Younger generations might take Disney animation for granted today, but The Little Mermaid maintains a special place in the heart of moviegoers who were around to experience it in theaters in 1989. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had opened the industry’s eyes just the year before to the renewed potential of animation, but Disney, which had barely survived a hostile takeover a few years earlier, hadn’t attempted a fairy tale — its bread and butter — in 30 years. The Little Mermaid wasn’t just a return to form; it represented an entirely new artistic template that melded superior storytelling with Broadway-caliber music, courtesy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
The duo came to Disney’s attention after their off-Broadway hit, Little Shop of Horrors, and Ashman, in particular, gave voice to this new Disney spirit. “Howard was from a different world,” says co-writer and co-director John Musker, who along with Ron Clements, was part of a new wave of ambitious young Disney animators. “He was kind of a chain-smoking theater guy. And we were non-smoking, California, low-key, animation guys, and it was an interesting mix of our sensibilities. Howard was kind of mentor for us, in terms of the way he approached the songs and his thinking behind the songs.”
The Little Mermaid became a box-office hit and earned two Oscars for its music. Menken and Ashman went on to work on Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to score a Best Picture nod, and they’d started writing songs for Aladdin when Ashman died in 1991 from complications related to AIDS. He was only 40 years old.
In the new Diamond Edition Blu-ray for The Little Mermaid, which comes out on Tuesday, Disneyphiles can view rare footage of Ashman as he gives a lunchtime lecture to the staff during the making of that pivotal film. In it, he explains the essential importance of what he calls the girl’s “I Want Song” — the crucial tune where the heroine “plunks herself down on a tree-trunk somewhere to sing about what she dreams about.”
“It’s a really unique document nowadays because there isn’t that much footage of Howard and certainly of Howard explaining his working process,” says Musker. “It’s a really great clip.”
Click below to see an exclusive portion of Ashman’s lecture and the voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson, as she explains working with him on Mermaid‘s “I Want Song,” “Part of Your World.”
According to Musker, who went on to co-direct four more hand-drawn Disney features, including The Princess and the Frog, the Mermaid team delivered under extreme pressure. “It was a bit of an atmosphere of sink or swim, no pun intended, that animation had to prove itself, that it could make money and be successful and be relevant again,” he says. “It was very much a pressure-cooker situation, although fun to work on in the sense that we loved the music that Howard and Alan had written. One thing we knew is we heard the songs a thousand times while working on the film, and we loved them as much the thousandth time as we did the first, so we felt very positive.”