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'The Little Mermaid' and the rebirth of animation

Disney’s 1990 classic won two Oscars, and helped relaunch the genre

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They called it the Gong Show. Starting in the mid-1980s, Disney’s creative staff was regularly summoned for a meeting with then CEO Michael Eisner to pitch their best ideas. A lot of questionable concepts sprang from those sessions — like ”Treasure Island in space” — but occasionally something magical would emerge. Say, an animated feature about a half-fish princess who pals around with a Caribbean crustacean.

The Little Mermaid turned out to be Disney’s biggest animated success in decades. Released in November 1989, the film eventually grossed $211.3 million worldwide, won two Oscars at the 1990 Academy Awards (for its score and for the song ”Under the Sea”), and launched what became known as the Disney Renaissance, an era of hits including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). But Disney’s mermaid love story did more than change one studio’s fortunes; it changed animation, making the medium something adults could relate to, and inspired other studios, too. Without Ariel, there might never have been Up or maybe even Avatar. ”I think what Mermaid said, which the world had forgotten, was that animation is not a kiddie business,” says Eisner, 67, who left Disney in 2005. ”And when other people see it makes economic and creative sense, they join in.”

Ironically, Mermaid got gonged when codirector Ron Clements first brought up the idea in 1985. Too similar to another, nonanimated project Disney had in the works: a sequel to Splash (which ended up as a TV movie). But Eisner had recently hired a new studio chief for Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and two days after Mermaid‘s initial gonging, Katzenberg told Clements that the film had a green light. ”Jeffrey was not that familiar with animation,” remembers Clements, ”but he definitely pushed everything to be as good as it could be, and people responded to that. Jeffrey was a pusher.”

At the time, Disney needed pushing. The once-great animation powerhouse had been struggling with an identity crisis for decades, churning out misfires like 1981’s The Fox and the Hound and 1985’s costly The Black Cauldron. ”The atmosphere was of a very well-maintained Rolls-Royce that people didn’t want you to drive,” says The Incredibles director Brad Bird, who worked at Disney in the early ’80s. ”They were on autopilot, and if a movie came out halfway decent and didn’t look incompetent, they’d go, ‘Whew, we survived another one!”’

Mermaid recharged the creative culture at Disney. Clements originally got the idea for the amphibious musical when he was browsing in a North Hollywood bookstore and discovered a copy of the old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. When he and codirector John Musker sat down to write the screenplay, though, they took some significant detours from the 1837 text. For instance, Andersen’s story concluded with the little mermaid dying. That wouldn’t do for a Disney flick. Clements and Musker — who went on to make The Princess and the Frog, which has been nominated for three Oscars this year — also seasoned the story with a chorus of aquatic sidekicks, including Ariel’s friend Flounder and a doofus seagull named Scuttle. But it was a lyricist, the late Howard Ashman, who truly helped the project find its voice.

Katzenberg hired Ashman on the recommendation of music mogul David Geffen, who had co-produced Ashman’s Off Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors in 1982. Ashman brought along Horrors composer Alan Menken, and the duo transformed Mermaid into a Broadway-esque musical full of production numbers and catchy toe-tappers. ”Disney understood that to write a musical, you really needed the songwriters to have a big say in the dramatic structure,” says Menken. It was Ashman’s idea that Sebastian be a Jamaican with a penchant for calypso (in the original treatment, he was a stuffy British crab named Clarence). And it was Ashman who ratcheted up the theatricality of the half-octopus villainess Ursula — think Joan Collins crossed with Divine.

It worked and then some. Mermaid‘s scores were off the chart after its first test screening. Even more impressive, those numbers soared higher when the film was shown to an audience made up entirely of adults. It was a genuine eureka moment for Hollywood. Suddenly it was clear to everyone that animation was, at last, finding its legs.(Additional reporting by Josh Rottenberg)


Disney’s Animation Makeover
1981
The Fox and the Hound
Box office: $39.9 million
Oscar noms: 0

1985
The Black Cauldron
Box office: $21.3 million
Oscar noms: 0

1986
The Great Mouse Detective
Box office: $25.3 million
Oscar noms: 0

1989
The Little Mermaid
Box office: $84.4 million*
Oscar noms: 3

1991
Beauty and the Beast
Box office: $145.9 million
Oscar noms: 6

1992
Aladdin
Box office: $217.4 million
Oscar noms: 5

1994
The Lion King
Box office: $312.9 million
Oscar noms: 4

1995
Toy Story
Box office: $191.8 million
Oscar noms: 3

2009
The Princess and the Frog
Box office: $102.7 million
Oscar noms: 3

*Domestic box office figures are from each film’s initial release only