Overview

The Little Mermaid is a 1989 American animated musical fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.

Storyline

Loosely based upon the story by Hans Christian Andersen. Ariel, youngest daughter of King Triton, is dissatisfied with life in the sea. She longs to be with the humans above the surface, and is often caught in arguments with her father over those “barbaric fish-eaters”. She goes to meet Ursula, the Sea Witch, to strike a deal, but Ursula has bigger plans for this mermaid and her father. Written by Tim Pickett

Interesting facts

  • This was the last Disney animated feature to use hand-painted cels and analog camera and film work. 1,000 different colors were used on 1,100 backgrounds. Over one million drawings were done in total.
  • The wedding scene at the close of the film marked one of the first use of CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) in a Disney feature. CAPS is a digital ink-and-paint and animation production system that colors the animators’ drawings digitally, as opposed to the traditional animation method of tracing ink and paint onto cels. The rest of The Little Mermaid uses hand-painted cels. All subsequent Disney features have used CAPS instead of ink-and-paint. An earlier scene where Ariel runs down a set of stairs, also uses the CAPS system for its moving background. This was considered to be the first Disney animated feature using all digital processes but at the time CAPS wasn’t ready. Disney’s next animated feature The Rescuers Down Under was going to be the first 100% digitally processed film.
  • Disney artists had considered an animated film of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” as part of the “Silly Symphonies” series, in the late 1930s, and illustrator Kay Nielsen prepared a number of striking story sketches in pastels and watercolors. The project was dropped in favor of Andersen’s Ugly Duckling. For this film, the artists received inspiration from the Nielsen story sketches that were brought out of the Archives for them to study, and they gave Kay Nielsen a “visual development” credit on the film. Another first for recent years: Live actors and actresses were filmed for reference material for the animators. Sherri Stoner acted out Ariel’s key scenes. Not all of Disney’s animators approved the use of live-action reference; Glen Keane, the co-supervising animator of Ariel said in an interview with the Orange County Register that one artist quit the project rather than work with live-action reference.
  • This film was the most effects-animation-heavy Disney animated feature since Fantasia. The two-minute storm sequence alone took 10 special effects animators over a year to finish. Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film, in addition to the use of other processes such as airbrushing, back lighting, superimposition, and some flat-shaded computer animation.
  • The directors insisted that every one of the millions of bubbles should be hand-drawn, not Xeroxed. The sheer manpower for such an effort required Disney to farm out most of the bubble-drawing to Pacific Rim Productions, a China-based firm with production facilities in Beijing. The student uprising in Beijing, China, threatened to delay production. Roughly one-third of the finished cel artwork used by the Chinese artists as underlays for drawing the bubbles were in a vault only a few blocks away from the demonstration at Tienanmin Square and the violence that followed.
  • Ariel’s liplines were created with hand-inking.
  • An attempt to use Disney’s famed multi-plane camera for the first time in years for quality “depth” shots failed because the machine, always a monster to use because of its sheer size, was in dilapidated condition. The multi-plane shots were farmed out to another studio.
  • Some versions of the videotape cover had the likeness of a penis, inadvertently drawn on the cover. Promotional materials and posters for the theatrical release also contained the likeness. It’s the highest tower in the middle of the castle in the background. The artist that drew the cover has stated in interviews that it was not intentional, but the result of having to hurry on a project where the castle’s towers were rather phallic to begin with.
  • Ariel’s treasure cave includes the painting “Magdalene With the Smoking Flame” by 17th-century artist Georges de La Tour.
  • In the opening scene when King Triton arrives at the arena, you can briefly see Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Kermit the Frog in the crowd of sea-people as mermen when he passes over them.
  • The character of Ursula was based on Divine. Her personality and some of her actions were also largely inspired by a previous Disney villain, Madame Medusa from Disney’s The Rescuers.
  • When Ursula first shows Ariel the contract, it quickly scrolls through the body of the text. This is the actual text shown on the scroll: “I hereby grant unto Ursula, the witch of the sea… , one voice, in exchange for byon once high, Dinu*gihn thon Mueo serr on Puur-qurr I rehd moisn petn r m uenre urpti m srerp monk guaki ,Ch rich noy ri imm ro mund for all eternity. signed,” All other instances clearly say: “I hereby grand unto Ursula, the witch of the sea… , one voice, for all eternity. signed,”
  • There was a widespread rumor in the early to mid-’90s that the priest in the wedding scene has an erection. He doesn’t (in fact, the shot is of the priest’s knee moving underneath his tunic) but this didn’t deter enraged moralists from strenuous protest (even to the extent of filing at least one lawsuit against Disney). In the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD release, the scene has been altered so that the priest is standing on a small platform box and his knee is no longer visible through his robes.
  • Ben Wright’s final film. When he got the part of Grimsby, Prince Eric’s butler, the erstwhile Disney folks had no idea that he had been the voice of Roger in 101 Dalmatians. He had to tell them.
  • The last Disney film using the xerography process, invented by Ub Iwerks, which had been used since 101 Dalmatians.
  • In Greek mythology, the God of the Sea is Poseidon. Triton (the name given to the Sea King), however, is one of his sons.
  • This was the first Disney film to receive an Academy Award since Bedknobs and Broomsticks, though other films had been nominated.
  • The most prominent ingredient shown in Ursula’s human-transformation potion is a bubble containing a butterfly. Later it is revealed during the wedding between her and Eric that the name of the human woman that Ursula transforms herself into is “Vanessa”, the name for that genus of butterfly.
  • There are several shots of Ariel, forlornly sitting on a rock, in a pose reminiscent of the “Little Mermaid” statue that sits in Copenhagen harbor.
  • Originally, Sebastian was to have an English accent. It was lyricist/producer Howard Ashman who suggested he be Jamaican. This opened the door to calypso-style numbers like “Under the Sea”, which won the Academy Award.
  • Songwriting team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were brought to the attention of Disney Animation Chair Jeffrey Katzenberg by longtime colleague (and future Dreamworks co-founder) David Geffen, who was producing the team’s off-Broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors”.
  • CASTLE THUNDER: Heard a few times during the storm that wrecks Eric’s ship in the beginning. It’s also briefly heard for a second during the middle of the second storm when Ursula becomes gigantic and powerful, and is the last Disney movie to use the sound.
  • When Scuttle is providing “vocal romantic stimulation” to Eric and Ariel while they are rowing in the lagoon, he is squawking Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”.
  • ‘Jodi Benson (I)’ sang ‘Part of Your World’ in the dark to get that ‘under the sea’ feeling.
  • Ariel was quite deliberately made a redhead in order to distinguish her from Daryl Hannah’s character in Splash.
  • “Part of Your World” was nearly cut; Jeffery Katzenberg felt that it was “boring”, as well as being too far over the heads of the children for whom it was intended. At a test screening children were restless during the song which did not have finished animation – in particular one child that sat in front of Katzenberg and spilled his popcorn and was more interested in picking it up than watching the sequence.
  • Deleted scenes: An extended “Fathoms Below” sequence in which it is revealed that Ursula is Triton’s sister; alternate version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” explaining why Ursula was banished by Triton; a scene just before the concert in which Sebastian finds out Ariel is missing; extended scene of Sebastian lost in Eric’s castle; Sebastian giving additional advice to Ariel at bedtime; and the fight with Ursula to the ending with no dialog.
  • HIDDEN MICKEY: in the scroll that Ursula gets Ariel to sign. It is in the middle of the words when it pans over the scroll from top to bottom. Also, in the scene where the animals are trying to break up the wedding, right as the seals are jumping onto the deck of the boat from the ocean, there is a woman with black hair in a red gown with her back to the camera. The shape of her hair clearly outlines a Mickey head until she turns sideways.
  • The shot of Ariel reaching out through the skylight of her grotto was the last shot to be completed. It took four tries to get the optical effects just right.
  • Before recording “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, Pat Carroll asked Howard Ashman to sing the song one more time to get it right. He obliged, and as he sang he added little spoken ad-libs that Carroll then incorporated into her performance. These included Ursula saying “Pathetic” at the mer-couple she conjures up as an example, and the line “Life’s full of tough choices, innit?”
  • The animators created the character of Ursula for Bea Arthur, who declined as she was occupied with The Golden Girls. Jennifer Saunders then auditioned for the role of Ursula but was turned down. Somehow in 2002, Steven Spielberg got hold of her tape and insisted to the three directors of Shrek 2 that she be cast as the scheming Fairy Godmother. After Bea Arthur turned down the chance to voice Ursula, Nancy Marchand, Nancy Wilson, Roseanne Barr, Charlotte Rae and Elaine Stritch were all then considered with the latter eventually being cast in the part. However, Stritch’s style clashed with that of lyricist Howard Ashman so Pat Carroll got the part.
  • Scheduling conflicts with Star Trek: The Next Generation forced Patrick Stewart to turn down the role of King Triton.
  • When Ariel is singing “Part of Your World” in her grotto, there is a bust of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Movie was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2007.

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