The Little Mermaid Revisited

(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.

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