THE LITTLE MERMAID
People always ask me why. Why am I so obsessed with Disney and particularly, why am I so obsessed the The Little Mermaid and Ariel. I always say she’s my favorite because of her funk, her love for life, and the passion with which she lives her dreams. Also, I think it is kind of fate, as the american premiere of this film was the day of my first birthday. But there is so much more to this movie and what it represents.
Shortly after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Walt Disney Studios planned the release of a proposed package film featuring a series of Hans Christian Andersen Tales in the late 1930’s. The amazing artist Kay Nielsen even did some amazing concept art for the idea of The Little Mermaid, that, unfortunately, was abandoned back then. Nevertheless, his work was in fact used for inspiration in the late 1980’s definitive version of the film, particularly for the storm scene, when Ariel rescues Eric from drowning.
The new managers and bosses in the Walt Disney Studios during this time (Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney) called about twenty members of the animation department and, in order to get the process of making new films started, and faster
(as we know they were famous for), said that they should each bring three ideas for a film.
This is how one day, when the talented Ron Clements (co-director with Jon Musker of The Great Mouse Detective in 1985, and later several Disney classics such as Aladdin, Hercules and so many others) was passing by a book store and stumbled upon a collection of Andersen’s tales. Then he presented a two-page draft of a movie based on “The Little Mermaid" to CEO Michael Eisner and Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg at an idea suggestion meeting. They 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. However, the next day, Katzenberg allowed the idea for possible development, along with Oliver & Company.
During the production in the 1980s, the staff found, by chance, the original story and visual development work done by Kay Nielsen for Disney’s proposed 1930’s Andersen package feature mentioned earlier. And, coincidently, many of the changes made by the staff in the 1930’s to Hans Christian Andersen's original story were the same as the changes made in in the 1980's by Disney's artists.
That same year, the amazing pair of Clements and Musker expanded the two-page idea into a 20-page rough script, scraping the role of the mermaid’s grandmother and going deeper into the roles of the King Triton and Ursula. However, at that time Disney was focusing on their more immediate releases of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid was put on hold for a while.
Music-wise, we know this was the film in which the Howard Ashman- Alan Menken team was born (with the Disney Studios as they have worked together with Little Shop of Horrors). Ashman did the lyrics, but that was not all he did, and how did he bumped with this project? After he contributed with a song for Oliver and Company, he became involved with The Little Mermaid. He was the one who gave two major contributions, the first revising the story format (with Katzenberg, Clements and Musker) to make The Little Mermaid a musical with a Broadway-style story structure, with the song sequences serving as the tentpoles of the film, thus beginning a new animation era: the Disney Renaissance. The second one was changing the minor character of Clarence (the English-butler crab) into Sebastian, the Jamaican Rastafarian crab, not only culminating in the birth of a character loved by generations, but shifting and innovating completely the music style in the film.
In terms of Animation, many things make this film unique. First of all, the incredible team of animators, (
my personal favorite) Glen Keane, along with Mark Henn, were supervisor animators for Ariel, Andreas Dejà on King Triton and Ruben Aquino on Ursula. Pretty cool team, right? The thing is originally, Keane had ben chosen to animate the sea witch, but he fell in love with Ariel’s character after watching the musical number of Part of Your World (besides saying his wife looked exactly like Ariel, but with fins). People were surprised, as he was known for drawing large, powerful figures like Professor Rattigan in The Great Mouse Detective or the Bear in The Fox and the Hound. They were like… “you sure? This is a PRETTY girl!”. In addition, the talents of the broadway star Jodi Benson, as Ariel and Pat Carrol as Ursula. Pat Carrol was not even the first choice (or second choice at that matter) at all, as, originally, the part was meant for Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur and, after her, other actresses were considered like Roseanne, and Elaine Stritch who was in fact selected and rejected the part as well. Nevertheless, this proves how things should take their own course and happen for a reason, as I believe this was the best thing that could have happened. Pat Caroll completely knocked it out of the park and gave the character more sass and life.
Finally, it is important to highlight that this film 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 (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 this film. Therefore, as one era was beginning (Disney Renaissance), another was ending, the traditional animation with which Walt and his Studios worked. It is kind of romantic right?
In conclusion, this film is so striking, beautiful and well made, of course, but it is actually what is behind the scenes that appeals to me so much. I’m a Disney geek, everytime I buy a Disney DVD I sit down and watch the 15 hours of bonus features and animation history and all that stuff that comes with it with my jaw dropping and my eyes shimmering. I love the studios and Walt Disney for giving me the magical present of this film (
and ALL of them), what it stands for and what it represents. And as stated, this film will always have a special warm spot in my Disney-obsessed heart. (Sorry for the long article! I was kind of inspired as you may see)