Since its first publication in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Little Mermaid, has been adapted into countless stage plays, films and animated efforts. Walt Disney desired to be amongst that number as early as the 1930s.
Disney first toyed with the idea of adapting The Little Mermaid as part of a package film featuring vignettes of various Andersen tales. Development on the film began shortly after work was completed on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it ended up becoming abandoned in favor of another Andersen tale: The Ugly Duckling. In 1985, Ron Clements, instructed to find new story ideas for Disney’s next animated release, had discovered the fairy tale while browsing through a bookstore and presented a treatment to then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg initially passed on the idea, feeling it was too similar to the in-development television film Splash, Too, but changed his mind the next day; feeling that after Disney’s recent lackluster movies and the fact they hadn’t introduced a new princess since 1959, The Little Mermaid offered up some new possibilities.
Clements and John Musker expanded Clements’ initial idea, eliminating the Mermaid’s grandmother as a character and giving a larger role to her father and the evil Sea Witch. Development was stalled for a time as the studio focused their attention on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company. When it resumed, songwriter Howard Ashman became involved and suggested changing the minor character of Clarence, an English-butler crab, into a Jamaican and shifting the musical style to match. Katzenberg, Clements, Musker and Ashman revised the story to become a musical, and Ashman teamed-up with Alan Menken to score the film.
The Little Mermaid was marked as Disney’s next major release, and the most animation resources of any Disney film in decades was dedicated towards its production. The underwater setting alone required a tremendous amount of special effects not seen since Fantasia in 1940. It was also the first Disney film in years to use live actors as references for character motions; with Sherri Stoner and Joshua Finkel standing in for the leads in key scenes with recorded audio playback guiding them. It would also be the last Disney film to use traditionally hand-painted cels, the multiplane camera, and many of the standard optical effects as computers began to play a greater role in film production.
While the heroine was based on the original fairytale character, Clements deemed her too tragic and essentially created an all-new one in Ariel. Jodi Benson, traditionally a stage actress, was cast in the role because Clements and Musker felt it important that the same person could also perform the songs. Ariel was designed by Glen Keane who used a combination of his wife, rising young star Alyssa Milano, and Stoner. Footage of astronaut Sally Ride in space provided inspiration for the movement of Ariel’s hair underwater, as did submerging Stoner in a pool. Ariel’s red hair was disputed against by executives who wanted her to be blonde, but the filmmakers fought for it on the basis that it was easier to darken with shading than yellow, better contrasted with her tail (which was a special green they created and named “ariel”), and that they already had a blonde mermaid in Splash.
Newly created for the film version was the aforementioned crab, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), who served as the royal adviser and composer; Ariel’s best friend, tropical fish Flounder (Jason Marin); seagull Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), who shared his (often incorrect) knowledge about the human world with Ariel, as well as the nature of the human artifacts she collected; and the Sea Witch’s eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam (both Paddi Edwards).
The Little Mermaid opened in theaters on November 17, 1989. Like the fairytale on which it was based, it centered on mermaid princess Ariel of the undersea kingdom of Atlantica who had a strong interest in the world above the sea. However, her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), forbade interaction between the worlds. That became impossible when she went to the surface and rescued Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) whose ship was destroyed, falling in love with him in the process. The sea witch, Ursula (designed after drag queen Divine, voiced by Pat Carroll), tricked Ariel into making a deal to exchange her voice for legs with the stipulation she must get Eric’s “kiss of true love” to remain human, or else she becomes Ursula’s property forever. To hedge her bets, Ursula transformed herself into a beautiful woman with Ariel’s voice and hypnotized Eric into marrying her. After an exchange of Triton and Eric attacking and defeating Ursula, Triton relented and let Ariel stay with Eric as a human and they were finally married.
Initially, Katzenberg felt that the “girls’ film” would make less at the box office than Oliver & Company, but after it was completed, he changed his tune and predicted it would be the first animated feature to make over $100 million. In reality, the film grossed over $84 million, short of Katzenberg’s revised prediction but significantly more than Oliver. In an atypical move for Disney, they released the film to home video just six months after its release. The company had a successful practice of re-releasing their films to theaters every seven years and feared home media would take away from the box office. The Little Mermaid became the top-selling title of the year, selling over 7 million copies in the first month. As a result, Disney would begin home releases soon after the theatrical runs rather than delaying them for years. Mermaid also marked the beginning of the Disney Renaissance; a period from 1989-1999 where Walt Disney Feature Animation experienced a creative resurgence in adapting well-known stories that restored interest in Disney.
Shortly before the film hit stores, Disney planned to capitalize on its success with a show developed for The Disney Channel. The Little Mermaid’s Island, the show’s proposed title, would have featured puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop interacting with a live actress as Ariel. The video sales caused Disney to quietly drop these plans in favor of an animated weekly series for CBS. They tapped Jamie Mitchell, who had previously worked on Walt Disney Television Animation’s successful Adventures of the Gummi Bears, to helm the series while Patsy Cameron and Tedd Anasti, who had worked on DuckTales, served as the story editors and part of the writing stable, and the primary writers for seasons 2 and 3. Veteran writer Chuck Menville contributed two scripts to the first season shortly before his death in 1992. One of his episodes, “Thingamajigger,” was dedicated to his memory. Additional writers included Marie Sager, Laraine Arkow, David Schwartz, Lynn Lefler, James A. Markovich, Chris Weber, Karen Wilson, Tony Marino, Emily Swass, Alicia Marie Schudt and Thomas Mitchell.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid chose to serve as a prequel to the movie; focusing on Ariel’s adventures under the sea. Reprising their roles from the film would be Benson as Ariel, Wright as Sebastian, Mars as Triton, Carroll as Ursula, Edwards as Flotsam and Jetsam, and Kimmy Robertson as Ariel’s sister, Alana; with Edan Gross coming on for Flounder the first season and Bradley Pierce for seasons 2 and 3, Maurice LaMarche as Scuttle in season 3, and Jeff Bennet as Prince Eric for several guest appearances. Ariel’s five other sisters also appeared, but where they were all voiced by Robertson and Caroline Vasicek, respectively, each was given a unique voice actress: Sherry Lynn as Adella, Cathy Cavadini as Andrina, Mona Marshall as Aquata, Mary Kay Bergman as Arista, and Kath Soucie as Attina.
Newly created for the series was orphaned merboy Urchin (Danny Cooksey), a friend of Ariel’s who joined her on some adventures; Gabriella, a deaf mermaid who communicated through sign language and with interpretations by octopus friend, Ollie (Gabriel Damon); fun-loving mermaid Pearl (Cree Summer); and Spot, an orca calf Ariel helps raise before reuniting him with his family. While Ursula made a few appearances in the show, a new threat was created called The Evil Manta (Tim Curry). Manta sought to destroy Atlantica and was accidentally freed from his centuries-long imprisonment in an undersea volcano by Ariel. Hans Christian Andersen (Mark Hamill) also appeared once, needing rescue by Ariel when his submarine ended up stranded and leaking.
Not wanting to disappoint fans of the film, Disney auditioned the best overseas animation studios. Eventually, the task was put upon Walt Disney Animation Japan, Wang Film Productions, Animal House, Film Magic, Jade Animation, Morning-Sun Studios, Nakamura Productions, Studio Robin, Studio CATS, Light Foot, J.C. Staff, Magic Bus, Studio Fuga, Tama Productions, and Takahashi Productions. The studios tried to maintain as much of the quality as they could, but given the tighter deadlines of a television series versus a film production the animation was noticeably not as fluid or detailed. Mark Dindal, chief of special animated effects for the movie, served as a consultant for the special effects on the show.
Like the film, the series was done as a musical with most episodes featuring a song. Robby Merkin, who helped arrange songs for the film, worked as the arranger and music producer for the first season. The series’ music was composed by Dan Foliart, with additional songs by Silvesher and Silvesher, Tom Snow, Jack Feldman, Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Anasti and Cameron. The series’ theme was a combined medley of “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” from the film’s soundtrack. Merkin and Steve Gelfand performed all the songs.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid made its unofficial debut on September 11, 1992 with a half-hour primetime special: The Little Mermaid: A Whale of a Tale, written by science-fiction author Peter S. Beagle. Although made by the same group of people and the new character of Spot would appear later on, the special wasn’t considered an official part of the show by Disney as it was made under a separate contract from CBS. The series proper began the next morning, immediately following the debut of fellow film adaptation Fievel’s American Tails. Because the show was the first directly based off of a Disney animated feature and one of the few cartoons to star a strong female character, it received a wide array of media attention. However, not everyone was pleased with the show; some of the animators who worked on the film complained both publicly and anonymously about the show, feeling the television division should come up with their own ideas.
The series was renewed for two additional seasons; its third spent as the lead-in for the next Disney film-based series, Aladdin. Sebastian was also featured in a segment of Marsupilami during the second season; however, those segments were set after the film and had no relation to the Mermaid series. CBS elected not to renew the show again, and the final episode aired in November of 1994. The following year, The Disney Channel began rerunning the series seven days a week, and then once a day with Toon Disney until 2010. The series again aired on Disney Junior from the channel’s launch in 2012 until 2014.
In the months before the series premiered, Disney Comics released a four-issue mini-series with stories that fit the premise of the show. The series was written by Peter David and drawn by various artists as most issues contained more than one story. Parts of the series were reprinted in Disney’s Cartoon Tales #11, Disney’s Colossal Comics Collection #9, and Disney Princess Comics Treasury by Joe Books. Disney also published a two-issue Sebastian mini-series. From 1994-95, Marvel Comics published a 12-issue comic series more closely based on the show; incorporating characters like The Evil Manta and Spot. The series was primarily written by Trina Robbins. Ariel and friends made an additional appearance in 1996 in Marvel’s Disney Comic Hits! #12. In 1997, Acclaim Books published The Little Mermaid: Underwater Engagements, a storybook-style comic that starred Ariel on one side and flipped to a story about Eric, and Disney’s Enchanting Stories #5.
In 1992, a collection of songs from the first season was released by Walt Disney Records on the album The Little Mermaid: Splash Hits – New Songs from the Popular TV Series. Between 1993 and 1994, Walt Disney Video released VHS collections with two episodes each under the title of The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventures. Each was subtitled with the name of first episode on the tape. Five were released in the United States, while seven were released in Australia and New Zealand. These tapes included “A Whale of a Tale”, which was never broadcast again after its initial airing. In 1995, additional collections were released under the title Disney Princess Collection – Ariel’s Songs & Stories with two in the United States and four in Australia and New Zealand. A new intro was created for those episodes, and featured the song “Let’s Play Princess” which was shared by all the videos in the line (the lyrics tailored for the particular princess in question). While the series as a whole has not yet been released to DVD, “Message in a Bottle” was featured on Disney Princes Party Volume 1 and “Wish Upon a Starfish”, “Giggles” and “Ariel’s Treasures” were part of Disney Princess Stories volumes 1-3, respectively. The series was made available for streaming on Amazon Video and iTunes in Germany and on Netflix in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. In 2019, it became one of the launch titles for the streaming service Disney+.
Ariel has become a permanent part of Disney’s princess pantheon; being featured in various media and merchandising as well as being represented at various Disney locations. But, her story didn’t end there. When Disney began making direct-to-video sequels to their biggest theatrical hits, Ariel was on the receiving end with The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea in 2000. It featured Ursula’s sister, Morgana (Carroll), looking for revenge on the royal family of Atlantica through Ariel and Eric’s daughter, Melody (Tara Strong). In 2008, a prequel film, Ariel’s Beginning, completely ignored the events of the television series and showed Ariel’s first meeting with Flounder (Parker Goris), as well as the restoration of music to the kingdom after Triton (Jim Cummings) blamed it for her mother’s death.