Monday, November 14, 2011

Disney's The Little Mermaid

Thanks to the commercial success of Oliver & Company and the Disney/Amblin film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Disney was able to do what they proposed and start pumping out an animated film every year. Their first movie after Oliver & Company would be one that Disney had proposed very early on: The Little Mermaid. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had wrapped, Disney was looking to make a package film that involved several of Hans Christian Anderson's tales. The Little Mermaid was to be one of them. This idea was eventually shelved for one reason or another and it collected dust until 1985. The Great Mouse Detective's co-director Ron Clements happened to be browsing a bookstore when he discovered a book of Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales. This gave Clements an idea and he promptly wrote up a two page draft for The Little Mermaid. He presented it to CEO Michael Eisner and Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg at a idea suggestion meeting. Eisner and Katzenberg passed on it, feeling the mermaid tale was too close to the sequel they were working on for the sequel to Splash. (Splash, Too did actually get made, but as a TV movie.) Katzenberg must have thought it over, as he greenlit the idea, along with Oliver & Company the very next day.

The staff started writing drafts of the story, making a few changes here and there and adding characters, when they stumbled on the original story ideas from the late 1930's by Kay Nielson. Incidentally, the changes the group from the 80's had made to the story were almost identical to the changes from the 30's script. Ron Clements and John Musker turned the two page story into a twenty pager, though had to set the thing down for a while, as the studio wanted to focus more on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company, two movies that were happening in the nearer future. When production of the two films were complete, the two set out to find out exactly what kind of musical this was going to be. They turned to songwriter Howard Ashman, who had wrote the songs for Oliver & Company. Ashman, among other things, had Clarence, the English-butler crab turned into a Rastafarian Jamaican crab and shifted the music in the film to reflect this. In other words, you have Ashman to thank for "Under the Sea." At the same time, Katzenberg, Clements, Musker, and Ashman revised the story format to make it more like a broadway musical story structure, making the musical numbers the tent poles of the story. Ashman teamed up with Alan Menken, both of whom had written the music for the off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors together, to write the entire score for The Little Mermaid.

Disney poured a ton of money into this movie. I think they knew they had something special on their hands. Besides the main animation studio in California, Disney had a satellite studio built inside of MGM Studios in Walt Disney World (Keep in mind that MGM Studios opened its doors to the public in 1989). This group of animators were tasked with animating the Roger Rabbit short that came before the movie and helping out with the ink and paint for the movie's animation. This was the last Disney film to use hand painted cels and analog camera and film work. In all there were over a million drawings done for the movie. The movie was to be the first to be completely digitally processed but the technology wasn't quite ready yet. The honor instead goes to Disney's next film, The Rescuers Down Under.

Ariel was based off Alyssa Milano, who at the time was on Who's The Boss? Something that had been gone since Walt Disney's leadership was the use of live-action references. Sherri Lynn Stoner was used for the live reference though less animators were privy on using live action references, insisting on using their own creativity. One animator was so dead set against it that he left the studio. A fun fact about Ariel's design is that the studio decided to make her a redhead so people wouldn't confuse her for Darryl Hannah's mermaid from Splash. For Ariel's voice they found Broadway actress Jodie Benson. Benson is now synonymous with Ariel, even voicing her for the video game series Kingdom Hearts. Benson also voiced Barbie in Toy Story 2 and 3. Ursula in turn was based on drag performer Divine. My younger audience and even my peers may not know who that is, but check out the movie Pink Flamingos if you're really curious. Pat Carrol ended up doing the voice for Ursula, but wasn't Clement's and Musker's first choice. The script was specifically written with Bea Arthur in mind for Ursula. Bea Arthur's TV show, The Golden Girls was owned by Disney, so Clements and Musker figured they could get her easy. She wasn't interested. Several other actresses were considered for the part, even Roseanne Barr. Ursula's personality in general was based off of Madame Medusa from The Rescuers. The Little Mermaid was not exactly thick with recognizable names. The most recognizable to me even now is Buddy Hackett, who voiced Scuttle the seagull. One funny thing about the voice actors is the fact that the Disney team hired Ben Wright to voice Prince Eric's butler but had no idea that he was a veteran of Disney films. Wright had to remind the people working on the film that he had voiced Roger in 101 Dalmatians. Other notable voice actors who did additional voices for the movie included Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, and Nancy Cartwright (she does the voice of Bart on The Simpsons).

Hans Christian Anderson's version of The Little Mermaid is just a bit different from Disney's. In Anderson's, the little mermaid is the youngest of the King's daughters but is basically looked after by her grandmother. When she turns 15, the little mermaid (she isn't called Ariel in the original story) is allowed to go up to see the land above the sea. While she is admiring the upper land from the sea she notices a prince on a boat from afar and instantly falls in love. A storm rolls up and sinks the boat however and the little mermaid saves him, pushing him on shore and watching over him until a girl happens upon him. The Prince incidentally does not see the little mermaid. After this episode, the little mermaid asks her grandmother about humans and if they live forever if they don't drown. Her grandmother responds that they live much shorter lives than merfolk (around 300 years) but human's live on through their souls which go up to heaven, whereas merfolk just turn into foam. Tough break for the merfolk. The little mermaid desires the prince and an eternal soul so she goes and visits the local Sea Witch. The Sea Witch gives her legs but in return, she takes her tongue, for the little mermaid had the most intoxicating voice in the world. The Sea Witch also warns that if she drinks the potion, she will never be able to go back to the sea and walking on her legs will feel like walking on sharp swords. In addition, she only gets a soul if she is able to get true love's first kiss and the Prince marries her, thus sharing his soul with her. However, if the Prince marries someone else, at dawn of that day, the little mermaid will die brokenhearted and turn into foam.

I know what you're all thinking: "How dumb could this girl be? There is no way she'll agree to that!" She does. Apparently having her true love is more important than being banished, stepping on invisible swords, and potentially turning into foam. Remember that she hasn't even interacted with him when he was conscious, so how does she even know that she is in love with him? I have a feeling this isn't going to turn out well. She drinks the potion and gains legs, quickly finding the Prince who is amazed at her beauty and is seemingly attracted to her though she cannot talk. The Prince likes most of all to see this mysterious new girl dance for him. The little mermaid dances for him, even though she feels as if she is dancing on daggers. Now that is commitment! The Prince's father tells him one day that he must marry the Princess from the neighboring kingdom, though the Prince confides in the little mermaid that he doesn't love the princess. He tells the little mermaid that the only one that he could marry would be the girl that saved him on the beach that day of the storm. we go. So, in a funny twist of fate, the girl that saved the Prince was actually the Princess who was in the area going to school at the temple near the beach. They arrange to be married, much to the little mermaid's chagrin. She realizes that this will be the end of her and she waits to turn into foam. Right before dawn however, one of her sisters gives her a knife that was given to her by Ursula in exchange for her long hair. She explains to the little mermaid that if she slays the Prince with the knife and has the blood drip on her legs, she will turn back into a mermaid and will avoid death. The little mermaid cannot bring herself to do it however and throws herself into the sea at dawn, becoming foam. Now, in the original ending, that's all that happens. The little mermaid dies and everyone learns a valuable lesson on making deals with Sea Witches. In the revised ending, the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air, a kind of spirit after she dies. The other daughters of the air tell her that because she strove to get a soul, she is getting the chance to earn one. All she has to do is do good deeds for three hundred years and she'll be allowed in heaven. Can't tell which ending is worse? I can't either. Many criticized Anderson's changed ending and thought it too much of a "better do the right thing or you're going to hell" story that was meant to scare children into behaving. I personally like the movie much better.

As you know, Ariel doesn't die in the end of the movie, but wins Prince Eric's heart and with Eric, defeats Ursula. A much better ending in my opinion, but most fairy tales had weird depressing endings. The Little Mermaid is probably one of the most beloved Disney movies of my generation. Sure it's more directed towards girls, but I've always liked it and I know plenty of other guys that like the movie too. It doesn't matter who the lead role is, as long as the story and songs are really good. And this movie has some really good and catchy songs. Heck, "Under the Sea" won the Oscar for Best Song, so you know at least that song was fantastic. "Part Of Your World" was almost cut because Katzenberg thought it was too boring! The movie wouldn't be the same without it! There isn't much to hate about this movie. It's got a strong lead, a Jamaican crab and a flounder fish named....Flounder as sidekicks, a bird that doesn't know what a fork is, a menacing octopus with two really freaky eels, and a love interest that will run a boat into said menacing octopus for love. Seriously though, how did Ursula not see that huge boat coming at her! It was like slow motion and she still gets stabbed with the mast! Oh, and the whole sequence with Sebastian and the French Chef is basically my favorite scene in the movie. Anyway, it's a great film and the official mark of the Disney Renaissance. I thought we'd never get here!

Jeffrey Katzenberg warned the directors ahead of time that since this was a "girl's movie," it would probably make less than Oliver & Company, which had been the studio's biggest hit of the decade. As time went on though, Katzenberg realized that this movie could really be a big hit and may be the first to hit over $100 million, thus being a blockbuster. The Little Mermaid did do better than Oliver & Company, but didn't hit the $100 million mark. It would gross a little more than $84 million in its initial run, earning 67% more than Oliver. With the 1997 re-issue, the film earned an additional $27 million, plus another $99.8 million from outside North American continent. This brings the grand total to $211 million dollars, so I think Katzenberg had his blockbuster. Critics praised the film for not only its story, but for the main character, Ariel. Many found her independent and rebellious nature refreshing, as most Disney Princesses had not taken a very proactive role in their films. Disney finally had their major hit, and they planned on keeping the rate going. Not only had the movie been a smash hit, but it established the animation department as the main money making branch of Disney. In years past it had been the theme parks, live action movies, and TV shows that made the studio profitable, but now animation was once again the key to Disney's success.

I almost forgot about all the nasty rumors about the movie! Everybody seems to know about the tower on the castle that looks a little bit different, and the priest at the end of the movie who seems to be a little too excited about officiating. Turns out that the tower that supposedly looked like a certain male part, was done on accident and the animators claimed it couldn't be helped since all the towers were phallic looking to begin with. People still claim that the priest rumor is true however, though Disney has claimed that its just the man's knee. Disney since has removed both the tower and the bulge as to keep people from sending them nasty letters.

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