How The Little Mermaid Saved Disney

Ben Falk
·Contributor

It’s been 25 years since ‘The Little Mermaid’ was originally released in cinemas, but you might not know how important it was to a then-ailing Disney. 

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[Watch The Little Mermaid On Sky Movies]

After a series of sub-par performances at the box office, Disney cartoons were losing their lustre. Their back catalogue were still considered classics, but an unnerving thought was starting to whisper its way around Hollywood – was Disney running out of steam?

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1985 marked a low point in particular after the huge failure of ‘The Black Cauldron’. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made, but only made back half its budget and also confused audiences with it’s dark, fantastical setting. 

‘Basil The Great Mouse Detective’ and ‘Oliver & Company’ arrived in the next three years, but these hardly measured up to the classics of yesterday (they are almost forgotten today). In short, the 80s was a dark decade for Disney. 

That’s when ‘The Little Mermaid’ came along.

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“At the time there’d been a lot of upheaval in the company as a whole,” remembers Maureen Donley (pictured below), who came to work at Disney and was put on ‘Mermaid’ as production manager and associate producer.

“Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came in and at that point there was definitely a question about the viability of the whole feature animation division. Their recent track record had not been very good.”

Walt himself had died in 1966, but his nephew Roy was still heavily involved in the company.

“We always thought of him as our godfather,” says Donley. “He made the argument that feature animation was the soul of the company and it had to stay.”

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Nevertheless, the division was moved off the Disney lot to an industrial park in Glendale.

“My office was in a trailer in a parking lot,” says Donley. “We were definitely the step-children and everybody in the division knew it. There was absolutely a sense that we needed to prove something and the viability of the division was on the line.”

‘The Little Mermaid’, an adaptation of Han Christian Andersen’s fairytale about a mermaid who falls in love with a human prince and dreams of becoming human herself, had almost been one of Disney’s earliest movies and was being developed as far back as the 1930s.

It fell by the wayside then, but 50 years later ‘Great Mouse Detective’ director Ron Clements read the story in a bookshop and recognised its potential. He was given the go-ahead with partner John Musker to start developing it again.

“It was my first Disney movie and my first film score,” says composer Alan Menken of ‘Mermaid’, who along with lyricist and writer Howard Ashman had burst onto the scene with off-Broadway hit ‘Little Shop of Horrors’.

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After the success of their musical about a man-eating plant and the subsequent 1986 movie, the pair were hot property. A call came from Disney and Ashman headed west  to talk about various projects.

“I think much to their surprise, he said he really wanted to do ‘Little Mermaid’, which I’m sure seemed a great stretch from ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’,” says Menken. “But we didn’t write ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ to try to be outrageous, it just was a great story and had great stylistic underpinnings to work with – same thing with ‘Little Mermaid’.”

Their brief – create an animated musical that could sit on the shelf alongside the classics.

“They really wanted a return to the golden era of animated musicals,” says the musician. “Our job was to give a more contemporary musical theatre spin and yet still keep that same sense of timelessness and innocence.”

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One of the best decisions was made early on by Ashman. Sebastian the crab, the king’s major domo who helps Ariel - and who ended up singing the film’s two tentpole tunes ‘Under The Sea’ and ‘Kiss The Girl’ – was originally conceived as a stuffy Englishman. Ashman suggested he become Caribbean.

“That opened up a lot of possibilities for us,” says Menken, about the character who was ultimately voiced by Samuel E. Wright.

Meanwhile, in the production office, things were also going well.

“There was a great energy,” recalls Donley. “We were trying a lot of new things, in terms of changing the way movies had been made in that division. We were introducing some practices from the way live-action movies were made. We were bringing in more outside collaborators.”

Menken agrees the project felt unique. “Yeah, it kinda did,” he admits. “There was a confluence of a lot of talent on a management level, on an artistic level and it all came together. It did feel like something very special was happening.”

The ending of the original tale was changed to be less dark and voice talent were brought on board, including Jodi Benson as Ariel, Christopher Daniel Barnes as Prince Eric and Pat Carroll as baddie Ursula.

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The filmmakers started showing material to preview audiences, often sketches of unfinished scenes or black-and-white footage. It was then that people believe they might have a hit on their hands.

Donley remembers an early screening where they showed a rough assembly of ‘Kiss The Girl’ in which Sebastian tries to convince Eric to kiss a mute Ariel. Every time the prince’s oar rose from the water with a collection of chorus-singing frogs perched on it, a collective coo went up from the crowd.

“At that moment I thought, ‘oh, there’s something cool here,’” she says.

Internally, Disney also liked what they were seeing, but were convinced it was a girl’s movie that would appeal to a comparatively narrow demographic. Katzenberg and his fellow executives constantly appealed to the crew not to be disappointed if it wasn’t a smash hit.

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‘The Little Mermaid’ was released on 17 November, 1989 – 25 years ago – and became an immediate sensation.

“Nobody ever predicted it would become a date movie,” says Donley. “Animated features play during the day, not evening screenings.”

“It felt great – and also kind of mind-blowing,” adds Menken, who went on to win the Oscars for Best Score and Best Song. “It was clearly welcomed by everybody. It was an amazing ride.”

The last film to use traditional hand-painted cel animation (and you can tell by the glorious depth in every frame), the movie started the company on an incredible 10-year run that became known as the Disney Renaissance.

“After ‘Little Mermaid’, there was a sense of was this a one-shot deal or can they do this repeatedly?” says Menken. “‘Beauty & The Beast’ helped immensely.”

1991’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was followed by ‘Aladdin’ in 1992, ‘The Lion King’ in 1994 and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ in 1996.

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“It was an incredible period,” says Menken, who has now won eight Oscars and is synonymous with great Disney tunes including ‘Be Our Guest’ and the songs in ‘Aladdin’. He also wrote the music for ‘Enchanted’.

Amazingly, despite the success of ‘Mermaid’, he still had to fight to compose ‘Beauty & The Beast’.

“One of the executives really wanted another film composer to come in and do the score and go write the songs,” he says. “I fought hard against that.”

For Donley, the legacy of ‘The Little Mermaid’ is huge: for the first time, film execs saw how “cartoons” could penetrate mass culture and not just children.

“Animation had the potential to reach way beyond some “kiddie” demographic,” she says. “For an animated movie to make that huge of a cultural impact and resonate for so many people on so many different levels, it moves it way out of it being just a cartoon.”

It also made the company think about innovating across their entire entertainment portfolio.

“We had beg and plead to get a little, tiny window themed to the movie on Main Street in Disneyland,” says Donley. “They didn’t want to do anything. And now these movies are the centrepiece of the park – it’s the fresh blood that keeps it all going.

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“Look at ‘Frozen’ – you can draw a line from ‘Mermaid’ to ‘Frozen’. ‘Mermaid’ was the beginning of that arc. There were certainly hiccups in that road – it’s a complex, complicated story – but certainly ‘Mermaid’ was the modern beginning.”

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Photos: PA/Maureen Donley/Snap/Rex/Moviestore