The Little Mermaid (1989) Glen Keane, Rough animation drawing, graphite on paper. © Disney
The Little Mermaid (1989) Glen Keane, Rough animation drawing, graphite on paper. © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Sun 09 May 2021

The Disney Princess who saved the prince and the studio

Animation Disney: The Magic of Animation Film
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

Not only did The Little Mermaid help usher in the Disney renaissance, an era of unparalleled critical and commercial success, it also helped save the studio.

Ariel is as headstrong as any teenager; the only difference is she’s a mermaid and a princess. Despite the bottomless blue beauty of the ocean and the protection of her father King Triton, she longs for more and is captivated by the surface world shimmering through the sky of her underwater kingdom. Spending her days scavenging sea-wrecks for human trinkets, her obsession only deepens when she saves the Prince Eric from drowning during a storm. Ignoring her father’s warning that she can’t be 'part of that world', Ariel makes a bargain with the sea witch Ursula to trade her fins for legs so she can venture surface-side and follow her heart with the handsome sailor.

With its mixture of classic characters, catchy songs and breathtaking animation, Walt Disney Animation Studio’s The Little Mermaid (1989) was an instant hit when it opened in cinemas in 1989. While an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale had been considered at Disney since the late 1930s, the studio had changed a lot over the following five decades. When The Little Mermaid was released, it was Disney’s first animated fairy tale since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and the first musical since Walt Disney passed in 1966. In the intervening years, Disney had struggled to reproduce the success of their golden era films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942) and The Jungle Book (1967). All that changed with the spirited Ariel and her plucky sidekicks Flounder and Sebastian, and The Little Mermaid is credited with heralding the Disney Renaissance, which included films like Aladdin (1992), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), and paved the way for modern hits like Frozen (2013).

It was by looking to past that The Little Mermaid changed the studio’s future. As Time magazine points out, those early animated blockbusters like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (1959) featured a young woman, preferably a princess, who battled a tyrannical older woman – like Cinderella’s feud with her wicked stepmother – which The Little Mermaid followed with Ariel and Ursula.

Another element that The Little Mermaid borrowed from past classics was a musical score that reveals story and drives plot. Little Shop of Horrors lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken applied Broadway musical tropes to the film’s storytelling, like the common ‘I want’ song construction, which illustrates character motivations – in The Little Mermaid it’s “Part of Your World”, but Disney did this as far back as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

During that iconic musical number, Ariel swims towards the surface, eyes wide and full of excitement. It’s one of the film’s most famous scenes and is the finished product of the concept sketch you can see at the top of this page. That pencil sketch was done by legendary animator Glenn Keane, who in a 38-year-career at Disney animated some of the studio’s most memorable characters, including Ariel, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Beast from Beauty and the Beast.

And it was Menkin and Ashman’s song that made Keane lobby to be Ariel’s animator. After hearing actress Jodi Benson singing “Part of Your World”, he reportedly told directors Ron Clements and John Musker that he had to be Ariel. That may sound strange, but animators are often responsible for specific characters in a film, not just illustrating them but contributing to their personalities, movements and speech by performing as them, by inhabiting them. For instance, Keane’s mentors Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas oversaw Mowgli and Baloo in The Jungle Book. But on The Little Mermaid, Keane was already slated to be Ursula (who is based, in part, on the drag queen Divine) and the directors wondered if he could draw a pretty girl. “I’ve been drawing my wife for 10 years,” he told them. “So I think I can.”

It’s no surprise Ariel’s inspiration came from Keane’s wife – animation is a Keane family business, with his cartoonist father Bil Keane creating the famous “Family Circus” comic strip. When he was young, Bil told his son to “draw what he knows”, something the young animator took to heart during his time at Disney: not only is Ariel based on his wife Linda, but Tarzan is based on his son Max and Rapunzel on his daughter Claire (who is also an artist who has worked on Disney films).

Yet, simply because he had a starting point, didn’t mean he didn’t look for other inspirations when creating Ariel. In the sketch above, her hair floats and sways as if she’s in the ocean. There are a few stories about how Keane achieved this weightless underwater look. One is that he saw a TV segment on astronaut and physicist Sally Ride on a space shuttle, her hair unmoving because of the zero gravity aboard. Another, is that Keane actually achieved that look by “dropping young Groundlings comedian Sherri Stoner into swimming pools to watch how her hair moved", which is likely more accurate, as Stoner famously provided the body model for both Ariel and Beauty and the Beast’s Belle.

Whoever was the inspiration, Keane’s iconic hand-drawn animation helped realise one of Disney’s most enduring characters, who not only saved Prince Eric, but helped save the studio itself.

– Matt Millikan

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