Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Little Mermaid: Good Ole Family Fun

It's Thanksgiving time again here in the States, and that means football, food, and most importantly, family.  So what better time to talk about one of the best family films ever made from the mega-company of family entertainment?  And I can't tell you the number of random references I've heard regarding this flick over the last few days, which makes today's post even more perfect.  Therefore, without further adieu, Disney's classic "The Little Mermaid"!

Released in 1989, it is the beautiful tale of a young mermaid who longs to have legs instead of fins.  When she falls in love with a human prince, she gets help from a sea witch to be with her true love.  But she only has three days to get the prince to love her back (without the use of her voice, no less) before the witch strips her of her magic, and she becomes the witch's prisoner forever.  I don't think I can explain how much I love this film.  I know it backwards and forwards, and I can't count the number of times I've annoyed my friends and coworkers by singing these songs at the top of my voice.  (Luckily, I have friends who just sing along with me.)  And now, my little three-year-old niece is getting into Disney films, and I'm so excited for her to watch this film!  I hope we have many singing parties together in the future. 

This was THE film that put animation back on the map for both Disney and the world.  Throughout the 80s, animation had dwindled in quality and content.  Disney still put out animated films but their last big success was way back in 1977 with "The Rescuers."  Animation had become strictly for kids only.  But then studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg greenlit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) and a new vibe was sent into their expanded animation department.  Disney went back to its roots and began focusing on animation again.

The first film to come out of this endeavor was "Oliver and Company" (1988), based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.  "The Little Mermaid" was pitched to Katzenberg and Eisner as part of the new animation push, but both turned it down, thinking it would be too similar to the sequel they were planning for "Splash" (1984).  Also, Disney had not done a film based on a fairy tale since "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959.  The "Splash" sequel never moved beyond development though so "Mermaid" was greenlit after all.  The idea of turning Hans Christian Anderson's tale into a film, however, had been around the studio before.  Back in Walt's day (aka the late 1930s), they had begun developing the story for a Hans Christian Anderson vignette film, but it was never produced.  So when the Eisner-Katzenberg studio started working on "Mermaid," the production found some of illustrator Kay Nielsen's original artwork and sketches from the 30s, and incorporated some of the story elements and designs into the new film.

One of the big changes the studio was gambling on for "Mermaid" was their desire to bring back the musical to animation.  Disney hadn't used music as a tentpole for the story, like Broadway did, for quite some time.  The music in "Oliver" was kind of a test to see if the audience was willing to watch a full Broadway production.  With "Oliver"s success, all doubts were put to ease.  One of the songwriters who contributed to "Oliver" was Howard Ashman.  After "Mermaid" was greenlit, Ashman and his musical partner Alan Menken were hired to write the score to "Mermaid," for they knew Broadway well, having written the successful musical "Little Shop of Horrors." 

As for the characters' voices, directors-writers Ron Clements and John Musker hired Broadway actress Jodi Benson for the voice of Ariel.  Ariel's personality and look were based on actress Alyssa Milano though, except for the bright vibrant red hair, of course.  Pat Carroll was hired to voice the evil sea witch Ursula but she was not the team's first choice.  The role of Ursula had actually been written with Bea Arthur in mind, based on the drag performer Divine.  Unfortunately, Arthur was too busy with "The Golden Girls" at the time and turned the role down.  Patrick Stewart turned down the role of Ariel's father King Triton, also because of a television commitment ("Star Trek: The Next Generation").  That part went to Kenneth Mars instead, who you may recognize as the musical Nazi in Mel Brooks' original "The Producers" (1968). 

Near the beginning of production on "Mermaid", Katzenberg told Clements and Musker that he anticipated it making less than it's predecessor "Oliver" because it was a "girls' film."  However, as production drew to a close, Katzenberg had changed his mind and predicted "Mermaid" would become the first ever animated blockbuster.  It ended up making $84 million at the US box office (over $100 million worldwide) and was a huge critical success as well.  "Mermaid" earned three Oscar nominations, for Best Score and two Best Song nominations for "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl."  It won Best Score and "Under the Sea" won Best Song.  The film also won the same at the Golden Globes, while being nominated for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy as well.   And thus, the "Disney Renaissance" had begun, continuing with "Beauty & the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992), and "The Lion King" (1994).

So, enjoy some quality time with your family this Thanksgiving weekend, both at the table and in front of the screen.  Rewatch (or show your little ones for the first time) the classic "The Little Mermaid."  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Until next week.

(Post-tidbit:  "Mermaid" was the last feature film at Disney to use the traditional hand-painted cell method.  A little company called Pixar had created a computer system known as CAPS that helped animators get the depth in shots usually achieved with a multiplane camera and many individual cells.  A few scenes in "Mermaid" did use CAPS, like when Ariel runs down the stairs of Eric's castle, but the system would not be fully used until Disney's next film "The Rescuers Down Under" (1990).)

1 comment:

  1. blogwalking here and visiting.. have a view of my blog when free.. http://www.lonelyreload.blogspot.com .. do leave me some comment / guide if can.. if interested can follow my blog...