It’s been nearly 30 years since The Little Mermaid swam into theaters on November 17, 1989, ushering in a new era for Walt Disney animated films. At the time of its production, Disney Studios’ animation division was no longer the powerhouse it has once been. Mermaid, however, was just the film the company needed to turn its cartoon division around.
Now, three decades later, The Little Mermaid co-director Ron Clements and directing animator Mark Henn are celebrating the 4K Blu-ray and digital release of the film. To mark the occasion, they sat down with GameSpot to discuss the film’s lasting impression on audiences and share a few stories from behind-the-scenes of the production. From creating the film under less-than-ideal circumstances to how legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber nearly composed the movie’s music, the tales behind the making of The Little Mermaid are fascinating.
The Little Mermaid’s 4K released is loaded with a treasure trove of new special features, including a sing-along cut of the film, giving you the perfect opportunity to scream the lyrics of “Under the Sea” at your television. The digital release is out now, with the 4K and standard Blu-ray arriving on February 26.
GameSpot: When you guys were making this movie, many thought the shine had come off of Disney animation in the ’80s. What was it like creating in that environment?
Ron Clements: Well, I mean, first I’d say, of the generation, like say the new generation that started to coming to Disney in the ’70s when they started the animation training program at CalArts, I would say a lot of the people felt that same way. That felt like after Walt [Disney] died that the films just maybe weren’t quite what those earlier films were. And wanting to sort of see a kind of, everybody wanted to work on something like Snow White or Pinocchio or Bambi or the classic films.
So there was a hunger within that group to want to do something that you could really, really feel good about. A movie that sort of worked on many levels. And we built up to Mermaid with several films leading up to it. But in a certain way, Mermaid was a special film that really was all baby boomers really wanting to prove themselves and just wanting to make the best movie that they possibly could. So that created a very, I’d say, dynamic atmosphere. It wasn’t necessarily just a totally happy atmosphere because I think everybody felt the stakes were high and still feeling that the whole part was kind of vulnerable, that if we didn’t prove ourselves by a certain point that they might stop doing animation all together. That was always kind of a possibility.
GameSpot: Mark, what was the experience like for you as the directing animator?
Mark Henn: There was definitely a feeling of, it was our turn now and we wanted to make sure that this film was as good as it could possibly be. Thankfully, I would say, we were on an upturn. We maybe didn’t recognize it at first but we were, things had arguably bottomed out with say Black Cauldron but we had the new regime change and there was an interest in animation. So Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company. And if you actually look, just from a box office point of view, you could start to see that upturn until you got to The Little Mermaid and then, of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but as it turned out in the end, we really made a big jump from that point of view.
GameSpot: This is essentially the film that introduced a new generation of viewers to Disney movies. How exciting is it for you to look back 30 years later and realize it’s a movie that still holds such a special place for people, and now future generations?
Clements: Yeah, it’s really cool. I mean, for my generation, for the baby boomer generation, there’s no real equivalent of that except I would say the Wizard of Oz in the sense that when I was a kid that was shown every year on TV and it seemed like every kid in America watched it. You couldn’t put a video in and watch it over and over again.
But at least you could see it multiple times, and it became ingrained and a part of you. And that was kind of a touchstone for our whole generation. Mermaid was the first new film to actually go out on home video. So it really is unique in that respect from any film that came before it in the sense that kids could watch over and over and over again. They could just wear out the whole video.
So it’s even hard for me to really know what that might be like cause I didn’t really experience that. But certainly, it’s thrilling. I mean, these films are so much work, so many people, they take so long to have them endure and have an afterlife. I mean, that’s really, really I think, just the coolest thing. And makes all that work feel like it was totally worthwhile.
GameSpot: Can you speak a bit about collaborating with Howard Ashman on the film? When you look at a documentary like Waking Sleeping Beauty, it becomes clear how big a piece of that creative puzzle he was.
Clements: Oh yeah. Howard brought so much. And with his musical theater background, he was a Disney fan as well, and there was serendipity in terms of how everything worked out at that time. I mean, there’s actually a possibility, the first person that was approached to do the music for Little Mermaid was Andrew Lloyd Webber, who turned it down at the time. [Co-director] John Musker and myself, we were big fans Little Shop of Horrors, we loved that, but it wasn’t our decision. We heard, we had just written a treatment, and certainly we had our treatment, and then we heard from [then Walt Disney Feature Animation president] Peter Schneider that Howard was gonna be involved with the movie ’cause [The Walt Disney Studios chairman] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] had approached Howard and really wanted Howard to just work for Disney. I mean, to do a live-action film or do whatever. And Howard saw a list of films that were in development in both live action and animation and he said, “Regardless of anything else, I would love to write the songs for Little Mermaid.” And then, this was around when John Musker and I were just finishing Great Mouse Detective and we were going to New York to do a little promotion and they sort of worked out the time to meet Howard for the first time at [the] Helmsley Palace [Hotel].
And we spent two days with Howard going over the treatment, talking about the songs, and how the songs would fit into the movie, and a lot of what came out of those two days is the movie. We were saying earlier, before that, music has always been a part of, a big part of Disney films. Of course Fantasia, maybe before that, Silly Symphonies, there’s something about music and animation, they’re just meant to be together. They really fit. And all the Disney films, pretty much I think, had songs in them.
But Mermaid was different in the sense it was much more like a theatrical musical and the songs were integral to the plot and the storytelling and they advanced things and moved things forward. They carried a lot of weight [and it’s] very difficult to take any out. There was some pressure to take certain ones out and certain times, but fortunately, it was constructed in such a way that was really hard to do. But yeah, it sort of transformed I think, a little bit, at least what a musical animated film could be. And since then, it’s certainly had a huge influence on all the other films.
Henn: Yeah, it kind of set a new model for us. But I was just thinking as I was listening to you how, in a lot of ways, Howard was fairly new. I mean, he had a big hit with Little Shop, but he was, compared to an Andrew Lloyd Webber, who I think was the king at the time [of] theatrical musicals, so it seemed like that woulda been a no-brainer if you were looking to approach somebody. But Howard kind of grew up with us, in a sense, on this film. But yeah, he really brought this whole idea of storytelling through song, not just stopping the story, having a nice song and then picking up where you left off. I mean, he really felt strongly about the songs telling you something and moving the story along. So where you started at the beginning and where you ended, you were further along.
Clements: And one cool thing that I think people may not think about but, when I was a kid musicals were popular. There were a lot of popular musical films, not just Mary Poppins and West Side Story. But films like The Music Man and The Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, really popular musical films. At the time of Mermaid, and I was just coming off the ’80s, things had changed a lot and even Howard’s world of musical theater, I think things were a little bit in a slight decline. And somehow there was a whole generation that had a tendency to reject musicals as a way of storytelling because of that sort of uncomfortable feeling, two people are talking to each other and then they sort of burst into song. And it was like, it became, “I don’t buy that!” But animation seemed like a place where you could do it. And Howard felt that way too that, that was a place to bring that kind of storytelling. And in a way now, musicals are popular again and embraced again, and in a certain way, I feel like you could attribute that, even though Howard was kind of unhappy at the time and almost felt like the musical theater was in the decline, but he was actually responsible for a lot of things coming back.
And I know Lin Manuel Miranda is a huge fan of Little Mermaid and of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and that really influenced him in his whole life. And so there’s something very kinda cool about that.
The Little Mermaid is available on 4K Ultra HD Digital now. It will be released on 4K and standard Blu-ray on February 26.