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‘The Little Mermaid’ Was a Big Splash, Saving Disney Animation From a Shipwreck

The Little Mermaid
Walt Disney Studios

It’s safe to say that The Little Mermaid is a monumental accomplishment for Disney and its animation studio. The film began a new collection of films in what is now known as the Disney Renaissance Era; featuring classics such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Tarzan. Impressive considering the studio almost went through a fallout.

There’s no doubt that Disney is the big dog in the park. It all started with a mouse in a steamboat, and they took off from there. Now they are the parents to a handful of studios: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and newly acquired 21st Century Fox. The company recently launched the biggest streaming service ever in Disney+ to accompany their already stacked list of television channels. Oh, and let’s not leave out those grand theme parks.

It seems Disney has it all going for them. Their money vault might surpass Scrooge McDuck’s. But it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows for the company. There was a dark time for the animation studio. A time where Disney was not Disney at all.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ films sort by eras. There’s the Golden Age, the Wartime Era, the Silver Age, and the infamous Bronze Age, or, as it’s commonly known as, THE DARK AGE! [*Lightning strikes and thunderclaps!*] Disney is currently shivering by the mention of their dark past.

With a long list of titles such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Fox and the Hound, you would think Disney would not have any trouble, but it was tough for the studio. Walt Disney’s last animated film he worked on was The Jungle Book, released a year after his passing. The studio had trouble starting over and looking for a new identity. They took a lot of punches, critically and financially. They didn’t have their groove.

As the studio struggled, things took a turn for the worse with the release of The Black Cauldron in 1985. Some keynotes:

  • It was Disney’s first PG-rated animated film.
  • The first Disney animated film to feature computer-generated imagery.
  • The most expensive animated film at the time, with a budget of $44 million.

With mixed reviews, the film bombed at the box office, earning $21.3 million domestically. The film put the studio in danger — like almost going bankrupt kind of danger!

Unbelievable. Disney at a low point? They would have a small comeback afterward, releasing The Great Mouse Detective, and getting a good amount of money back, helping the studio stay afloat. Yet they were still suffering from the huge setback.

What the animation studio needed was a redo. A rebirth. A renaissance, if you will. They needed to get back to their roots after a wild identity crisis. Why not go back to old roots with fairytales?

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After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney looked into having a feature film around the story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. The film had no luck moving out of its development stage. The Great Mouse Detective’s director, Ron Clements, became interested in making the fairytale a feature film in 1985.

A pitch would be made to Walt Disney Studio’s chairman, Jeffery Katzenberg. Clements’ ideas would be turned down after it was noted that they were too similar to a live-action film involving a mermaid, Splash. It didn’t take long for Katzenberg to change his mind, as he put the film in development the day after it was pitched to him. The story would receive some touches and aimed to feel like a Broadway musical.

The animation would be like no other, a lot of money and research went into it. Animators went back to using live actors and actresses for motion reference materials; it required the most special effects. (The film used traditional hand-painted cel method of animation; computer-generated imagery was used as well.)

And you simply can’t talk about The Little Mermaid without talking about the music. Alan Menken wrote the score and teamed up with Howard Ashman for the songs. With such memorable songs as “Part of Your World”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, “Kiss the Girl”, and “Under the Sea”, there’s no question the two made a pretty good team. The two would team up for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin later on as well.

“Part of Your World” nearly didn’t make the cut. Receiving poor reactions from test audiences, Katzenberg wanted to pull the song from the film. The filmmakers gave it their all to keep the song in. After some polishing to the animation, test audiences loved it.

Not only was the animation stunning and the music memorable, one aspect shinned the most: the characters. Let’s dive in with Ariel. There wasn’t a lot with past princesses. Cinderella loved cleaning, Snow White was gullible, and Aurora loved sleeping. Clearly, Ariel is much more. She has depth, personalities, and doesn’t sit and wait for anyone to rescue her. She’s curious, naive, and outgoing. She paved the way for future Disney Princesses as they became powerful and prominent.

But a hero is only as good as his or her villain. Here, we have the wicked sea witch, Ursula. Much like Ariel, she has some depth herself. She has her tragic backstory, her motives, and her ways of getting what she wants. She paved the way for villains after her. Undoubtedly,  Maleficent, Evil Queen, and Cruella de Vil made bad look good before Ursula. But Ursula added her spin on the villain take and ended with being one of the best. Who could forget her captivating song? (If you actually can, I’m sorry you poor, unfortunate soul.)

It’s also worth noting that the film has a very good dynamic between father and daughter. This was something big for a Disney Princess. As we know, King Triton wasn’t very fond of Ariel wanting to be up in the human world. There are great tension and emotions between the two. You get to see that they care for each other. This made for Ariel and Triton to be more ”human”.

With its beautiful animation, vibrant colors, and its famous soundtrack, The Little Mermaid turned into a huge success! The film gained critical acclaim and $84 million domestically in its initial release of November 17, 1989. The animation studio was also saved from doom, later expanding its legacy with live performance musicals, re-releases, and so much more. And after 30 years, there’s no stopping the legacy just yet with the live-action remake now in the works.


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3 Responses

  1. Kali Tuttle says:

    Not my favorite Disney princess film but I loved learning all that history behind it! Great article!

    • Thanks! I actually gained interest in the history of Disney Animation this past summer. While learning a lot, I was intrigued by the downfall and comeback the animation studio went through. I wanted to share the history as it celebrated its 30th year anniversary.

  2. Nick Kush says:

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