My Little Mermaid
The live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out recently and is doing well at the box office. It brought to mind my experience with the original animated film, which was developed and released during my time at Walt Disney Records.
It’s hard to believe now, in the era of Frozen and the great Pixar films, that in those days Disney was largely irrelevant in the world of animation and had been for years. But Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, who had been brought in to fix Disney, hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to head up motion pictures, and one of Katzenberg’s goals was to restore Disney animation.
He started modestly, revising a minor film already in production. He tightened the script, introduced a computer animation sequence (a thrilling chase through the mechanical workings of Big Ben’s clock), and changed the title from Basil of Baker Street to The Great Mouse Detective. (The animators, who hated the new title, sent out a memo to suggest renaming some of the Disney classics: Seven Little Men Help a Girl, The Wooden Boy Who Became Real, The Girl with the See-Through Shoes.)
Following this minor success, Katzenberg swung for the fences. He hired theatrical producer Peter Schneider and charged him with a new vision: to create animated films that were like Broadway musicals. Schneider recruited songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, creators of the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, and they began work on The Little Mermaid.
I had a front-row seat to much of this. Besides getting reports from my animator friends, I was invited with a group from other divisions to view the storyboards, which were posted on a row of bulletin boards in the animation department. Peter Schneider’s group danced around in front of the boards, acting out the story.
Then, at the annual sales conference, we were treated to a live performance featuring Jodi Benson and other Broadway performers doing several songs: “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Under the Sea.” We were blown away, or maybe washed away.
The film came out right after I left Disney, but I was there for the soundtrack album and the pre-release hoopla. After The Little Mermaid came Beauty & the Beast, then Alladin, then The Lion King.
Disney animation was off and running. Again.