The Little Mermaid was much more than a successful film to Disney, it was a light at the end of a tunnel, a second chance and its salvation.
When the film was released 30 years ago on 17th November 1989 Disney was just about ready to overhaul the animation department following a raft of disappointments and flops.
The Great Mouse Detective, The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company had all failed to set the world alight leaving the House of Mouse unsure whether it was worth ploughing on with the studios as it was.
Then The Little Mermaid came along – a retelling of the fairytale, which was a risk in itself. Walt Disney had abandoned fairytales a long time ago, opting for original works and quirkier plots. Clearly audiences were ready for the fairytale return as Ariel captured everyone’s hearts as she attempt to capture Prince Eric’s sans voice.
Luckily, the film swam to success raking in $200m at the global box office, making it one of the most successful films that year.
Composer Alan Menken’s and (the late) lyricist Howard Ashman made Ariel part of our world with unforgettable tracks, like Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl, that have lasted the test of time.
More importantly, The Little Mermaid kick started the Disney Renaissance. Without our finned friend there would be no The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin.
Thirty years on, here are a few (read 40) facts about the classic animation that you may not know.
- The Little Mermaid doesn’t actually have a name in the Hans Christen Andersen story that inspired the film
- If the scene where Ursula emerges from the sea seemed familiar it’s because it echoed another Disney film. Animators studied the scene where Monstro rises from the murky depths in Pinnochio
- Ariel’s fin required a new colour. The Disney paint lab (yes, there’s a paint lab) called the colour Ariel
- Speaking of colours, Ariel’s hair colour caused a stir. Ariel was going to be blonde, but Daryl Hannah had just played a blonde mermaid in Splash. The team opted for red, which went nicely with the green… And reflected her fiery personality
- That wasn’t the only impact Slash had. Ron Clements pitched his idea for The Little Mermaid to Disney but was told it would be ‘too much Mermaid’ with Splash. The CEO later changed his mind.
- Animator Glen Keane created Ariel to look like Alyssa Milano using photos of the actress from Who’s The Boss. Milano didn’t even know she was the inspiration for Ariel’s features.
- If you zoom in on the opening scene with King Triton wielding his trident you’ll spot a few key Disney characters – Kermit, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck are all in there as well as the Duke and King from Cinderella and Mr Limpet.
- If you’re looking for Easter eggs then look no further than Ariel’s cave of treasures; there’s the bust of Abraham Lincoln, the famous Magdalene With the Smoking Flame painting by de la Tour…
- There are a few hidden Mickeys in the film too. In Ursula’s contract for Ariel there’s a tiny basic Mickey hidden among the words. The second can be seen with Chef Louis.
- Jodi Benson and Pat Carroll said they took parts of Howard Ashman’s delivery to inspire their performance of the songs.
- The original Ursula was quite different than the end result – she went through many iterations from a spinefish to scorpion-like.
- Ursula was inspired by a famous drag queen called Divine, from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
- Bea Arthur was apparently in Disney’s sights for the role of Ursula. The actress, known for The Golden Girls, never knew she was up for the role as her agent turned it down before asking her.
- Ursula isn’t an octopus, she’s a Cecaelia, that’s a mythical mix of human and octopus.
- Ursula doesn’t even have eight tentacles, she has six.
- We nearly lost the song Part of Your World. After the first test screening Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to cut it, thank goodness he didn’t.
- There’s a sweet story that went viral not too long ago. A New Jersey State Trooper was moved to tears when he watched the film, so much so, he called his estranged daughter to repair their relationship. He wrote to director Ron Clements to share his story.
- When it came to naming Ariel’s (numerous) sisters, Atina was inspired by a musical Alan Menken wrote named Atina: Evil Queen of the Galaxy. Alana took her name from Alan Menken and Andrina was the name of Clement’s aerobics instructor.
- Alan Menken’s name may now be synonymous with Disney but it wasn’t always that way. He had never written an underscore for a Disney film before The Little Mermaid so it was seen as his dry run. He thought it was horrible.
- The shark that chases Flounder is called Glut, though we never hear his name in the film. He was supposed to make a reappearance later in the film but the scene was cut.
- If you pause the film when Flounder does his impression of Scuttle you’ll see he actually changes so his features match the seagull’s.
- The sailors dancing on Prince Eric’s ship were caricatures of the team that worked on the film.
- Before Kenneth Mars was signed up to voice Ariel’s father, Sir Patrick Stewart was going to voice King Triton. He turned it down as it clashed with him filming Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- Disney animated everything in the film bar the bubbles, that was outsourced to Pacific Rim Productions (according to The Political Economy of Disney: The Cultural Capitalism of Hollywood) – there were more than one million of them.
- The first batch of The Little Mermaid VHS had a phallic castle turret on the front cover. The rumour was it was added on purpose by an employee, but this has been debunked since. It was an accident by an animator who was just tired. We’d call that a Freudian slip.
- Disney hadn’t wanted to release the film on VHS, as its strategy was to re-release films every seven years. It released it anyway and it sold 23m copies on VHS and 7m on DVDs once they came out that is.
- Disney did re-release the film anyway (yay for the vault). Even though it was eight years later it made $27m. Fun fact, the re-release was mainly done to compete with Fox’s Anastasia, which was released on the same day.
- The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, but Walt Disney had actually planned to create his own version after Snow White. The film was put on hold. Years later – after the company had greenlit the film as we know it – they found Walt Disney’s script, according to the film’s DVD commentary.
- The film was going to be a biopic of Hans Christian Andersen combining live-action and animation of the fairytales.
- Some of sketches that had been completed by Kay Neilsen were found as well and served as inspiration for the 1989 film – Neilsen even got a credit.
- Ariel is cousins with Hercules, another Disney character. Hercules dad is Zeus and Ariel’s dad is King Triton, who is the son of Poseidon, that’s Zeus’ brother. Keeping up? That makes Ariel and Hercules first cousins once removed.
- The Little Mermaid won Best Original Score at the 1990 Oscars – the first Disney film to win one since 1972.
- The film kicked off the Disney’s Renaissance, which starts in 1989 and runs until 1999.
- Sebastian was originally a British butler crab called Clarence, but once the music was written the team switched him to a Rastafarian called Sebastian – all thanks to Ashman using Calypso.
- Apparently Ashman had a Trinidad accent in mind thanks to his childhood growing up there. Its why you hear Sebastian say “yes, man” rather than “ya, man”. It’s a mixed accent.
- Ben Wright voiced Eric’s manservant Grimsby. He also voiced Mowgli’s wolf dad in The Jungle Book and Roger Radcliff in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
- Jodi Benson reportedly recorded her songs in the dark as she wanted to simulate the feeling of being underwater.
- The Little Mermaid made it to Broadway in 2008 with new songs. It didn’t do so well, and was scrapped by 2009.
- The film made $84m at the box office, a great result… but Katzenberg had predicted it would be the first animation to make $100m.
- Disney got in a bit of bother for an X-rated moment in the film. If you’re struggling to remember it, that’s because it’s not really there. During the wedding between Eric and Ursula the bishop seems to have a bulge between his legs. Disney animator Tom Sito, who drew him, later explained it was his knees, and not another part of the male anatomy. “The joke was he’s a little man standing on a box and his robes, his big bishop robes, are draped over everything so they’re covering his whole body. And people are just seeing what they want to see,” he said. In a later shot you can see two bulges, which backs this up. Later Disney airbrushed it out for Blu-Ray. Better safe than sorry we guess.
- The Little Mermaid was the first collaboration between Pixar and Disney. Using its computer programme, Pixar created the final shot. It was a start of a beautiful relationship.
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