When I was seven years old in 1989, I had a surprisingly acute sense of the different styles of animation out there. That is to say, I could tell when something was a Disney production and when something was made by say Don Bluth or the like. This was mainly due to the fact that my little film buff mind in the making had seen quite a few films already in the mid to late 80’s, as my mom had taken me and my siblings to the movies often. And this was also a time when animation was beginning to see a bit of a rebound. The previously mentioned Don Bluth had struck out on his own as a force in animation and created a string of hits during the decade, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988). But curiously enough, the studio that had revolutionized the medium in the first place was notably quiet during the 1980’s. Disney Animation was still a big deal to me as a kid, but unbeknownst to me at the time, most of what I was seeing during those formative years were movies far older than I realized. Disney, in the days before home video, kept their library of classics in regular rotation with movie theater re-releases. I can recall that the first movies I ever saw in a theater when I was about 2 or 3 were 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). It’s to the strength of how well those movies hold up that I never caught on how old those movies were as a child, but it is interesting how reliant Disney was on their classics to see them through what were surprisingly turbulent times. As I grew up and became more informed about the history of Hollywood and the medium of animation, I would soon learn that the 1980’s was a transitional time for Walt Disney animation, and one film in particular would change the course of it’s future forever.
That movie of course would be The Little Mermaid (1989). Mermaid came at a crucial time for Disney, when it seemed like the future of animation at the studio was in serious doubt. Since the untimely passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio was in a constant state of flux. Walt’s brother Roy would hold the studio together for a while, but his passing in 1971, mere weeks after the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, left a significant power vacuum at the studio. Ultimately, Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, would take up the position of CEO of the company and he oversaw the continuation of the animation division that had been the backbone of the studio since it’s inception. During the 1970’s, Disney had modest success with films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but some of the spark that had been present in the animated film’s of Walt’s era felt noticeably absent in these newer films. The core group of animators, affectionately called the Nine Old Men, were all aging and about to retire, so animation at Disney was facing an uncertain future. Re-releases of the classic features became much more frequent for the studio as they were trying to milk them for more cash in these cash strapped days, leading Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney to complain that it felt like they were running a museum instead of a studio. Eventually, Ron Miller ended up greenlighting a new film that would hopefully turn the tide, hoping to capitalize on the fantasy film resurgence of the 1980’s, due to the popularity of movies like The Never-Ending Story (1984). That movie, The Black Cauldron (1985) was a financial disaster, going way over budget and falling well short at the box office, even losing to The Care Bears Movie (1985). As a result, Miller’s time as the head of the Disney company came to a disastrous end.
The failure of The Black Cauldron nearly wiped out the credibility of Disney animation forever, and perhaps more than at any other time, it seemed like the house that Mickey Mouse built may actually have turned it’s back on animation forever. Ron Miller’s exit from the company came out of a shocking turn of events, as Roy E. Disney helped to lead a shareholder revolt which led to his ouster. In his place, Disney convinced a trio of executives from Paramount to come over to the Burbank studio to help revitalize the company. These included Michael Eisner, who would become the new CEO, Frank Wells, the new COO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg who would become the new President of the Movie Division, which included the animation department. Initially, the shake-up of the company put animation in a lower priority, as Eisner and Katzenberg were more intent on turning Disney into a more productive studio for live action films, which was their forte. But Roy, who was now the Chairman of the company, convinced them to retain the animation department. However, to appease the new executives wishes, animation was moved out of the Studio Lot offices in Burbank and relocated to a temporary facility in nearby Glendale; another sign of animation’s precarious position at the studio. Already greenlit features like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) were allowed to continue production, but Katzenberg and Eisner needed convincing for what would come after. In what Disney animators at the time refer to now as their “Gong Show”, members of the animation department were allowed to present pitches for potential new features that would receive the green-light. One of the teams that made their pitch were young animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who came in with two ideas. One idea was Treasure Island (but in Space) and the other was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale classic, The Little Mermaid. Of course one got the go ahead, while the other went on the shelf for another 15 years.
Though The Little Mermaid had been given the okay from Jeffrey Katzenberg, it’s production was still not without it’s risks. The studio had fewer resources at their disposal, and creating an animated film with an undersea setting was going to require a significant level of ambition. Musker and Clements also had to deal with the fact that all of their team would have to work off site at the new Glendale offices, which were less than ideal for animation production. Yet, a couple of factors helped to give them the boost they needed to not only see this production through, but to also go above and beyond what others expected of them. First of all, the new studio heads saw greater potential in the marketability of animation, as they saw surprising success with a 50th Anniversary re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as well as having a box office hit with the hybrid film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which combined animation and live action to incredible effect. Also, Musker and Clements looked to Broadway to give this Mermaid a whole different kind of voice. Up until this point, Disney films had turned to Tin Pan Alley curated songwriters to fill their ever expanding songbook, with the celebrated Sherman Brothers being among the most influential. But for the Little Mermaid, it was felt that a more Broadway sounding score would help to elevate the story even more, so the directors reached out to the pair of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. The duo of Menken and Ashman had just come off the success of their musical Little Shop of Horrors, and they were eager to lend their talents to a Disney animated film. Ashman in particular became very involved, taking on a role as producer and giving significant input into the script as well, particularly when it came to the character development of the mermaid herself, Ariel. With a confident team now in place, the movie went full steam ahead and what ended up happening after was surprising to a lot of people, and a wake up call for Hollywood in general.
The Little Mermaid took Hollywood by storm. It outperformed expectations at the box office, and helped to earn Menken and Ashman their very first Oscar wins, both for Original Score and for Original Song (Under the Sea), which was a feat that an animated Disney film hadn’t done since Pinocchio back in 1940. More importantly, it put Disney back on the map in animation. After so much doubt in it’s future viability as a part of the Disney Studio during the post Ron Miller years, it became clear, Animation was there to stay. The Glendale offices were closed and the animators triumphantly returned to their old offices on the Burbank lot. And with a hit now under their belt, Eisner and Katzenberg were eager to loosen up the purse strings and green-light a whole new batch of animated features, all with the same ambitious scale as The Little Mermaid. In the years after, Disney kept building on each success, with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) breaking every box office record thereafter and racking up award after award. This era would become known as the Disney Renaissance, which The Little Mermaid is often cited as the catalyst point for starting. As a result, The Little Mermaid holds a special place in the hearts of Disney and Animation fans across the world. It’s hard to imagine a world where this movie did not exist. How different would animation be had The Little Mermaid not come out at that pivotal time. I for one am grateful for it’s existence, because it ushered in a whole new era for Disney animation, rising to the same level as those classics made in Walt’s time. But it’s also interesting to reflect on exactly why this movie in particular was able to make this significant change in the medium.
I think a large part of why the movie connected was because it fulfilled a need that both the industry and audiences were looking for. It should be noted that animation is a very costly form of film-making, and a large reason why the medium suffered for a while is because it became too expensive to make movies like them for a while. Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, while a celebrated masterpiece, was also a financial burden that nearly caused the studio to fall into the red. That’s why Disney resorted to cheaper methods in the years after, because he couldn’t confidently pull something as ambitious as Sleeping Beauty off again. Sadly, in the years after Walt’s departure, they became complacent in this cheaper mode of animation, and it made people less interested in the medium for a while. Don Bluth notably quit Disney to set out on his own because he was tired of the studio taking fewer risks and playing it safe. By taking on something ambitious like The Little Mermaid, Disney was bucking this trend that they had found themselves in, and were finally embracing the fact that they could do a whole lot better. It’s clear that Musker and Clements were looking to reach that higher standard that was set during the Walt era, and their team of animators were hungry to prove their worth and show just how great animation could be once again. From the lush backgrounds, to the vibrant colors, to the expressive animation of the characters, The Little Mermaid just shines with every frame, and it shows that this team of young artists were determined to bring animation back in a big way. It may not break new ground in the same way as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty had, but the confidence behind it helps to overcome it’s artistic shortcomings in order to earn it’s place alongside those beloved classics.
I believe that a large part of why The Little Mermaid works so well is because the characters are so vividly portrayed. In particular, Ariel is a real breakthrough of a character that more than anything has helped to make this movie the classic that it is. Though Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora are iconic Disney princesses in their own right, Ariel was very different. She was not a damsel in distress waiting for her prince to come; she was very much in charge of her own destiny. Sure, it still involves falling for a handsome prince, but her strong will made her very different from her predecessors. She was willing to stand up for herself, speak her own mind, and do whatever it took to find her happiness. She would lay the groundwork for so many free-thinking Disney heroines in the years ahead, including Belle and Jasmine, and in many ways was the thing that really helped to bring about a Renaissance for Disney animation. For the first time, a Princess was the driving force of her story, and not a passive player in a grander narrative (though I would argue that Cinderella is often underappreciated in that regard). A large part of Ariel’s character was no doubt influenced by the casting of a young Broadway ingenue named Jodi Benson, who was brought on board thanks to her close friendship and association with Howard Ashman. In Ariel, you see the care and attention that Ashman instilled into the character, and it was important to him that her powerful voice would come through, which Benson absolutely delivers on, both in voice and song. But the strength of a heroine is only measure by how well she reflects against a great villain, and The Little Mermaid has one of the all time greats. Ursula, the Sea Witch, is an incredibly well designed and performed character, voiced unforgettably by Pat Carroll. Everything we love about Disney villainesses is found in this character and she stands as one of Disney’s best alongside Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and Lady Tremaine. Interesting enough, and showing just how risk-taking Disney had become, the visual inspiration for Ursula came from drag queen Divine, who just so happened to be an acquaintance of both Menken and Ashman, who no doubt modeled the character as a tribute. In both Ariel and Ursula, we see how the Disney animated film came roaring back because these were characters that weren’t just following in other characters’ footsteps, but were instead meant to raise the bar for all those who would come after.
You can imagine how thrilled I was as a seven year old kid to see something like The Little Mermaid. This movie just had everything I already loved about animation, but was entirely fresh and new. Only after learning about how much it had to overcome in order to be the classic that it is just makes me appreciate it all the more now as an adult. There’s a wonderful documentary about the turning point years of the Disney Renaissance called Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) that I strongly recommend. It chronicles the years leading up to and after the making of The Little Mermaid and it shows you just how important that movie was in changing the culture at that studio. Had The Little Mermaid never become the success that it had, Disney may have abandoned it’s animation wing altogether, and animation in general may been lost to the fringes of the industry, relegated to a niche market. Who knows how much the fortunes of the company may have changed. Would Disney have continued to grow like it has over the years? Would it have been bold enough to take critical moves like purchasing Marvel and Star Wars? Would it have been put on the market and sold to some conglomerate, instead of retaining it’s independence like it always has? So, many uncertain futures, all of which never happened because one little mermaid helped this struggling company find it’s footing again. Musker and Clements would go on to become two of the most prolific animation directors of all time, including finally making their Treasure Island in Space project with 2002’s Treasure Planet. Alan Menken would end up winning so many Academy Awards with Disney, even after the tragic passing of his partner Howard Ashman who succumbed to AIDS related illness in 1991, that the Academy had to change their own rules as a result. And the animation team, who were once exiled off the studio lot, are now celebrated legends within the industry. The animation department at Disney continues to be a crucial part of the company, cemented forever because of The Little Mermaid, and they now enjoy their home in the lavish new Roy Disney Animation Building adjacent to the Burbank lot. If there was ever a movie in the Disney Animation canon that made the most difference, it was The Little Mermaid, because it was the one that ensured it’s survival. This little mermaid gave Disney back it’s voice, and allowed it to sing strong for my generation in particular, and for all those thereafter. We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea.