How THE LITTLE MERMAID Helped Save Disney Animation

As an entertainment company, Disney has never been more omnipresent. But their current state of prosperity can be traced back to one headstrong ginger princess who lived under the sea. When The Little Mermaid was released on November 17th 1989, no one realized it would reinvigorate the company more than any animated film since Walt Disney’s heyday, and lead to what is now popularly known as “the Disney Renaissance.”

Ariel listens to her music instructor Sebastian the crab in a scene from The Little Mermaid

The Walt Disney Company 

Well, no one realized it but the folks at Disney themselves. Because it was their fervent hope even then that the film would do exactly what it did for the animated branch of the studio – even though there were many doubts internally as to whether or not they could pull it off. But it wasn’t luck that made The Little Mermaid a smash. It was hard work and vision to create an animated film which would break new ground, and could still harken back to the studio’s Golden Age under Walt’s guidance. The Little Mermaid accomplished all of that. It’s almost impossible to envision what Walt Disney Animation would even look like today had it failed to connect.

“Before the dark times….before the Empire.”
How THE LITTLE MERMAID Helped Save Disney Animation_2

The Walt Disney Company

It’s hard to imagine now, but for nearly two decades Disney struggled as a studio. Walt Disney’s death in 1966 was a severe gut punch to the company, although it brought to life many of his final projects in the first few years afterward, somewhat softening the blow. But by the early ’70s, studio floundered without Walt’s creative genius. To use a Star Wars analogy — only fitting, given where that property ended up —  if Walt’s years were the glory days of the Old Republic, then the twenty years between his passing and The Little Mermaid can be thought of as “the Dark Times.”

The animated films they released during this period like Robin Hood and The Aristocats were actually perfectly fine, but hardly groundbreaking in the same way as their predecessors. Meanwhile, live-action family films starring the likes of Don Knotts and Jodie Foster helped keep the lights on. But Disney as a brand was unquestionably hobbled with Walt himself now gone. The rise of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as the new masters of cinematic imagination in the minds of the mainstream masses also didn’t help.

The main characters from Disney's ambitious 1985 film The Black Cauldron. The film was a costly flop for the studio.

The Walt Disney Company

The creation of the more adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures in the early ’80s helped saved the studio from a financial standpoint, but animation kept churning out mediocre product. The 1985 animated film The Black Cauldron was ambitious, but also was a huge flop for Disney animation. The higher ups came this close to shuttering the legendary animation studio. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. And their “Hail Mary pass” to save Walt Disney Animation was to produce something that the company was famous for, but actually hadn’t made in three decades — a musical fairy tale.

Assembling a Dream Team
Ariel the mermaid hangs out with her friends from under the sea in a promo image for The Little Mermaid.

The Walt Disney Company

After The Black Cauldron disaster, director Jon Clements was looking for a back to basics approach for what the next Disney animated film could be. Although he claims to have been inspired by chancing upon a copy of the classic Hans Christian Anderson book one day, the truth is Walt Disney himself had been entertaining the idea of doing a version of The Little Mermaid as far back as the ’30s. One could say it was always meant to be.

Clements and studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg recruited songwriter Howard Ashman, who had written the music for the Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors. It was his idea to create a framework for The Little Mermaid more akin to a Broadway musical. Ashman was teamed with composer Alan Menken, and the duo became the Lennon and McCartney of animated musicals. They drew inspiration from the best of both cinema and theater. “Part of Your World” was a direct descendant of The Wizard of Oz’s “Over The Rainbow.” Ironically, both films nearly had those songs cut when test audiences didn’t get it, and today we can’t imagine either film without them.

Ursula the Sea Witch prepares to seduce Ariel into making a devil's bargain

The Walt Disney Company

On the other side of this wide spectrum of influences, the character of Ursula was inspired by cult film star Divine, not someone known for their kid friendly fare. Divine was an old Baltimore friend of Howard Ashman’s. As an openly gay composer, I think it’s fair to say that Ashman brought more than a little bit of queer sensibilities to the project, making it quietly subversive in ways that went over the heads of most mainstream audiences, and probably most Disney execs too.

All the vital ingredients were now in place, including finding perfect casting choices for the roles, and character designs that were among the best Disney had yet produced. Disney decided to spend more money on The Little Mermaid than they had on any animated film in years. And this time, the gamble paid off in spades.

It’s Ariel’s world. We just live in it.
Ariel watches with her fish friend Flounder as Sebastian the crab tries to prove that life under the sea is much better than above.

Walt Disney Animation

The Little Mermaid was released to mostly rave reviews on November 17th, 1989. Critics heralded it as a return to form for the Disney animated musical, and it grossed some $84 million dollars at the domestic box office. That’s about $230 million in adjusted dollars, and nothing to sneeze at even today. It made more money it’s initial run than any animated Disney musical had in decades. It also garnered more Oscar nominations than any animated Disney film since 1977’s The Rescuers.

The Little Mermaid also broke the mold for Disney in another crucial way, as its enormous success forced the company to break its habit of never releasing their hit films on home video till years later. The strategy of releasing Mermaid soon after its theatrical run was over paid off big time, as it did insane business as a video release. An entire generation of kids was raised by that clamshell boxed VHS tape playing on a loop in their homes. All In all, between merch and home video, Ariel brought home over a billion dollars.

The original VHS cover art for The Little Mermaid shows off all the film's main characters.

The Walt Disney Company

The Little Mermaid gave the folks at Walt Disney Animation the literal blueprint for success. They reunited the musical creative team for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, each which did incredible business. The apex moment of this era was the release of The Lion King, which became a true blockbuster. After Lion King, the Disney animated films for the remainder of the decade came back down to Earth in terms of box office a little bit, but make no mistake — every single animated release for the rest of the decade was still a big hit for the studio. And they have Ariel to thank for their shot in the arm.

The Film is Still The Template for Disney Success
The original teaser poster for the Little Mermaid shows Ariel reaching towards the surface world

The success of Mermaid allowed Disney to retake their crown as the premiere provider of family entertainment in the ’90s. Their prosperity dipped a bit in the early 2000s, as Pixar stole all of Disney Animation’s thunder. So when the fortunes of Walt Disney Animation Studios were flagging once again, it was The Little Mermaid that provided a template on how to get back to basics — by doing another excellent animated musical fairy tale. In fact, in 2009 Disney brought back the team who had given Ariel life in the first place when they reunited Musker and Clements for the 2D animated The Princess and the Frog.

Princess and the Frog wasn’t as a big a hit as Mermaid, but it was Disney’s most successful fairy tale in a good long while. And its success led to Tangled and then Frozen, which also took a page from The Little Mermaid’s Broadway style playbook.  Proving once again that when in doubt, look under the sea. Today, Ariel has theme park rides in multiple Disney parks, a new live musical on television, and a big budget live-action remake. She’s more popular than ever. But given what she did for them, Disney should give Ariel all the love. Because without her, they’re simply not the powerhouse they have become today.

Images: The Walt Disney Company

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