And then the Disney Renaissance hit…
November 14, 1989, The Little Mermaid– Disney Animated Classic # 28- hit theaters. Initial anticipation was that the film would not even do as well as the previous Oliver & Company, mainly because Mermaid was a “girls film”- Jeffrey Katzenberg’s words, not ours. But as the release date neared, all involved knew they had lightning in a bottle, and it would be a big hit. Katzenberg even went back on his initial assessment and proclaimed that The Little Mermaid would be a blockbuster, and be the first animated film to top 100 million in box office. It only reached 85 million.
The idea of doing Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid had been around the studio for a long time. In the late 1930’s, Walt Disney toyed with several Hans Christian Andersen stories as the subject for feature films, as well as a large-scale film biography of the storyteller, to be made in live-action, with the stories as animated segments. This ambitious project was developed at length as a collaboration with producer Samuel Goldwyn (who had registered the tide Hans Christian Andersen and commissioned several screenplays). Illustrator Kay Neilsen, who had been influential in the design of the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia (1940), prepared a number of striking story sketches in pastels and watercolor, both for the live-action and story sequences, including The Little Mermaid.
Although the Disney/Goldwyn project was never made (Goldwyn made a live-action musical of Hans Christian Andersen in 1952), artists researching for The Little Mermaid in 1986 discovered Neilsen’s art from the 1930’s, which held such inspiration for them that they gave Neilsen a screen credit for visual development nearly fifty years after Neilsen had completed the work!
Ron Clements proposed it as a full-length feature while still involved in directing The Great Mouse Detective. In 1985, with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah’s Splash still fresh in his mind, Katzenberg felt the project too similar and vetoed the idea. But even then there was something to the proposal, and he soon relented.
In 1987, off-Broadway songwriter Howard Ashman was brought in to start working on songs for the film. he was familiar to the Disney team having contributed a song to Oliver & Company. In an off-handed remark, Ashman mentioned an idea to update a minor character named Clarence to a Jamaican Rastafarian crab. This small change ended up snowballing through the whole production, changing the focus and energy of the whole film. Music suddenly became one of the main characters of the film, and the story was modified to become a Broadway-style story structure.
Hopes for the film rose ate the studio, and more money was allocated to the budget. The film ended up costing more than 40 million dollars, and amount almost unheard of for an animated film. To create the undersea world, and animate floating characters required a special animation effects tour de force, with almost eighty percent of the film required some kind of effects animation-billowing sails, schools of fish, shadows, fire, fog, explosions, surface reflections, underwater distortions, ripples, bubbles and two storms at sea.
Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film, in addition to the use of other special processes such as airbrushing, back lighting, superimposition, and limited computer animation added to the costs of the movie. There was even an attempt to bring Disney’s venerable multiplane camera into use for the first time in decades. But the machine was in such dilapidated condition there was no way they could use it and the multiplane shots ended up being photographed at an outside animation camera facility.
While they did not realize it during production, The Little Mermaid would be the last Disney feature to use the traditional hand-painted cel method of animation. Beginning with their next film, final color animation would be accomplished using a digital method of importing the animators drawings, then coloring and combining scanned drawings. This process was called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), and was developed for Disney by a northern California computer company called Pixar. The CAPS system would save substantial amounts of time and money by eliminating the whole step for inking and painting cels; in fact, cels became a relic of the past. By working in the digital realm, the multiplane camera and other optical effects used in The Little Mermaid could be previewed in real time rather than after days or weeks of work.
Originally released with the Wallace and Gromit short A Grand Day Out.
So what caused this resurgence in interest in Disney Animated Films? First, the studio was firing on all cylinders, with great animation (Glen Keane and Mark Henn sharing duties on Ariel, Andreas Deja supervising King Triton and Ruben Aquino positively owning Ursula), great music (Broadway-style songs from Alan Menken and incredible lyrics by Howard Ashman) and a great story written by directors Ron Clements and John Musker.
But most of all, it was a return to the Disney roots of animated film making. The Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale the studios had animated since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty (a thirty year lapse, for those who are counting). And like the other great Disney classic animated films, The Little Mermaid featured a strong, scarey villain, not the milquetoast or comic villains so common through the dark ages of Disney.
The critics saw something they liked, too… The Little Mermaid was nominated for three Oscars (the first Disney film to be so honored since 1977’s The Rescuers). It won two, for Best Song (“Under the Sea“) and Best Score. The Disney Studios had not been an Academy Award Winner for an animated feature film since 1941 for Dumbo… or 1947 for Song of the South if you want to count that film.