On November 14th, 1989, Disney’s The Little Mermaid premiered and it was the hit that the Walt Disney Studio’s desperately needed.
In the 1980’s the Walt Disney Studios wasn’t what it was today. It was a sinking ship, on the verge of bankruptcy with tanked films such as The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver and Company (1988).
So, the Walt Disney Studio’s brought in the creative forces of Michael Eisner as the new CEO and Jeffrey Katzenburg in charge of the Animation Division. Their mission was to bring the Walt Disney Studio’s back to life!
The idea to make an animated film of The Little Mermaid was from Ron Clements, who went to a bookstore and read the classic fairy of the same name, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. He pitched the idea at Jeffrey Katazeberg’s ‘gong show’ for the screenwriters to share their idea. Initially, The Little Mermaid was rejected for being too similar to Touchstone’s Splash. But that all changed, when Jeffrey read the two page treatment (synopsis) and wanted to expand on the story.
Ron Clements teamed with John Musker to write the script, but they knew they were missing an essential element to any Disney film: Music!
So, Disney recruited Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to write the music for The Little Mermaid. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, both had a musical theatre background. They had written Little Shop of Horrors in 1982, which was a smash success!
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken started writing the music for The Little Mermaid in 1988. They wrote all the iconic music in the soundtrack and gave Disney a revitalized broadway-treatment to it’s music. Howard Ashman incorporated the “want song” for the Disney heroine, that is now a key-part of the Disney musical storytelling, conveying what the female lead wanted most in life and how the audience roots for her to get to happy ending!
The music, wasn’t Howard’s only forte when it came to storytelling. Upon Howard’s arrival to the Walt Disney Studio’s, he had a meeting with the animators about how musical theatre and the Disney film were very much alike. The animators were so energized and revitalized by Howard’s speech that they were ready to prove themselves.
It was Howard Ashman’s idea to change the Sebastian’s ethnicity from British to Pacific Islander. He collaborated with John Musker and Ron Clements on storytelling elements for The Little Mermaid, including the film’s ending.
Jodi Benson had worked with Howard on the Broadway musical, Smile in 1986. He thought that she would be perfect to voice The Little Mermaid‘s headstrong heroine, Ariel. She auditioned and got the iconic role of Ariel, a year later.
Shortly after hearing Jodi Benson sing Part of Your World, Glen Keane, went to the studio and demanded that he draw Ariel. At first, the studio was hesitant to give him the position, but after some pushing, the studio agreed.
During an early screening of The Little Mermaid, a child had spilled their popcorn during Part of Your World. Jeffrey wanted to pull the song, thinking it would be a flop, Howard famously told him, “Over my dead body!” Yet, when Glen spoke to Jeffrey about keeping the song in the film, Jeffrey listened to him and Part of Your World stayed in the film.
The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a adventurous, strong-headed, fiercely independent mermaid whose fascinated with the human world. Her father, King Triton is the ruler of Atlantica. He has a deep hatred for the human world and is overly protective of his daughter, Ariel.
When Ariel goes to the surface and rescues the handsome Prince Eric from a terrible storm out at sea, she is more determined then ever before to be human, so she could be with him. She visits the conniving and sassy sea-witch Ursula, who makes a lofty deal with her, so she could be human. Ariel has three days on land to be with Prince Eric, but she must give Ursula her voice. The only way for Ariel to remain human and stay on land with Prince Eric is through the “kiss of true love”. Ariel agrees to the deal and becomes human.
Meanwhile, on land, Eric is searching for the girl who rescued him and is disappointed that he hasn’t found her yet. Thankfully, his trusty dog, Max sniffs out Ariel in her human form and leads Eric to her.
Upon meeting Ariel, Eric is certain that’s met her before, but he can’t remember where. So, he invites her to his palace to stay. They have an instant connection and Eric is smitten with Ariel, despite the fact that she can’t speak.
Three days pass, and Ursula comes to land, disguised as Vanessa to collect Ariel and to steal her ever after. Eric is elated to discover that Ariel had rescued him and risks his life to save her. Ariel’s father, King Triton is alerted by Sebastian and Flounder of Ursula’s plan and he confronts her, demanding his daughter back. To save Ariel, King Triton trades his power to rescue his daughter. Ariel, Eric, Sebastian, and Flounder work together to try and defeat Ursula. With Eric’s quick-thinking, he impales Ursula.
Shortly after the battle, King Triton is once again the ruler of the sea and he sees just how much Ariel and Eric love each other. So, he transforms Ariel into a human. Eric is elated that she’s returned him. They happy couple gets married and they lived happily ever after.
The Little Mermaid premiered in 1989 and was an instant success. It grossed $84 million dollars at the box office.The film went on to win two Academy Awards for Original Score and Original Song (Under the Sea) in 1990.
The Little Mermaid revitalized the Walt Disney Studio’s, bringing it back to life, and launching the Disney Renaissance! It’s astonishing to think, that if it wasn’t for The Little Mermaid, we wouldn’t be streaming Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian on Disney+ today!