'The Little Mermaid' Launched Disney Animation Into A New Era By Embracing The Past – And Broadway Musicals

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, Spiegel discusses the 1989 fairy tale The Little Mermaid.)

The success of Oliver & Company in 1988, coupled with the continued infusion of new blood among executives at the Walt Disney Company, raised the stakes for the animation studio. Peter Schneider, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, announced that they would begin releasing one film per year from that point forward. It was an ambitious approach for a studio that had just begun to claw itself out of a deep hole.

At the time, releasing one film per year was all well and good, but that required the studio to think of viable enough ideas, and quickly. For their next project, Disney's animators would have to go back into the past of the studio's undeveloped ideas — under the sea.

Out of the Past

During the production of The Great Mouse Detective, two of its co-directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, took part in a "Gong Show" at the studio, in which they and the other animators tried to convince executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to approve their pitches for possible future features. Clements in particular had an idea that he felt confident about — an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's tragic fairy tale The Little Mermaid.

The story of the mermaid who wanted to become a human to pursue a star-crossed romance wasn't unfamiliar within the walls of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Back in the 1930s, just after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney and his animators tried to develop the story into part of a package film full of Andersen stories to no avail. Instead, they shifted their attentions to another of the Danish author's stories, The Ugly Duckling, for a single short feature.

Per the making-of featurette on the Little Mermaid DVD, Clements described how he all but discovered the story when browsing through a bookstore in the early 1980s. His pitch at the Gong Show event was passionate, no doubt. It was also rejected. At the time, Disney was in development on a sequel to Splash that went nowhere, and Katzenberg and Eisner were concerned that an animated mermaid movie would be too similar and alienate audiences. Clements, though, was undaunted; he wrote a two-page treatment of the film, sent it to Katzenberg, and his passion paid off — the film was greenlit into production.

Some work on the film had, in essence, been done before. The development process for The Little Mermaid had gone to notable lengths in the 1930s, to the point where many changes that Disney's animators were proposing in the 1980s were the same ones their predecessors 50 years earlier had proposed. They were even able to find a bevy of story and visual development work completed by Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist whose only feature credit at Disney was Fantasia. (Nielsen received a "story development artist" credit on The Little Mermaid thanks to the work he'd done in the 1930s.)

Reviving the Disney Princess

Andersen's story, like the bulk of his fairy tales, was itself darker and more unflinching than a family-friendly adaptation might suggest. Some of its elements remain in the Disney animated film. In both, our lead character is a beautiful mermaid whose father is the king of the sea. In both, the mermaid falls in love with a human prince and makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for a pair of human legs in the hopes of romancing the prince and being with him happily ever after. However, Andersen's story gets much bleaker than Disney's version — the unnamed mermaid in his story does not win the heart of her handsome prince, so she turns into sea foam.

Though Disney has never shied away from scaring kids and adults with some of its films, it's not the kind of studio to end a film on a downer note. Arguably the closest Disney has ever gotten to that point is Bambi, a film with the most traumatizing death in the company's history. But the 1942 classic still ends with Bambi and his doe love interest Faline together, with Bambi positioned as the next Great Prince of the Forest. The Little Mermaid is not without its scary moments, but the film ends in exactly the way you would expect a Disney princess film to end: the heroine gets everything she ever wanted, living happily ever after.

Of course, the concept of a "Disney princess" film was not nearly so ingrained in popular culture in the 1980s as it is now. Before the release of The Little Mermaid, it had been 30 years since the studio released a female-centric romance in animated form. In fact, in those three decades, the closest Disney Animation had come to releasing a female-driven story of any kind was The Aristocats, their 1970 film that represented a kind of Lady and the Tramp-style romance, but with cats. Sleeping Beauty, the studio's previous princess film, was a sumptuously animated, ambitious, expensive swing for the fences that was an initial whiff at the box office and with critics. And so began the presumption that princess stories were old hat, or that boys wouldn't go to a female-driven film.

That presumption was alive and well during the production of The Little Mermaid, as none other than Jeffrey Katzenberg reminded Musker and Clements of his belief that the film would not perform because it was a film targeted to and about young women. It's foolish enough to presume that female-driven films fail at the box office simply because they're female-driven. (Recent films like Frozen and Captain Marvel continue to disprove this marketing fallacy.) But The Little Mermaid was on a track to success from a storytelling standpoint early on. Though Clements and Musker are the film's co-directors and credited co-writers, the presence of one other man must be acknowledged. Musker had producing credit next to someone who was originally brought on to write lyrics: Howard Ashman.

A Dynamic Duo

Ashman and his creative partner Alan Menken had seen their stars rise in the 1980s thanks to the success of their off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. Though it didn't break onto Broadway originally, the adaptation of Roger Corman's 1960 horror film would soon become a 1986 film adaptation starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray. (Ashman is the film's sole credited screenwriter.)

After Little Shop became a solid cult hit, one of its producers, music impresario David Geffen, encouraged Katzenberg to hire Ashman for songwriting duties on the opening number of Oliver & Company. The song Ashman contributed lyrics for is arguably not his finest. But that film's general success enabled the studio to make more films, and to hire both Ashman and Menken on The Little Mermaid.

When Ashman and Menken were brought on board the project, it looked still different from the movie everyone knows. One example: the version of the story originally gave the eponymous heroine's father an English-accented sidekick named Clarence. Clarence was a crab who talked and acted like a stuffy butler. Ashman is the one who recommended that Clarence be turned into a Jamaican version of the same crab. A decision like that seems small, but its impact was massive; soon enough, the entire film was being restructured to be a fully Broadway-inspired musical that treated its songs like major setpieces around which the entire story would be built.

With the film being under 90 minutes (including its end credits, it clocks in at 83 minutes long), The Little Mermaid has seven songs, a couple of which are deliberately brief and are more memorable for Menken's seafaring score. (The short opener, "Fathoms Below", sung on the ship bringing the blandly dashing Prince Eric back home, is a perfect example of the score standing out more than the lyrics.) But the core songs are the kind of unbeatable music that hadn't been part of the Disney discography since the 1950s.

Back to the Basics

In the same way that the studio ended up referring to animation designs from the 1930s, they went back to the standard for how human characters were captured in animation. Using live-action reference for animation is something that's been expanded upon with motion-capture work in the Lord of the Rings films, Tintin, and the upcoming remake of The Lion King, but it started with hand-drawn animated fare.

The Little Mermaid follows in the steps of the productions of Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi and others in this capacity. The production team used Sherri Stoner (animation fans know her as a writer and performer on Animaniacs) as a live-action reference for Ariel, at a point after which the voice performer for the heroine, Jodi Benson, had already recorded her lines. It was, in essence, a perfect marriage of voice and physicality, allowing the animators to see how someone would match up with the dialogue, looking and sounding the role.

The voice cast, as is now often the case, could have been wildly different from the ensemble in the final film. Unlike Disney's previous animated film, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid has few recognizable actors outside of a handful of stage veterans. Benson had the benefit of having been part of the Broadway show Smile, a musical comedy about beauty pageants with songs whose lyrics were written by Ashman. (In a truly odd coincidence, one of the songs in that show, sung by Benson, was called "Disneyland".)

Pat Carroll, who voiced the fearsome sea witch Ursula, was an Emmy winner but also an actress who hadn't had a breakout TV role as opposed to a series of brief appearances over the years. The only big name, and one with Disney connections, was stand-up comedian Buddy Hackett (who co-starred in The Love Bug) as the discombobulated seagull Scuttle.

But the lack of a famous cast was not for a lack of trying; according to the filmmakers in behind-the-scenes featurettes, none other than Jim Carrey auditioned to play Prince Eric, and fellow stand-ups Michael Richards and Bill Maher auditioned to play Scuttle. (Imagine Cosmo Kramer as Scuttle. Yikes.) For Ursula, the first choice was someone with a vocal range similar to Carroll's raspier tones — Bea Arthur, from The Golden Girls, Maude, and a variety of stage shows like Mame. But after Arthur passed on the role, a number of other actresses were considered for the part before Carroll was cast. Everyone from Nancy Marchand (who would eventually be known as Tony Soprano's vicious mother) to Roseanne was considered. (Again: imagine Roseanne as Ursula.)

Putting the Right Pieces Together

But the film's eventual cast went in a direction that was most logical for Disney at the time, even if it wasn't guaranteed to draw in audiences. Instead of casting famous people (or even moderately recognizable actors) precisely because of their fame, the studio cast the right actors. For the musical performances, Ashman and Menken were able to work with stage veterans of varying stripes. (Four actors — Benson, Carroll, Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, and Rene Auberjonois as Chef Louis — sing five of the songs; all four of them are Tony nominees for musicals.) Throughout the film, there's a sense of Disney going back to what worked in its storied past instead of trying to harness something more modern and hip as they did with Oliver & Company.

The Little Mermaid is also, fortunately, a case of Disney's animators winning out over its executives. During the lengthy test-screening process, Katzenberg was quickly convinced that the film had to lose at least one of its songs due to a muted and distracted response from the kids in the audience. For Katzenberg, cutting "Part of Your World" would have just been the price of doing business in response to bored focus groups. For Menken, Ashman, Clements, and Musker, cutting "Part of Your World" was cutting out the core of The Little Mermaid.

This, in effect, is how impactful the songs are in The Little Mermaid. Ashman, during production of the film, gave a lecture to the Disney animators about the style and format of Broadway musicals. He discussed how the presence and use of songs in many of the most memorable stage shows is designed to inform our knowledge of the characters singing those songs.

"Part of Your World" is a Broadway-style "I Want" number, in which the lead character tells the audience of their innermost desires and presents us with the foundation for the story to come that will help them achieve those desires. "Part of Your World" is as literal an "I Want" number as you can get, with the flame-haired mermaid Ariel singing "I want to be where the people are". The message we get throughout the song, performed brilliantly by the winsome Benson, is that Ariel is left out of her own life, dreaming her days away of her true, seemingly impossible fantasy turning real.

Yet the most fascinating element of the story of The Little Mermaid is how little of the film is dedicated to Ariel singing. From the beginning, it's established that Ariel, the youngest of seven sisters of King Triton (voiced by Kenneth Mars), has the loveliest singing voice even if she's also the most distracted under the sea. But outside of "Part of Your World" and a brief reprise (as well as a vamp we hear Benson sing as Ariel gives over her voice to Ursula), the character doesn't sing in The Little Mermaid. It's thus a testament to how wonderful, complex, emotional, and instantly relatable a song "Part of Your World" is, that it's Benson's only number. If the song was the core of the film, then so too is Benson's performance.

She was the latest in a line of women whose voices lend humanity to princesses who might otherwise seem single-dimensional. Benson fortunately has more to work with as Ariel, a frustrated teenager whose goals seem impossible not just because her loving but domineering father sees all humans as being violent and cruel. Ariel's physical form traps her emotional hopes, even after she encounters the blithe Prince Eric and gets to save his life. (Whatever else is true of The Little Mermaid, before Ariel gives away her voice for a pair of human legs, she is a vastly more active character than Cinderella, Snow White, or Aurora.)

It's not just "Part of Your World" that helped re-establish a standard in Disney animation. (Ariel's song and her desires aren't too far from "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" or "Someday My Prince Will Come".) Though Ariel is the lead of the film, the arguable co-lead is Sebastian, the Jamaican-accented crab whose presence was expanded by Ashman. As brought to vocal life by Samuel E. Wright (who would later go on to receive another Tony nomination, this time for his work as Mufasa in the Broadway version of The Lion King), Sebastian gets a lively and enjoyable character arc of his own, as he eventually softens to Ariel as much as her father does, along with two can't-miss songs.

Years before the rise of the common refrain of people disliking movie musicals because they feature characters who randomly burst into song, The Little Mermaid created a somewhat meta style of musical performance. "Under the Sea" is a show-stopping number that managed to feel entirely fresh while also being in the same vein as something like "I Wan'na Be Like You" from The Jungle Book. Sebastian, who's overheard Ariel's performance of "Part of Your World", is desperate to keep her in the water and puts on the lavish number that doesn't manage to actually keep the mermaid grounded. (It is notably the first of three major show-stopping numbers in Disney Renaissance animated films where a supporting character treats the lead as an audience for their performance.)

Though Sebastian is unable to keep Ariel underwater, "Under the Sea" is one of the purest triumphs of The Little Mermaid. It's the kind of song that Disney's animated films hadn't boasted in decades, instantly becoming a new gold standard in terms of musicality, lyricism, cleverness, and more. Ashman's intelligent writing stands out 30 years later — lines like "When the sardines/begin the beguine/it's music to me" are so clever that they likely make other composers envious — and the tune is a perfect example of the crowd-pleasing musical numbers that mark many great Broadway shows.

It's designed to make the audience want to stand and cheer at the culmination. Wright's infectious, joyous performance, coupled with the bright, colorful animation, and the well-paced music makes "Under the Sea" an incredible setpiece, one that Disney would go on to echo in its future films. Only three years later, Musker and Clements made fun of themselves in Aladdin, with "Friend Like Me" closing with the Genie in front of a blinking "Applause" sign.

Sebastian, established early on as the musical king of the sea even if he serves under the actual king, is the only character to get two songs, with the second being the charming and seductive "Kiss the Girl". (Auberjonois, as the oily French Chef Louis, gets what is arguably a throwaway number, "Les Poissons", but its playful insouciance and meta humor about French culture feels like an Ashman pastiche straight out of Little Shop.) "Kiss the Girl" comes after Ariel goes silent, and time is running out for her true love's kiss with Prince Eric, who inaccurately presumes Ariel isn't his savior from before because he specifically remembers the mystery girl's voice.

The premise is simple enough, as detailed in the title, but it's how the song comes to life both melodically and visually that vaults it into classic territory. While technically a ballad, the wit of Ashman's lyrics, Menken's lush compositions, and the inventiveness of how Sebastian turns the denizens of a Mediterranean bayou into his own personal orchestra makes "Kiss the Girl" far livelier than any song of its ilk ought to be.

It helps too that the animation in this section is pushing further than recent Disney films. Sometimes it's as simple as the swooping, almost dizzying arc of the camera, as in a shot at the crescendo of the song's final chorus. We see a group of sea creatures swimming upwards, then above the surface as the camera does the same and has to right itself to focus back on Eric and Ariel. This is an unexpected, gasp-inducing flourish that represents one of many ways in which the animators appear to feel a level of creative freedom that isn't found in either The Great Mouse Detective or Oliver & Company.

The opening minutes of The Little Mermaid suggest a film approaching the same level of drabness as The Great Mouse Detective, as we follow Eric on his ship during a storm. But once the film descends under the sea, it shines with color and depth that never goes away. While The Little Mermaid is not the most visually striking film of the Disney Renaissance, it represents a major shift in the visual capabilities and skills of the studio's animators that wasn't nearly as obvious from the past two films they'd made.

All this said, The Little Mermaid has hiccups in the storytelling that suggest a film that either was designed to be 10 minutes longer or simply should have been that much longer. Though it clocks in at a brisk 83 minutes, the story's pacing becomes exceedingly fast in the final 15 minutes. Directly after "Kiss the Girl", which ends with the two potential young lovers interrupted before the all-important kiss, the menacing Ursula (whose big number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls", is brought to wonderfully acidic life by Carroll courtesy of Ashman's nasty and shrewd lyrics) takes matters "into her own tentacles" by transforming into an identical twin of Ariel with the real mermaid's voice.

As quick as a scene transition can occur, she's hypnotized Eric into getting married immediately on his ship. Then, Ariel, Sebastian, Scuttle, and other birds the latter has assembled come together to turn Ursula back into her true self. Ursula then manipulates King Triton into giving his crown to her in return for Ariel's life; this is followed by a climax heavily indebted to the end of Sleeping Beauty, wherein Prince Eric fights the now-monstrous Ursula and kills her. Triton turns his daughter human permanently, enabling her and Eric to marry, and live happily ever after.

Where the rest of the story unfolds at a more natural pace, the third act is rushed in favor of arriving at an intense finale. It's not the most major quibble — the third acts of a number of the Disney Renaissance feel designed to deliver an action-packed finale even when the rest of the film doesn't seem to demand one — but is striking to consider 30 years after the fact. And perhaps it's fitting that the studio looked back to the prior princess-centric film for its showdown between a mildly charming but not well-developed prince and a giant-size version of the female villain.

But just as Sleeping Beauty pushed Disney's animators to new ambitions with its CinemaScope presentation, The Little Mermaid did represent a step into the future technologically. Though it was not the last film Disney produced to use the hand-drawn cel style of animation, The Little Mermaid employs computer-generated imagery in a few cases, most noticeably in a shot where Ariel runs down a staircase in Prince Eric's castle. It was not quite the same as future uses of CGI in hand-drawn animated efforts, but the story of Ariel represented the beginning of the 21st century of animation technology.

In the same way, the entire experience of The Little Mermaid truly was the start of Disney's re-dominance in animation. When it was released in November 1989, Jeffrey Katzenberg had come around, believing it would gross more than $100 million at the box office. It didn't do quite that well, making just under $85 million domestically. That number was still a massive step above the money raked in by Oliver & Company. And The Little Mermaid, aside from its financial success, was a big hit with critics in ways that hadn't been true in years. At the Oscars, both Menken and Ashman won, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ("Under the Sea"). It was the first time a Disney animated film had been awarded the Best Song Oscar since Pinocchio, and the first Disney animated film to win Best Original Score since Dumbo.

For Disney's animators and executives, the success of The Little Mermaid was an enormously emboldening moment. The film had hit just about every possible audience — critics were on board, audiences loved it, and the industry was happy to embrace a return to form for the studio. Disney was able to turn the movie around in just a year's time, and do so without sacrificing any serious level of artistic integrity. The Little Mermaid had arrived in time for children of now-adult Baby Boomers to fall in love with it, and became a massive hit on home media too. Disney was riding high. In the 1990s, they'd hit even bigger heights, financially and critically.

But only after they released their first sequel.

Next Time: Disney puts a shrimp on the barbie.