#28: The Little Mermaid

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Dis­ney Renaissance

# 28: BCDB List of Disney Animated Films

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.

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