Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Little Mermaid

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Little Mermaid

Year: 1989

Source materials: The fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson

Budget: $40 million

Box office: $211.3 million 1

Plot: Ariel, a sixteen-year-old mermaid princess, is unhappy with life in the kingdom of Atlantica, and is curious about the human world. With her friend Flounder, Ariel collects human artifacts in her grotto, and often goes to the surface of the ocean to visit Scuttle, a seagull who has avery inaccurate knowledge of human culture.


She ignores the warnings of her father King Triton and Sebastian, a crab who serves as Triton’s adviser and court composer, that contact between merpeople and humans is forbidden.


One night, Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian travel to the ocean surface to watch a celebration for the birthday of Prince Eric on a ship. Ariel instantly becomes enamored with Eric. A violent storm arrives, and a bolt of lightning strikes the ship, engulfing it in flames. Eric is tossed overboard. Ariel rescues Eric and brings him to shore.


Ariel sings to Eric, but immediately leaves just as he regains consciousness. Fascinated by the memory of her voice, Eric vows to find who saved him, and Ariel vows to find a way to join him and his world.


When Triton discovers Ariel’s love for Eric, Triton confronts her in the grotto and destroys most of the artifacts with his trident. After Triton leaves, two eels named Flotsam and Jetsam convince Ariel to visit Ursula, the sea witch. Ursula tricks Ariel into making a deal to transform her into a human for three days in exchange for Ariel’s voice, which Ursula puts in a nautilus shell. Within these three days, Ariel must receive the “kiss of true love” from Eric. If Ariel gets Eric to kiss her, she will remain a human permanently. Otherwise, she will transform back into a mermaid and be captured by Ursula. Ariel accepts, and is given human legs.


Eric finds Ariel on the beach and takes her to his castle, unaware that she is the one who had rescued him earlier. Ariel spends time with Eric, and at the end of the second day, they almost kiss, but are disrupted by Flotsam and Jetsam.


Furious at their narrow escape, Ursula sets a trap for Eric and Ariel. She disguises herself as a beautiful young woman named Vanessa and hypnotizes Eric with her singing voice.


Discovering that Vanessa is actually Ursula in disguise, Scuttle informs Ariel of Ursula’s plan to marry Eric while Sebastian informs Triton about Ursula’s actions. Assisted by her friends, Ariel stops Eric’s wedding to Ursula, destroying the nautilus shell around Ursula’s neck and restoring Ariel’s voice.

Realizing that Ariel is the girl who saved his life, Eric rushes to kiss her, but the sun sets, and Ariel transforms back into a mermaid before Ursula kidnaps her. Triton furiously confronts Ursula and demands Ariel’s release, but the deal can’t be broken. Ursula tricks Triton into taking Ariel’s place as Ursula’s prisoner.


Ursula steps forward as the new queen, but before she can use the trident, Eric intervenes with a harpoon. Ursula attempts to attack Eric, but inadvertently kills Flotsam and Jetsam in the process. Enraged, Ursula uses the trident to grow extremely large. Ariel and Eric reunite on the surface before Ursula gains full control of the entire ocean, creating a storm and bringing sunken ships to the surface. In her attempt to murder Ariel, Ursula herself is impaled on one of the wrecked ships piloted by Eric.


Triton and the other polyps are restored to their original forms. Realizing that Ariel truly loves Eric, Triton willingly changes her from a mermaid into a human and approves her marriage to Eric. Ariel and Eric marry on a ship and depart.

Background: The Little Mermaid  was originally planned as a proposed package film featuring vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen tales. Development started soon after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the late 1930s, but was delayed.


In 1985, Ron Clements became interested in a film adaptation of  The Little Mermaid  while he was serving as a director on  The Great Mouse Detective with John Musker. Clements wrote and presented a two-page treatment of Mermaid to Jeffrey Katzenberg who passed the project over, because at that time they were developing a sequel to Splash and felt The Little Mermaid would be too similar. The next day, however, Katzenberg approved of the idea along with Oliver & Company. Many of the changes made by the staff in the 1930s were the same as were made in the 1980s.


The film was momentarily shelved as Disney focused on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company. In 1987, songwriter Howard Ashman became involved, proposing changing the minor character Clarence, the English-butler crab, to a Jamaican crab and shifting the musical style throughout the film. Ashman and composer Alan Menken, known for the Off-Broadway musical  Little Shop of Horrors, composed the entire song score. In 1988, with Oliver in theaters, Mermaid was slated as the next release.

Changes from the Source Material:


In the original story, part of the curse is that she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. Instead of the Sea Witch impersonating the temple girl, an actual princess from a neighboring kingdom is the temple girl. The mermaid’s sisters bring her a knife that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid (who has no name) kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more. However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new bride, and she throws the knife and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam.


Aside from its main animation facility in Glendale, California, Disney opened a satellite feature animation facility during the production of Mermaid in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, within Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park2 at Walt Disney World.


They also filmed live actors for motion reference material for the animators, which we saw used years earlier for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Sherri Lynn Stoner, a former member of Los Angeles’ Groundlings improvisation comedy group, and Joshua Finkel, a Broadway actor, performed key scenes as Ariel and Eric respectively.


Originally, Glen Keane had been asked to work on Ursula, as he had established a reputation for drawing large, powerful figures, such as the bear in  The Fox and the Hound and Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective. Keane, however, was assigned as one of the two lead artists on the petite Ariel and oversaw the “Part of Your World” musical number. He jokingly stated that his wife looks exactly like Ariel “without the fins.”


The character’s body type and personality were based upon that of Alyssa Milano, and the effect of her hair underwater was based on both footage of Sally Ride when she was in space, and scenes of Stoner in a pool.


The design of the villainous Ursula was based upon drag performer Divine. Pat Carroll was not Clements and Musker’s first choice to voice Ursula; the original script had been written with Bea Arthurin mind. After Arthur turned the part down, actresses such as Nancy Marchand, Nancy Wilson, Roseanne, Charlotte Rae, and Elaine Stritch were considered for the part. Stritch was eventually cast as Ursula, but clashed with Howard Ashman and was replaced by Carroll.

Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film.  An attempt to use the multiplane camera for the first time in years failed because the machine was in bad condition. The multiplane shots were instead photographed at an outside animation camera facility.

The Little Mermaid 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 the CAPS ststem, so many of the traditional optical effects were used for the last time in Mermaid. A CAPS prototype was used on a few scenes in  Mermaid, and one shot produced using CAPS 3appears in the finished film.

Computer-generated imagery was used to create some of the wrecked ships in the final battle, a staircase behind a shot of Ariel in Eric’s castle, and the carriage Eric and Ariel are riding in when she bounces it over a ravine. These objects were animated using 3D wireframe models, which were plotted as line art to cels and painted traditionally much in the same way it was used in Great Mouse Detective.

Songs: The songs were written by the team of Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman.

  • “Fathoms Below”
  • “Daughters of Triton”
  • “Part of Your World”
  • “Under the Sea”
  • “Poor Unfortunate Souls”
  • “Les Poissons”
  • “Kiss the Girl”

Voice Cast:


Jodi Benson as Ariel. She debuted on Broadway in the 1983 Kenny Ortega-directed “Marilyn: An American Fable . Other Broadway credits include a starring role in the Broadway musical Smile, where she introduced a song called “Disneyland”. Howard Ashman was the lyricist of Smile, and was familiar with Benson’s voice. Benson also voiced the toy Barbie in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 . She also voiced characters in Flubber, Thumbelina, Tinkerbell: Secret of the Wings, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, Balto II: Wolf Quest, and Balto III: Wings of Change. She appeared as Patrick Dempsey’s assistant Sam, in Disney’s live-action feature film Enchanted. In 1992, Benson received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Polly Baker in Crazy For You. 4 Pat Carroll as Ursula. In 1956, she won an Emmy Award for her work on Caesar’s Hour and was a regular on the sitcom Make Room for Daddy from 1961 to 1964. In 1965, she co-starred as “Prunella”, one of the wicked stepsisters in the 1965 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical version of Cinderella. In the late 1970s Carroll’s successful one woman show on Gertrude Stein, won several major theater awards. In 1990, she starred in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in the role of Sir John Falstaff, a balding knight with whiskers.


Christopher Daniel Barnes is best known for his voice role as the title superhero of the 1994 animated television series Spider-Man, as well as his on-screen portrayal of Greg Brady in the films The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel. Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1984 for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance in The Tap Dance Kid and again in 1998 for Best Featured Actor in a Musical as the original lead actor for Mufasa in The Lion King, the Broadway version of Disney’s animated classic of the same name. Wright played Enos’ partner Turk in the TV series Enos and originated the part of “Sam” in Over Here! on Broadway.


Kenneth Mars, as Triton, is best known from his roles in two Mel Brooks films: as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in The Producers and Police Inspector Hans Wilhelm Friedrich Kemp in Young Frankenstein. Buddy Hackett as Scuttle. He appeared opposite Robert Preston in the film adaptation of The Music Man. He appeared in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and as lovable hippie auto mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz in The Love Bug. He was the voice of the groundhog “Pardon Me Pete”, and the narrator of the Rankin/Bass Christmas special Jack Frost.


Rene Auberjonois, Chef Louie, has portrayed Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, Clayton Endicott III on Benson, 5 Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Paul Lewiston on Boston Legal.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, was enthusiastic about the film and wrote that, “The Little Mermaid is a jolly and inventive animated fantasy—a movie that’s so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney work of the past.” Ebert also commented positively on the character of Ariel, stating, “… Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.”

The  staff of Variety praised the film for its cast of characters, Ursula in particular, as well as its animation, stating that the animation “proves lush and fluid, augmented by the use of shadow and light as elements like fire, sun and water illuminate the characters.” They also praised the musical collaboration between Howard Ashman and Alan Menken “whose songs frequently begin slowly but build in cleverness and intensity.”

The Little Mermaid  won two Academy Awards 6 for Best Original Score as well as Best Song for Menken and Ashman’s “Under the Sea.” 7 The film also won two Golden Globes for Best Original Score as well as Best Original Song for “Under the Sea”. 8 Menken and Ashman won a Grammy Award in 1991 for “Under the Sea.”

Legacy: An animated series premiered in late 1992 on the CBS television network, following Ariel’s adventures before the events of the film. The show ran for 31 episodes. A direct-to-video sequel titled  The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea was released on September 19, 2000. A direct-to-video prequel, titled  The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, was released on August 26, 2008. 9 The Little Mermaid  is featured as a playable world in the Kingdom Hearts Series known as Atlantica. The characters of Ariel and Ursula appeared on the show Once Upon a Time.


In May 2016, Deadline Hollywood reported that Disney is in early development for a live-action version of the film. Three months later, it was announced that Alan Menken would return as the film’s composer and write new songs alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will also co-produce the movie with Marc Platt. In December 2017, it was reported that Rob Marshall was Disney’s top choice to direct the film with Jane Goldman to write the screenplay for the film.


A stage adaptation of the film with a book by Doug Wright and additional songs by Alan Menken and new lyricist Glenn Slater opened in Denver in July 2007 and began performances onBroadway January 10, 2008.

Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is a ride found at both The Magic Kingdom in Orlando and The California Adventure Park in Anaheim. Riders board a clamshell car and are taken through the story. The Ursula animatronic is particularly impressive (when it doesn’t lose its head).


Ariel also has a dedicated area for meet and greet called Ariel’s Grotto. An entire section of the Art of Animation resort is themed with The Little Mermaid. Ariel and Eric appear in various parades as well.

My take: I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t been said before. The songs are catchy and fantastic. Having Broadway writers create a theatrical style soundtracks sung by Broadway actors is a stroke of genius and will be the template for Disney’s success for the next decade. “Under the Sea” is probably one of the best numbers in the Disney canon.

Ariel is a spitfire, unlike passive heroines of the past, and like a typical teenager, acts impulsively and makes mistakes. She even keeps our interest even when silent. Ursula is one of the best Disney villains ever.


Next Week: Bernard and Bianca return in The Rescuers Down Under