in Mermaid. A CAPS/ink & paint prototype was used experimentally on a few scenes in Mermaid, and one shot produced using CAPS/ink & paint—the penultimate shot in the film, of Ariel and Eric’s wedding ship sailing away under a rainbow—appears in the finished film. Computer-generated imagery was used to create some of the wrecked ships in the final battle, a staircase behind a shot of Ariel in Eric’s castle, and the carriage Eric and Ariel are riding in when she bounces it over a ravine. These objects were animated using 3D wireframe models, which were plotted as line art to cels and painted traditionally.

The Little Mermaid was considered by some as “the film that brought Broadway into cartoons”. Alan Menken wrote the Academy Award winning score, and collaborated with Howard Ashman on the songs. One of the film’s most prominent songs, “Part of Your World”, was nearly cut from the film when it seemingly tested poorly with an audience of school children, who became rowdy during the scene. This caused Jeffrey Katzenberg to feel that the song needed to be cut, an idea that was resisted by Musker, Clements, and Keane. Both Musker and Clements cited the similar situation of the popular song “Over the Rainbow” nearly being cut from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz when appealing to Katzenberg. Keane pushed for the song to remain until the film was in a more finalized state. During a second test screening, the scene, now colorized and further developed, tested well with a separate child audience, and the musical number was kept.

In a then atypical and controversial move for a new Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid was released as part of the Walt Disney Classics line of VHS, Laserdisc, Betamax, and Video 8 home video releases in May 1990, six months after the release of the film. Before Mermaid, only a select number of Disney’s catalog animated films had been released to home video, as the company was afraid of upsetting its profitable practice of theatrically reissuing each film every seven years. Mermaid became that year’s top-selling title on home video, with over 10 million units sold (including 7 million in its first month). The home video release, along with box office and merchandise sales, contributed to The Little Mermaid generating a total revenue of $1 billion. This success led to future Disney films being released on home video soon after the end of their theatrical runs, rather than delayed for several years.

Early in the production of The Little Mermaid, Jeffrey Katzenberg cautioned Clements, Musker, and their staff, reminding them that since Mermaid was a “girl’s film”, it would make less money at the box office than Oliver & Company, which had been Disney’s biggest animated box office success in a decade. However, by the time the film was closer to completion, Katzenberg was convinced Mermaid would be a hit and the first animated feature to earn more than $100 million in its initial run and become a “blockbuster” film.

During its original 1989 theatrical release, Mermaid earned $84.4 million at the North American box office, falling short of Katzenberg’s expectations but earning 64% more than Oliver and becoming the animated film with the highest gross from its initial run. The film was theatrically reissued on November 14, 1997, on the same day as Anastasia, a Don Bluth animated feature for Fox Animation Studios. The reissue brought $27.2 million in additional gross. The film also drew $99.8 million in box office earnings outside the United States and Canada between both releases, resulting in a total international box office figure of $211 million.

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