How The Little Mermaid Saved Disney Animation

Thirty years later, The Little Mermaid remains one of the most important Disney movies, changing the studio’s entire trajectory.

She sits atop a rock, wind blowing through her red hair. In the distance the object of her desire recedes from the surf, and something suddenly shifts. It is the moment of epiphany for Ariel, and the one on which The Little Mermaid turns. Yet it’s also the moment of transformation for the studio that gave her life. She would change her world, all right, and ours with it.

Originally a creature of tragedy in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the once nameless heroine was reshaped by Disney, and more precisely Walt Disney Animation Studios during a moment of crisis, into an animated life so vibrant it is recognized as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance: the era in which Disney Animation reclaimed its legacy by influencing millions of children to embrace newly revitalized fantasies of princesses and castles, musicals and magic.

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But what’s often overlooked is that in the process of doing so, The Little Mermaid more than resurrected an animation house on the brink; it redirected the interests of the Disney movie studio at large. Ariel and her wish made Disney the studio it is today, and 30 years later we still haven’t emerged from under its sea. This is how it happened.

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As impossible as it is to believe in the 21st century, once upon a time Disney was at the edge of the abyss. It had been less than two decades since Walt Disney’s death, and the movie studio upon which all the popular merchandise and theme park rides were predicated was in steady decline. Roy Edward Disney, nephew of Walt, felt so agitated by the direction of his family’s legacy that he resigned first as a Disney executive in 1977 and then from the Board of Directors itself in 1984 as the studio struggled fighting off an offer from corporate raider Saul Steinberg, a shareholder who offered to buy Disney outright and sell its various verticals for profit.

“I somewhere along the line began hearing things like, ‘Well, I don’t really want to stay in the movie business because it’s not doing very well and we don’t need it anyway,’” Roy Disney later said in Don Hahn’s terrific Waking Sleeping Beauty documentary. “That gave me all sorts of problems, because I remember saying at one point, ‘Well, if you really feel that way then what you’re doing is running a museum.’”

Situating himself outside boardroom politics during the takeover battle, Roy reached out to Warner Bros. executive Frank Wells to come in and force Disney’s current chairman out. Wells, in turn, suggested himself for the role of COO, allowing him to run The Walt Disney Company’s overall business operations, while the creative side would be headed by a new CEO and chairman: Paramount Pictures’ then-CEO Michael Eisner. It paid off almost immediately.

Eisner and Wells brought modern corporate logic to Disney that revitalized much of its business operations overnight. By the end of that decade, the studio was thriving with theme parks that were partnering with George Lucas and Michael Jackson at the height of their popularity, and as a movie studio that had opened a Touchstone Pictures banner to produce more adult-oriented fare like Oscar contender Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, and a live-action comedy about a mermaid: Splash.

These movie star led projects were in part the brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former New York City political mover and shaker and Paramount wunderkind who Eisner brought over to be chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures. Katzenberg ran the movie production pipeline, which by the end of the ‘80s was mostly firing on all cylinders… all except for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

When Katzenberg came to Disney, he was shocked at the state of Disney Animation, which was mostly still being run like the “good old days” by animators in their 60s looking wistfully up at a picture of Walt on the wall. The young guard fresh out of Cal Arts was frustrated, and the disconnect showed in the first movie released under new leadership: The Black Cauldron (1985), a tonal disaster that Katzenberg had cantankerously reedited after animation was complete (a studio first). The new executive famously said “we have to wake Sleeping Beauty.”

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He was right, even as he was being too conservative with the smelling salts. Katzenberg had Walt Disney Animation banished from the building Walt had built for them on the lot—he needed room for staff offices for the stars of Touchstone movies—and found the animators a home in a decrepit space on the fringes of Burbank.

“When we moved to the Flower Street building, it was like everything was turned up,” animator Glen Keane later said. “It felt like the writing was on the wall.”

read more: The 25 Best Disney Renaissance Songs

Disney was still producing animated movies, including the John Musker and Ron Clements directed The Great Mouse Detective, but the future seemed bleak. Consider Eisner’s tepid endorsement of animation in 1988. While on 60 Minutes, he was asked if he can afford to do what he wants in the medium:

“The answer is no but we’re doing it anyway. We have to in this company. That is our legacy.” Another word he could’ve used is obligation.

It would take a miracle, or a handful of game-changing movies, for that to change. The first of them turned out to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That 1988 picture came about in large part because of the clout of Steven Spielberg. Always an admirer of animation, he’d tried his hand at playing the Disney role by producing ex-Disney animator Don Bluth’s early films, An American Tail and The Land Before Time. So his interest in making something with Disney was a company boon… but not one the studio fully believed in given the raunchy nature of Jessica Rabbit.

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Released by Touchstone and farmed out to an international assortment of animation talent gathered in London—Roger Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis was unimpressed with the current state of a debilitated WDAS—the crossover between Warner Bros. and Disney characters was initially seen as a wild card risk by Disney brass. It then became a golden goose after rave reviews, eventually becoming the second highest grossing movie of 1988. By that time though, Disney had quietly poached the best talent from Roger Rabbit and brought them to WDAS—a move which brought them to The Little Mermaid.

Originally pitched as one of a handful of ideas by Ron Clements, The Little Mermaid had much riding on it in 1989. It was the first animated fairy tale Disney had produced since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, and the first animated musical begun, period, since Walt’s death.

“The division was more or less riding on it,” recalled associate producer Maureen Donley.

If it was a gamble, it turned out to be a smart one. Clements initially caught the germ of an idea for it when he was perusing a bookstore for ideas to pitch Disney executives (who themselves had initially balked at the idea because Splash II was in development). Clements understood their trepidation when he reached the ending of Andersen’s children’s story, where the little mermaid commits suicide rather than murder the man she loves. He came up with a Disneyfied version of the tale with a happily ever after, and he and frequent collaborator John Musker rewrote it from the ground up. But what really changed the project besides more money and talent was one specific addition: a musical lyricist named Howard Ashman.

One-half of a creative team with composer Alan Menken, Ashman was best known in the 1980s for writing the lyrics and book for Little Shop of Horrors. He was also a creative genius who’d been thwarted when his first attempt at an on-Broadway show, Smile, ended in a flop. He came to Hollywood looking for a fresh start… and with an eye on animation even before The Little Mermaid was suggested to him.

“When I was approached with an opportunity to work with Disney, period, I leapt at it,” Ashman said. Disney executives were pitching him multiple projects, including a Tina Turner biopic and a live-action musical version of The Thief of Baghdad (Ashman would later reconfigure that into a pet project named Aladdin), but Ashman already knew what he wanted to do. “I said. ‘What about animation?’ That was what I really wanted to do. Much more than anything with live-action, because I’m really more of a musical theater person, and I see a very, very strong connection between these two mediums.”

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Indeed, Ashman would lecture animators about the parallel rise of success in American musical theater between the 1930s and ‘50s with the rise of Disney animation. While Walt was betting the farm on Snow White, Rodgers and Hart were redefining what Broadway entertainment could be, and as Disney was making his Cinderella, so were Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“There’s a big, big problem with music and live-action film,” Ashman also told The Little Mermaid animators. “The only truth I know about is usually it doesn’t work. Music may have more license in the animated film in the same way it does in the theater, simply because the level of reality is different.” He and Menken saw animation as a way to continue the Broadway tradition and even enliven it for a generation of children who’d never seen a musical. More so than even in the Walt produced films of an earlier era, The Little Mermaid would be a Great White Way styled musical with a compelling protagonist, and narrative or character based songs.

While that choice is taken for granted today since every animated musical after The Little Mermaid followed that tradition, and audiences would go on to embrace a resurgence of live-action Broadway-based musicals (which we explore further here), at the time it was a creative shot in the dark for Disney Animation. Not only did Ashman and Menken provide the songs, they reconfigured the entire film. The character of Sebastian went from being a crusty English butler to a Rastafarian crab so Ashman could slip some more pop friendly reggae and calypso music into the film (thus enters “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”), and entire sequences were rewritten by Ashman himself, including most of Ariel and Sebastian’s interactions.

It is easy to find The Little Mermaid wanting by modern political norms. It is about a young woman giving up her voice to win the affections of a man she has only seen from afar or unconscious. While at the end of the movie she learns he liked her for her voice, she still leaves her family behind to be with him. Yet compared to every earlier Disney princess, or even the mermaid in Splash, Ariel was a leap light years into the future. She had a fully formed personality and aspirations, even before a love interest.

It’s quickly forgotten that Ariel, ever something of a hoarder, covets being part of “that world” before she calls it “your [his] world.” Her dream existed prior to Prince Eric, and unlike the complacent Snow White or Cinderella, she fights with her elders and proactively pursues her desires, even if she makes clearly visible mistakes along the way. She also saves the prince’s life twice. Ariel is not a perfect fit for modern values, but she is an honest depiction of youthful impetuousness. Further still, she personifies the eternal outsider looking in, which might be something Ashman related to in multiple ways.

“Probably my fondest memory of The Little Mermaid was having Howard right next to me,” Jodi Benson said 24 years later on the movie’s Blu-ray Diamond Edition. A Broadway soprano who worked with Ashman on the ill-fated Smile production, she was brought in by the songwriter to play a leading lady with pristine vocalizations that sound like a morning bell at dawn. Some might also say he directed her to play Ariel exactly as he imagined himself.

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Said Benson, “He would literally just play all the characters. The homework was already done. I just took it and I just stole everything he did.” That includes his anxious and breathy inflections for “Part of Your World,” which Benson’s interpretation of would, in turn, influence the very way Ariel was drawn.

“I heard ‘Part of Your World,’ Jodie Benson singing that, and it just captivated me,” animator Glen Keane said. Prior to hearing Benson’s voice embodying Ashman’s longing, Keane was a young animator who’d mostly worked on villains. Afterward he demanded the chance to design and supervise all animation on Ariel. “I thought I had to do that, and I went and told those guys I really want to do Ariel, and they said, ‘I don’t know… This is supposed to be a pretty girl. Can you do that?’ And I said, ‘Look, I have to do Ariel. I can feel it in my heart.’”

The result was the most ambitious animation process Disney had attempted in decades. Keane famously modeled Ariel’s face on young actor Alyssa Milano, however her physical movements and personality came from dropping young Groundlings comedienne Sherri Stoner into swimming pools to watch how her hair moved, how she moved, or by watching her improvise physical comedy (blowing bangs out of her eyes was Stoner’s own genuine tic that carried over into Disney iconography). This technique of using real actors as physical inspiration had not been done since Walt’s most extravagant 1950s productions, including Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty, but it was now being executed with greater sophistication. Animators mimicked actual camera movements around Stoner to infuse a cinematic sweep in major set pieces, including “Part of Your World.” For the talent behind the movie, it was the centerpiece of the film.

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That emphasis likely made it doubly shocking when Katzenberg asked the filmmakers to cut “Part of Your World” out of the movie. Already having had a few issues with the project, including insisting that everyone knew mermaids needed to be blonde, Katzenberg was deeply troubled after a test screening of storyboards and rough animation was played for a theater of school children, and one sitting in front of Katzenberg restlessly threw his popcorn on the floor during the song.

When Katzenberg said he’d delete the scene, Musker recalls Ashman said, “I’ll strangle you.” Who actually changed his mind, however, was Keane. Katzenberg admits his folly today, laughing that he called the scene boring in 1988, but not only would it have robbed The Little Mermaid of its heart, it would’ve robbed Disney of the Broadway formula that powered the renaissance and that lives on in Frozen and Moana.

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“In almost every musical ever written there’s a place, it’s usually the third song of the evening,” Ashman once said. “Sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of Covent Garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”

Obviously 1989 audiences fell for Ariel, but not just her—it was the entire cast of characters in the film. They fell for Ursula, the Sea Witch (who was modeled after drag queen Divine) and her unabashed Broadway styled “Plot Number” about stealing souls; they fell for Sebastian the Crab and all the pop melodies; and they fell for the intricately designed, colorful orchestra he led in “Under the Sea” with a dizzying vocabulary and word play, gaining that tune the Best Original Song Oscar, as well as another statue for Menken’s score. It was a triumph critics raved about, and adults and teenagers were seeing even without children. Yet not until Disney was in the eye of the storm did its pop culture ascendance become self-evident.

Said Clements, “I remember talking with a story guy [who wondered] if a Disney animated movie could do a hundred million dollars?” The Little Mermaid did $111 million. Just in the United States. Grossing over $270 million worldwide, it was the game-changer Walt Disney Animation Studios was looking for. While Beauty and the Beast was already in development in 1989, on the precipice of Mermaid’s release, the movie was reimagined from the ground up, beginning by making it a musical after Katzenberg pushed Ashman and Menken to come aboard.

And while it is now clear how that success affected all the Disney musicals that came afterward, it shouldn’t be overlooked how impressed the studio was by the merchandising of it then. For the first time in many years, Disney had a new movie and new characters to market to all ages. Yes, toys for children, but also miscellaneous swag for adults. To this day, Katzenberg gives much credit to Disney executive Dick Cook for seeing the “synergetic value” of The Little Mermaid after it tested through the roof with adults.

The Disney Renaissance it helped usher in lasted only 10 years. The idea of finding “synergetic value” in an all-ages property in order to sell product has lasted 30 years onward. It’s why Cook rose as high as Disney chairman in the 2000s before jumping ship to Legendary Pictures, and it’s why the Disney Board of Directors became so desperate to keep Pixar Animation in that decade after WDAS hit another dry spell. The wooing and purchase of Pixar was Bob Iger’s mission statement when he became Disney CEO in 2005, and as Pixar flourished and WDAS rebounded in the 2010s, it’s also what drove Iger to purchase first Marvel and then Lucasfilm.

Prior to The Little Mermaid, Disney’s movie division was drifting away from animation as well as creating intellectual property for children (who then grew into adults still loving the product). After Mermaid, Disney’s goal has been to continue creating, or if need be acquiring, characters with similar synergetic value.

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read more: Classic Animated Films on Disney+ Streaming Guide

But beyond the numbers and dollars, the film remains a magnificent artistic achievement for all involved. “Part of Your World” is all but the theme song for the Renaissance era with its endearing hopefulness and floating, flaming hair. And the sheer kinetic energy and color of “Under the Sea” is infectious to the point of many a parent’s exhaustion. The inspiration for both should’ve meant a long and fruitful career for the songwriting team of Ashman and Menken.

… It did for Menken. The composer has won four Oscars and been nominated for a total of eight, many of them for animated Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Sadly, those two were the only ones he’d collaborate again on with Ashman. That lyricist, a man whom Roy Disney described as being just as much an influential genius at Disney as Walt, died from AIDS complications in 1991. He didn’t live to see Beauty and the Beast’s completion or finish half the songs on Aladdin.

Prior to his death though, he was there the night The Little Mermaid won its little gold men. It was only after collecting them he told Menken he was HIV-positive. In retrospect, Menken thinks he can see Ashman’s pain in a lot of the music they wrote together in these later years.

“There’s a lot of songs from that time where I could interpret them to have resonance of what’s going on beneath the surface,” Menken said in a recent interview. “He had all these neuropathies, one at a time, that robbed him of his strength and his abilities and his senses.”

While it is impossible to more than speculate on which songs had the greatest personal meaning for Ashman, I’ve wondered more than once if the agony of longing to be part of another world was informed by a man who knew he was in bad health looking at those free and not vilified in 1980s America. Ariel’s impassioned longing, her “I Want” song that reconfigured Disney Animation, is certainly open to an LGBTQ reading of wanting to not be on the outskirts of society. To not be closeted or quarantined to a cave, the outsider forever looking in.

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Whatever the inspiration, its legacy fulfilled Ashman’s earliest wish when he pursued working with Disney.

“I grew up on Pinocchio and Peter Pan,” Ashman once said. “The idea that there’s these library books on a shelf: there’s Snow White, there’s Cinderella, there’s Peter Pan, there’s Pinocchio, and you’re trying to make something that fits comfortably on the shelf with those? It’s like what a difficult thing but what a great thing to try to do.”

The Little Mermaid more than found space beside those classics; it opened up its own shelf that is still being filled today.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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