by Chris Lucas
August 9, 2020
(Editor’s Note: No one is quite sure when Disney’s live-action (and computer-generated?) remake of The Little Mermaid will start filming or be released. Thankfully, though, Chris Lucas has served up a wealth of fun information about the original, beloved animated movie.)
Here are some things you might not know about 1989’s The Little Mermaid, Disney’s 28th animated classic.
• Walt Disney himself loved the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the Little Mermaid so much that he began developing a short, animated version in the 1930s. He’d hoped to make a feature film of it after Snow White, but World War II and financial issues put a stop to that and it never was produced.
• Walt’s gravesite in Glendale, California, where his ashes are interred, has a statue of the Little Mermaid in the garden. It’s a small replica of the famous one in Copenhagen, Denmark, that Walt so admired.
Courtesy of Top Disney
• In 1986, Disney animators revived the idea of a Little Mermaid feature. Like Walt, they chose to soften the original Andersen story, which is very grim.
• The Little Mermaid would be the very last Disney animated classic to use hand drawn ink and paint cells, Xerox duplication, and non-digital cameras and film to shoot.
• Millions of animated bubbles were needed for the underwater scenes, so Disney hired a Chinese animation firm to do the work to save time.
• Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken were brought on board the project to structure it more like a Broadway show, including a musical number early on where the protagonist clearly lays out for the audience what they most want. Almost every Disney animated musical feature has followed that pattern since.
• Actress Jodi Benson had worked with Howard Ashman on a 1986 Broadway show called Smile so he recommended her for the title role of Ariel. She’s played it ever since. In addition, Benson is the voice of Barbie in the Toy Story movies and Weebo the robot in 1997’s Flubber. She also appears in the 2007 live-action Disney film Enchanted.
• Ariel’s “want” song, “Part of Your World” was close to a reprise of the song “Somewhere That’s Green” sung by Audrey in Ashman/Menken’s 1986 Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors. Disney producer Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted it cut, but luckily it wasn’t and is still one of the most popular Disney Princess songs.
• Originally, there was a very British butler/Major Domo crab assistant for King Triton, called Clarence (think Zasu from The Lion King, or Cogsworth from Beauty & The Beast). Ashman suggested that they change him to a Caribbean crustacean, giving his songs a Calypso beat. Actor Samuel E. Wright was hired to play Sebastian the Crab, and he gave him a Trinidadian accent. Sebastian was a breakout star and got his own best-selling CD of Calypso songs in 1990.
• For the look of the villainous sea witch Ursula, Ashman approved an homage to performer Harris Milstead - better known by the stage name Divine - who’d recently passed away. The role was written for Bea Arthur, but she declined, so Pat Carroll was cast. Carroll used some vocal and character touches of Madame Medusa from 1977’s The Rescuers and Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmatians for Ursula, as well as a little from Hollywood legend Talulah Bankhead and Howard Ashman himself.
• Ursula was supposed to be revealed as King Triton’s sister - Ariel’s aunt - but that plot line was dropped from the finished film.
• Speaking of sisters, Ariel is one of seven daughters of Triton. They represent the seven seas. All of them have names that begin with the letter A, and each one has a tail that’s a different color of the rainbow.
• The role of Prince Eric was voiced by 16-year-old Christopher D. Barnes. His assistant, Grimsby, was played by 74-year-old Ben Wright, who’d voiced the role of Roger in 101 Dalmatians 28 years before. Wright died just before The Little Mermaid was released. The film was dedicated to him.
• The world premiere of The Little Mermaid was held at Walt Disney World (where some of the animation was done) in November 1989, at the AMC theater in Downtown Disney. It was shown on all ten screens.
• It cost $40 million to make The Little Mermaid. It took in more than that in under a month. In all, the film grossed over $200 million (which would be more than double that amount in 2020, adjusted for inflation) and was #9 at the box office in 1989, a very competitive year full of blockbuster films. The money it made helped to save Disney’s animation department from being shut for good.
• For the first time since 1977, a Disney animated classic was nominated for an Oscar. The Little Mermaid won two, both in the musical category. That started an amazing streak. From 1989 to 2001, Disney lost the Best Song category just four times. Twice it was because there were no nominations in that category for Disney, and once because they were up against "My Heart Will Go On" from the juggernaut that was 1997's Titanic.
• In 1990 The Little Mermaid was released on VHS. That marked the first time a Disney animated classic was ever made available on home video before at least one re-release to theaters. It sold 7 million copies in one month.
• The continued success of The Little Mermaid has led to two direct-to-video sequels, an animated TV series, video games, a 1997 theatrical re-release, a 2007 Broadway adaptation, a live TV singalong version, an upcoming live-action remake, and several theme park attractions.
Chris Lucas is the author of Top Disney: 100 Top Ten Lists of the Best of Disney, from the Man to the Mouse and Beyond.
On the PRESS CLUB C Podcast, enjoy Ray’s recent discussion with Chris Lucas about his career as an actor, author and Disney expert. Tune in right here!