How Disney's Animators And Howard Ashman Brought The Little Mermaid's Music To Life

"The Little Mermaid" was a vital turning point for Disney because it sparked The Disney Renaissance, a period of creative and financial prosperity during the late 1980s and 1990s. The films made during this time became instant classics due to their vivid re-imaginations of classic fairy tale stories and Broadway-style songwriting that gave audiences deeper connections to the characters. 

Hiring lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken for "The Little Mermaid," who worked on the hit musical "Little Shop of Horrors," shifted the songwriting process for a Disney film. While songs were always in Disney movies, they were never such a prominent part of the story's organization. "The Little Mermaid" set the standard for future Disney films where artists create dynamic animations of the characters and their world to convey the music's mood and emotions. 

In a 2006 interview, IGN asked the co-director of "The Little Mermaid" Ron Clements, "[I]s there a sense of intimidation that you now have to match the music with the visuals, or one of serendipity where you have an opportunity to create something on screen between the two?" What makes "The Little Mermaid" songs so magical, Clements explained, is that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote most of the songs alongside the animators: 

"They had a room that was adjacent to where the storyboard guys were working with all of their synth equipment and they wrote the songs right there, which was the only film I think that we've been involved with that's really worked that way. I know that with a lot of the older Disney films it was done that way, and that was a great thing because you actually heard the songs." 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken would use the animated designs to influence the music and lyrics, and vice versa. 

A perfect harmony of music and animation

According to "The Little Mermaid" co-director John Musker, working alongside the storyboard artists enhanced Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's creative process: 

"[T]hey had visual ideas that then they could influence the lyrics or the orchestrations in some case, where they would say, 'Okay, let's give this line to the bass and we'll do a visual on that.' So it was very collaborative back and forth which made it more seamless." 

You can see easily see the synergy of their partnership on screen. In "Under the Sea," a fast-paced montage showcases a rainbow of vibrant and unique sea creatures. The bright colors accentuate the song's spirited rhythms. The camera moves quickly to the beat of the lively calypso tune, and the arrangement of the bouncing fish in colorful lines and patterns fits the song's raucous energy. Menken's use of steel drums and marimbas also adds a tropical flavor to the bouncy scene.

"Part of Your World" is a beloved song where the camera moves with fluid grace, swirling around Ariel as she swims through her secret grotto. It expands to reveal more and more of her human treasures and thingamabobs. The close-ups of her yearning face — particularly the iconic shot when she reaches her hand through the top of the grotto, illuminated by the tantalizing light of the human world — are beautiful. Ariel's desire for the world above becomes even more powerful through her heightened animated emotions and Jodi Benson's soaring voice. The animators give Ariel's expressions — ranging from curiosity, despair, and hopefulness in a single song — an intensity that accentuates the passionate lyrics.

By working so closely alongside the artists, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were able to create the perfect harmony of music and animation.