Ariel, that spunky teen mermaid princess, is back — under the sea, that is. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a prequel series spun off from Disney’s 1989 movie, she’s 14, not 16. But she looks the same and once again has the sweet soprano voice of Jodi Benson, backed by crabby guardian Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) and timid friend Flounder (Edan Gross).
Not that the Little waters haven’t been stirred up: Scuttle, the friendly sea gull voiced by Buddy Hackett, has flown the coop; in his place are new below-the-surface pals including Spot, a baby whale, and Urchin, an orphaned merboy whom Ariel befriends. Ursula the sea witch is also gone, replaced by a larger circle of villains like a giant manta ray (a delicious turn by Tim Curry) and an oceanic mafioso named Lobster Mobster. Most of the story lines transpose suburban-kid angst — arguments with Dad, sibling rivalry, athletic competitions — to cleverly analogous undersea settings.
Adapting Mermaid to TV’s tight production constraints hasn’t gone entirely swimmingly. ”The first two months, I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?”’ says Benson, sounding a bit huskier than the show’s heroine. Recording dialogue for the series in the morning and then rehearsing from noon to midnight for the Broadway show Crazy for You, she was soon battling laryngitis. True to her perky character, though, Benson insists her job was easy compared with the animation task handed to the show’s producer-director, Jamie Mitchell. A five-year veteran of Disney’s TV unit, Mitchell wearily notes that ”it took four years to make an 83-minute Mermaid feature, and we’re taking eight months to deliver 286 minutes (13 half-hour shows). We finish each episode about a week before airdate. It’s practically live TV.”
To handle the work load, Mitchell relies mainly on a crew of 38 artists and technical personnel at several Japanese studios. Explaining the Jamaican jokes of the reggae-singing crab Sebastian to the Japanese artists is sometimes difficult, but the main barrier is time, not language. ”We can’t get as elaborate with expressions or movement,” says Mitchell, ”so we try to give the backgrounds a detail and a character of their own.” Indeed, the show is replete with delicate pastel landscapes and cute scenic touches, like a bed for Ariel complete with a clamshell canopy, clamshell headboard, and coral pillows. Many episodes also sport original songs by veteran Disney-TV composers, though ditties like ”You Gotta Be You” seem like rather hollow clones of ”Under the Sea.” Still, it’s clear Disney is determined to stretch TV limits and craft a show that does more than just tread water.