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Hollywood Flashback: The First ‘Little Mermaid’ Heralded Disney’s Second Golden Age



The Little Mermaidopening May 26, is the much-anticipated live-action adaptation of the hand-drawn musical of the same name, which in 1989 kicked off the second golden age of Disney animation.

A loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the project was hatched by veteran Disney animators John Musker and Ron Clements, who in 1985 convinced then-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to invest in a 20-page treatment. Two years later, Howard Ashman, who’d written a song for 1988’s Oliver & Companywas brought on board to help develop the project.

“Howard approached it in such a beautiful way, like a Broadway musical,” says Jodi Benson, who was 27 and working with Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch at the time, performing in the short-lived Broadway show. Smile. “The Disney executives came to see the show, and I got to meet them backstage,” recalls Benson. “When our show closed very quickly, Howard invited a handful of us girls to audition for The Little Mermaid. It was something to do on the way to the unemployment office. Many months went by, and then I got the call that I had gotten the part of Ariel.”

Ashman enlisted his Little Shop of Horrors collaborator Alan Menken to compose melodies for the film and reconfigure a crab character from an English butler named Clarence into a Caribbean crustacean named Sebastian. (That part went to Samuel E. Wright, another Broadway vet, who in 1989 starred with Benson in Cy Coleman’s final musical, Welcome to the Club.)

Katzenberg nearly cut Ariel’s signature song, “Part of Your World,” because “he was just bored” during the sequence, recalls Benson, but Ashman and Ariel’s animator, Glen Keane, “both said, ‘No — you can’t do that. .’ Katzenberg acquiesced, and the song became a standard.

So did the film, which THR predicted in its review would “solidify the studio’s comeback.” That it did, grossing $225 million worldwide ($550 million today), and launching a string of animated classics including 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 1992’s Aladdin.


The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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