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The Little Mermaid is one of Disney’s most popular animated films ever. It’s the movie that launched the Disney Renaissance and brought Walt Disney Animation Studios back from the brink of closure.
It’s also one of the next films to receive the Disney live-action remake treatment, with the role of Ariel being recently announced as going to young actress and singer Halle Bailey. This is a movie that a lot of people will be feeling passionately about, largely because the animated original means a lot to them, but it was almost a very different movie
Part Of Your World Was Almost Cut From The Film
It’s hard to believe that the most iconic song from The Little Mermaid almost wasn’t in the movie. It’s Ariel’s big 'I want' song, the part where the heroine sings about her hopes and dreams, but it was almost gone thanks to one little kid.
During an early test screening, a kid dropped his box of popcorn in the middle of the song, and was apparently much more focused on cleaning it up than he was an Ariel’s big number. Studio Head Jeffrey Katzenberg took this as a sign that the number was too slow and wouldn’t hold the attention of the largely child audience the movie was hoping to draw. He wanted the song gone, but luckily, he was talked off the ledge. Future test screenings showed the song was popular, the song stayed and it became a massive hit for Disney.
It Was Almost Shelved Because Disney Was Making Too Many Mermaid Movies
In 1984, Disney made the live action movie Splash about a mermaid who can't speak who rescues a human man, falls in love with him and then moves to dry land to be with him. Sound familiar? The movie was a solid hit for Disney, Darryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. It was such a hit that Disney was planning to make a sequel.
Because of this, Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg was original not interested in even making The Little Mermaid, for fear of having too many Disney mermaid movies on screen so close together. The sequel idea for Splash eventually fell apart, at least on the big screen, leading Katzenberg to go ahead and green light the animated film.
Splash Is Also The Reason Ariel Is A Redhead
A lot has been made of Ariel’s hair color in The Little Mermaid. It does make her stand out among the Disney princesses. The reasons for the somewhat unusual choice were twofold. First, red and green are complimentary colors, so the color works well when among the blue-green water and Ariel’s own tale (the color of which was devised by Disney and named Ariel in her honor). However, it was also decided that Ariel should not be blonde, so as to not make her too similar to Darryl Hannah in Splash.
The fact that Ariel was a redhead was an issue for some. Director Ron Clements told us that toy manufacturers hated the choice because redhead dolls never sold. That wasn’t an issue for Little Mermaid toys.
Disney’s Lyracist Howard Ashman Made Sebastian Jamaican
Originally, the plan for Sebastian the crab was to make him English and name him Clarence, but when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came on board to work on the film’s music, Ashman made the request that Sebastian be changed and be given a Jamaican accent.
His reasoning had everything to do with the music. He knew the movie was in need of an up-tempo number in the middle of the film, and he also wanted to have a reason to include more pop music-inspired numbers in the film. By making Sebastian Jamaican, a calypso number would fit perfectly. The song became "Under the Sea," which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1989, so it was apparently the right call.
The Movie Almost Happened in the 1940s (Sort Of)
Many of Disney’s movie concepts were started decades before they ever arrive on screen. The Little Mermaid is one such concept. Originally, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was going to be part of a larger movie, a biopic of the author. Disney's plan was to make it a combination of animation and live-action, similar to Disney’s Song of the South, where the biographical parts of the story would be live-action, with animated versions of Andersen’s various stories intercut into the film.
Eventually, the idea fell apart, The Hans Christian Andersen movie would go on to be made by another studio (with Danny Kaye in the lead) and The Little Mermaid sat unused by Disney until decades later.
Ursula was Originally Ariel's Aunt
Exactly what Ursula has against King Triton is never made clear in The Little Mermaid, but she clearly holds a grudge. In early drafts, Ursula was the sister of King Triton who had been banished by her brother. Several other versions of the story, like the Broadway stage adaptation and the Ursula-focused novel, Poor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea Witch, do include this detail.
It’s unclear why this detail was dropped, as it gives Ursula more of a motive for her actions than in the final film. It also makes the fact that she's doing on these awful things to her own niece all the more terrible.
Disney Didn’t Animate The Bubbles
It’s difficult to believe now, but prior to the smash success of The Little Mermaid, Disney animation was in trouble. Following a string of flops, new Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg were considering closing Disney Animation entirely.
As such, Disney’s resources for animating The Little Mermaid were limited, leading to the decision to outsource some of the animation. Specifically, the millions the bubbles that would be needed were all done by Chinese animation studio Pacific Rim Productions, which also worked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series during the same era.
The Final Shot Was Created By Pixar
Today, Pixar is just another cog in the massive machine that is The Walt Disney Company. While every feature film made by Pixar from the original Toy Story on is associated with Disney, the first time the two companies ever worked together was actually on The Little Mermaid. While most of the film uses traditional cel animation, (it’s the last Disney film that does), Pixar did some work on the film as well, including creating the final shot of the film.
If Disney is lucky, the new Little Mermaid will become a timeless classic for a new generation in the same way that the original was for kids of the late 1980s. Even if that doesn’t happen, the original will still be there.