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‘The Little Mermaid’ Turns 30: Inside the Disney Classic’s Rocky Journey

The Little Mermaid” wasn’t just an animated classic. It was a life raft of sorts for struggling Walt Disney Studios.

It’s hard to believe given how dominant Disney is today in the family entertainment space, but when the story of Ariel, a mermaid princess who just wanted to be part of Prince Eric’s world, hit theaters, the studio was in a rut. Recent animated offerings such as “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Oliver & Company” and “The Black Cauldron” had flopped or disappointed at the box office and executives were even thinking about overhauling the struggling division. But salvation arrived in the form of “The Little Mermaid,” a film that was able to recapture the magic of an earlier era of movie-making, ranking alongside classic Disney films such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” with its ability to make familiar fairy tales the stuff of big screen enchantment.

More important for the struggling studio, “The Little Mermaid” was a hit, one of the biggest of the year. The film would ultimately gross over $200 million worldwide at the box office after it opened on Nov. 17, 1989.

The animated movie, with music by composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman, pushed Disney animation into new territory setting the stage for a new golden age of animation. Without “The Little Mermaid,” other classic Disney films of the 1990s such as “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin” would not have been possible.

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Thirty years later after “The Little Mermaid” swam into theaters, the cast and crew dished to Variety about the making of the film and the way it managed to capture the popular imagination and revitalize Disney animation.

“The Little Mermaid” characters could have looked very different. Ariel is best-known for her fiery-red locks, but her coiffure was almost a mirror image of another famous big-screen mermaid, while Sebastian could have been an English or Jamaican crab rather than Trinidadian. When it came to creating Ursula, the villainous sea witch, animator Glen Keane channeled cult icon Divine.

Keane: [The directors] wanted Ariel to have this fiery personality. Originally she was blonde, but we switched to redhead. One of the executives was saying “Mermaids have blonde hair, I mean look at [Daryl Hannah’s blonde hair in] “Splash.” I said “Well, yeah, but there’s no such thing as a mermaid anyway, so they could have purple hair, they could be anything.” I always think the hair of a character reflects something going on inside that character in the arc of the story. Ariel’s hair is a constant reminder of her fiery personality.

I was doing a lot of exploration on what [Ursula] should look like and started doing some research on Divine. First we were thinking of something more like Maleficent, very feminine in her stature and power. Divine had this whole other power. I started to do some drawings, and like “Oh, wow, that’s kind of scary. Can we actually do that?” We ended up pushing further in making her (Ursula) a little bit more fun.

Menken: In “Kiss the Girl,” you have the character of this little crab who’s playing the crooner. He’s playing Harry Belafonte. The choice of making Sebastian a Caribbean crab from Trinidad added so much richness to the characterization and to his sense of his manhood and his sense of the Latin lover in him even though he’s a tiny, little red crab.

Samuel E. Wright (voice of Sebastian): If it wasn’t for [Ashman], I wouldn’t have done this [film]. He wasn’t looking for a Jamaican accent, he was looking for the sound of the way he was raised in Trinidad and when I came and [auditioned] he said to me “What are you doing?” and I said “You gonna throw me out?” and he said “Where did you learn that?” I said “In college” and he said “That’s the accent I wanted to have for Sebastian.” So, Sebastian has never said “Ya, man,” if anything, he said “Yes, man.” Quite different.

The original fairy tale, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, had a much darker ending, and the Disney team made other critical changes to the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a hunky prince.

Ron Clements (co-director and co-writer): The mermaid dies at the end of the story. There was an addendum that he added where she got a sort of an immortal soul out of it, but it’s still pretty sad. The prince ends up marrying this other woman who was not the girl that saved his life and he never actually knows that it was the mermaid. The other changes we made were that the sea king (King Triton) is not really in the story very much at all. And the other big thing that we did was the sea witch (Ursula) in the Andersen tale is not really as villainous, but we made her much more of a villain.

“The Little Mermaid” nearly failed to get a greenlight. Michael Eisner, the then CEO of the Walt Disney Company, first rejected Clements’ idea for “The Little Mermaid” in a brainstorming session deemed “The Gong Show.” Then, a few days later, the Disney chief changed his mind.

Clements: [For “The Gong Show”] Michael [Eisner] said “Just pitch your best idea” and they went around the table and when they got to me I pitched “The Little Mermaid.” It got “gonged” just from those three words because they were developing a sequel to “Splash” at the time and they felt like it might be too close. They actually “un-gonged” it a couple days later.

The dynamic writing duo of Menken and Ashman worked side-by-side on movies like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and for some of “Aladdin” until Ashman’s death in 1991. For the 1989 mermaid classic, the two wanted to push Disney into an age where animated movies could move like musicals. The two kept classic Disney princess movie themes intact, but made it their own.

Menken: [Ashman and I] were always in the same room. In the case of “The Little Mermaid,” it was looking at classic Disney in the vocabulary. Once Howard had the idea that we should make Sebastian not a stuffy English crab, but a Caribbean crab, that opened up a treasure trove of possible stylistic influences and calypso and reggae informed a lot of the storytelling. And then for Chef Louis, a little bit of French musical, but it was all very specific musical vocabulary that we drew from.

Recording the movie’s legendary soundtrack and dialogue led to some memorable moments. Lyricist Ashman entered the studio to give the vocalist Jodi Benson (Ariel) personal advice and critique. Samuel E. Wright went to great extremes to get in the mindset of his crab character.

Keane: Howard Ashman came in [the studio] because Jodi was performing “Part of Your World” and Howard wasn’t happy with it, so he walked in and he had them turn off all the lights in the recording room except for a little lamp over the sheet music. Howard was telling Jodi “You are not performing this, you aren’t singing for the people in the back of the theater” because her background had been as a theatrical actress. He said, “You are alone in your grotto on this,” and he’s whispering and Jodi’s just looking at Howard. Then Jodi sang again and it had a whole different feeling to it.

Wright: I was always alone [in the studio] because we had decided that Sebastian was only about seven inches big, so my only relationship with everybody else was that they were all larger than me. We placed the microphone at least three to five feet above my head and I would shout at the microphone because I was on the floor.

When first screening “The Little Mermaid,” children in the audience became restless during one of Ariel’s big numbers, so Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, told Menken and Ashman to make some difficult cuts.

Menken: We were finding that when [the film] got to “Part of Your World” there was a lot of restlessness and squirming. Clearly, it was not holding [the audience] and Jeffrey said, “Well, look, we should just lose that song.” And Howard knew that song was a huge tentpole for the kind of projects we wanted to be writing for Disney. You have to have dramatic tension, and so once we put in that Ariel was being witnessed by Sebastian, then that held the audience and saved us from losing the number. To not have her inner journey expressed in song really robbed it of being a legitimate musical. We fought Jeffrey on that and Jeffrey is a very smart man and said “Ok, try it” and it worked.

When “The Little Mermaid” started production, the studio was in transition. Eisner and Katzenberg had recently joined the Disney team without having much knowledge of animation. The animators moved to a leaky warehouse in Glendale, and the team experienced a considerable amount of pressure to get the mermaid movie right.

Clements: It was an exciting period, but it was also a scary period because we felt like the future was uncertain. [Eisner and Katzenberg] came in and they didn’t know very much about animation. Michael put Jeffrey in charge of animation and he was a fast learner. People were excited, but they were also scared. We felt like the stakes were high. Disney animation had gone through a fair amount of ups and downs by that point. The film had great potential and it was a great opportunity, but it was really important to get it right.

They moved us all off the lot into a warehouse in Glendale which was kind of scary for us at the time. It felt like we were being exiled to some degree. Where we were working was not quite as nice as what we were used to with the Disney Animation building, there were leaking roofs and where we did the storyboarding in these trailers, every time you opened the door, the building would buckle up and down. I think somehow that helped bring everybody together.

Keane’s animated interpretation of Ariel wasn’t a hit with everyone on the studio lot.

Keane: We had the opening night and showed the movie. Afterwards, my mentors, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who have now retired… I was very interested to hear their reaction. I ran up to them and I asked “So, what’d you think?” and Frank and Ollie have always been very honest, but never really free with compliments. Ollie said “Well, we wouldn’t have done it that way,” and I said “What do you you mean?” “Well, Glen,” Frank said, “There were just some expressions that were kind of ugly.” and Ollie said “That’s right, she was ugly. If you look at Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, every frame of that film she’s pretty. The princesses were pretty.” And I was strangely really happy to hear this. I realized that anytime I had a choice to go pretty or real, I always chose real. Even if it means for a few frames you have to scrunch the face up somewhere. It wasn’t necessarily appealing, but it was real. That became a mark of our generation. It was not the idealism of maybe the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s.

Animators faced a number of challenges on “The Little Mermaid,” which took years to make on a small budget of around $18 million.

Mark Dindal (visual effects supervisor): In terms of [animating] weather, there’s the whole storm sequence when Ariel first finds Eric and the boat chases that storm and then it catches on fire. Then all of the powder kegs explode. With all those elements of rain and the waves, it reminded me of the end of “Pinocchio” with Monstro the Whale. They have a very complete archive of all the work that [Disney] has ever done, so I was able to go down there and study the way they had done those waves and was inspired by that.

Clements: The storm sequence itself was kind of a monster to animate. It took over a year to animate that one sequence. We had the most effects of any Disney film since “Fantasia” because every other water scene had to have effects of some kind, whether it was light refraction or bubbles and of course the hair always had to be moving underwater. The animation on the surface of the water was even more difficult than the underwater scenes because you’ve got the surface of the water always moving and the boats. In the storm sequence there’s also the rain and fire and then we have a lot of magic in the film.

Before the movie came out, Tyco toy manufacturing company (later acquired by Mattel) had some very specific complaints about Ariel’s new ‘do.

Clements: [The Tyco company was] horrified and they said that their toy research confirmed that redheaded dolls didn’t sell. We said “Well, she’s gonna be a redhead, sorry,” but they were so panicked that the very first Ariel dolls that were on the market at the time when the movie came out in ‘89, she was not a redhead. She had strawberry blonde hair. They actually had to remake those dolls because little girls wanted her to have the same hair color she had in the movie.

At the Oscars, Ashman approached Menken, saying that he had something to tell him.

Menken: Howard said “I’m really happy, but when we get back to New York we have to have a talk.” We got back two days later and I went to his house and he said “Well I’m sick, I’m HIV positive” and in those days it was “you’re dead.” We were doing “Beauty and the Beast” at that time. The writing of the “The Little Mermaid” in retrospect was a wonderful light, a dream come true, but the writing of “Beauty and the Beast” had that huge shadow on it. I now knew that Howard was dying and he never lived to see “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin.”

Over the past 30 years, children have dressed up as Ariel, sung the film’s power ballads, and watched the movie over and over and over again.

Clements: Both John (Musker, co-director and co-writer) and I have had people come up to us and say “Thank you for my childhood” and that’s kind of weird, but I think for a certain generation, these films, not just Mermaid but particularly the big four of that period: “Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Lion King,” certainly those films still resonate hugely. Now, those kids have grown up and they have kids of their own and [the movies] live on which is really gratifying because these films, they’re very hard to do. They take a long time, four to five years. A lot of very talented, very creative people are involved. It’s really nice when they live on.

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