Do mermaids eat princess cake?
They do today!
Today The Little Mermaid turns 28 years old. When it came out, in 1989, Disney had gone three decades without a big hit, Sleeping Beauty, the last major success, was released in 1959, six years before Walt Disney’s death.
Ron Clements, co-writer and director of the movie with John Musker, was unfamiliar with The Little Mermaid story before he stumbled upon it in search of a story for a new Disney movie. He thought Hans Christian Andersen’s cinematic writing style would make for a great film as soon as he started reading. That is, until he reached the incredibly sad ending.
Andersen’s Little Mermaid is far more tragic than the story of Ariel that has since left an indelible mark on popular culture. The 1837 protagonist is motivated not only by her attraction to a prince, but the eternal soul that humans possess and mermaids do not. With the help of a sea witch, she trades her voice for legs. Andersen’s mermaid must obtain true love’s first kiss or the deal will result in her death. She attempts to enchant the prince with her dancing, despite the fact that it feels as though she is stepping on knives. He marries the human princess, whom he thinks saved him from a ship wreck (though, the little mermaid is truly the one responsible for his rescue). She is given the option to murder him in exchange for becoming a mermaid again. In the end, she loses the prince and she turns into sea foam. Not quite the ending for a Disney movie!
Ron Clements came up with the name Ariel and reworked Andersen’s ending for a “gong show” in January 1985. The name “gong show” came from a process Michael Eisner pulled from Paramount: story writers and directors would pitch a series of ideas, and the bad ones would get gonged.
It turns out the story of The Little Mermaid who lived happily ever with her prince got gonged at first. Disney was working on a sequel to Splash at the time, and they thought it was too similar. Although, a few days later, Clements got a call from the studio, saying they’d like to hear his ideas again. Weeks later, The Little Mermaid received the green light. Ron Clements teamed up with John Musker, with whom he’d worked with on The Great Mouse Detective (we love this movie!), and the two got to work envisioning the film that would pave the way for the Disney renaissance.
Clements and Musker were willing to rework much of Andersen’s story. Although, there were certain elements they felt they couldn’t leave behind: the idea of love at first sight and Ariel’s loss of voice. It was a controversial stance. Some people questioned, ‘Can you really do that? Can you have the star of your movie actually lose their voice for a significant amount of time?’” Well, why not? Aurora spent most of her movie asleep! And I don’t remember her sleep talking.
Interestingly enough, in making the fairy tale kid-friendly, one of the biggest changes they made was creating a more forcefully evil sea witch. In Andersen’s story she acts as an enabler, but Clements and Musker knew that Ursula was their chance to create a classic Disney villain.
Once they made that choice, a lot of possible inspiration popped up. Ursula was a mix of Bea Arthur, Joan Collins’ Dynasty character, Divine and an octopus. That took quite a bit of brainstorming to come together, and the octopus part was only added in animation. As she came to life, it just too cool to use the tentacles to play the villainess.
John Musker had Bea Arthur in mind for the part. Even though they never got a chance to sit down with her (due to her Golden Girls schedule and possibly the fact that she did not want to play a witch), he kept her sardonic wit in mind throughout creation. Ron Clements described the character of Ursula as vampy and campy, like Joan Collins in Dynasty. So when they were writing the script, John Musker was picturing Bea Arthur and Ron Clements was picturing Joan Collins. The two got to have a lot of fun in playing up that campy evil gloriousness. They pulled the polyps from Andersen’s story (originally guards of the sea witch’s castle) and made them condemned mer-folk.
Divine’s name popped up when Musker and Clements presented the character to producer and head of the music department Howard Ashman. Ashman knew Divine from work in John Waters’ films and suggested Harris Glenn Milstead’s stage persona serve as inspiration for Ursula. Ashman was also largely responsible for the development of Sebastian, who appeared in early treatments as a crab named Clarence. At that point, he had an English accent. But Ashman knew right away that he wanted to make Sebastian Rastafarian so that he could logically incorporate calypso elements into the music. Musker and Clements had a stuffy character in mind, and they didn’t know how that could work with an “island guy”, so Ashman suggested they model Sebastian after Geoffrey Holder.
Ariel herself underwent quite a bit of transformation from that first treatment. Initially, she was modelled closely after Andersen’s little mermaid: shy and passive. The rambunctious curiosity she came to be endowed with originally appeared in the form of a male dolphin sidekick named Breaker, who was cut from the film because there were too many characters. Breaker was eliminated and some of his personality traits were transferred to Ariel. She became as energetic as the dolphin was.
That helped in modelling Ariel after a rebellious human teen. The artist, Glen Keane, pictured Alyssa Milano when drawing her, though Musker and Clements pulled their inspiration from teen movies. She has a grotto filled with human objects, which was a little bit like a teenage girl who has all her posters gathered around. The sense of rebellion that is almost synonymous with any child’s teenage years was very important to the story they wanted to tell. For both Musker and Clements, The Little Mermaid is first and foremost about a father and daughter.
Even though it is removed from the tragic origins, The Little Mermaid, like any Disney movie, has dark and sexy elements that are retrospectively surprising for a G-Rated film.
Clements and Musker wanted the movie to be scary. Fairy tales have dark elements. It’s a way for kids to process difficult things in the world.
Nothing scares little bears when they have cake and chocolate shells 🙂
Original article in Huffington Post.