As part of the Disney Planes and The Little Mermaid event I attended last month, I had the amazing pleasure of spending time on the Walt Disney Studios grounds! What an amazing experience! We shopped at the Walt Disney Studios Store, saw sneak peeks of upcoming films (in the Animation Studios), wondered through the incredible Walt Disney Studios’ Legends Plaza, and got to talk with some living Disney legends! Some of those living legends included John Musker & Ron Clements – the writers and directors of The Little Mermaid! The Little Mermaid comes out on Blu-ray DVD on October 1st, so we go to chat with them all about this classic Disney film and its re-release! And, it was amazing to listen to them talk about their experiences.
First up, how/when did they start working together?
They first worked together on The Fox and the Hound in which John Musker was an animator and Ron Clements was the supervising animator. They went on to work on the Black Cauldron together and then, of course, The Little Mermaid. And, since the success of that, they’ve gone on to work together on other great films like Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Hercules.
So, for those that don’t know, I learned on this trip that Disney had actually toyed with doing The Little Mermaid in the 30s. In fact, we got to see some of the concept art from that at the Animation Research Library (more on that in another post). But, for whatever reason, the idea was scrapped. In the 80s then, they actually did a “gong show” of sorts to present ideas for upcoming project possibilities. Ron Clements tells the story of how he came up with the idea for Mermaid and what happened next… “…one of the first things Michael Eisner did was called The Gong Show where, people would pitch ideas and then you go around the table, and it would be, like, yes or gong, no. So they got a group of us, like, directors and story guys in animation, and our assignment was to come up with five ideas for new animated features. In two weeks, we would reconvene, and you would pitch your ideas. So I took it seriously. I took it very seriously. I went looking for ideas. I went into a bookstore and I was just looking through books, and I picked up a book of fairy tales. Everyone sort of knows The Little Mermaid, but not everyone knows Hans Christian Anderson’s story. I was reading the story right there in the bookstore, and it’s really very visual, and it’s very almost cinematic, and the images kind of leap off the page. And as I was reading it, I was thinking, this is really cool. I wonder why they’ve never done this. And then as you get further in the story, then you kind of realize, maybe why they hadn’t done it……because it’s a very sad story. It starts out sad, and then it gets sadder, and then it gets sadder. And the mermaid dies at the end. But there was something also really interesting about it, so I actually wrote up a two page treatment of a… trying to figure out a way to give it sort of a happy ending, and I made the witch more of a villainous than she really was in the Anderson story. And I had four other ideas, too, in these two weeks’ time. So when we got to the Gong Show, um, suddenly Michael Eisner said, ‘now I want everyone just to pitch their best idea’, even though I developed five ideas. So, so when it got to me, pitch was just three words, ‘The Little Mermaid’. And it was gonged. …I remember just feeling really depressed, and really sad just feeling like… I really think there was something in The Little Mermaid, and I think they were maybe hasty. But two days later I got a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who actually read all of, all five of the treatments and he had a little critique of each one. And then at the end he said, but, uh, Michael and I, we actually think there’s something in The Little Mermaid, so we want to put it in development. And that’s how it started.”
Isn’t that amazing?! I think it’s so fascinating to hear how everything came about…and that it almost didn’t happen again!
But, we of course know that it did happen and it was huge! I remember seeing this in the theater as a girl and being completely in awe. I think I might have owned the soundtrack on cassette! 😉 Of course, at the time, I knew nothing about what a big deal it was for Disney, but I knew it was special. I loved it and loved the music. Thanks in part to the genius of Howard Ashman and the wonderful music, combined with the great writing, The Little Mermaid was a major win for Disney. As John and Ron shared, “Mermaid was really a turning point for the studio. It was a musical. It was a fairy tale that we reclaimed after 30 years. And from a technical point of view, too, it was the last film that we did on, on cells.” And, reclaim the “Fairy Tale” they did. You can re-live all the magic of the 1989 release with The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition on Blu-ray/DVD on October 1st!
What would you want to ask John Musker and/or Ron Clements if you could?
Disclosure: Disney provided me with an all expenses paid trip to the Hollywood for the purposes of this coverage. As always, all opinions, experiences, and love of Disney are entirely my own!