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Lots of entertaining tails ... er ... tales were told at "The Little Mermaid" 20th anniversary event

Lots of entertaining tails ... er ... tales were told at "The Little Mermaid" 20th anniversary event

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I'll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue
And it's hey to the starboard, heave-ho
Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you
In mysterious fathoms belo
w ...

Twenty or so years ago, I gathered with a small group in a Walt Disney Animation Studios screening room in Glendale, CA. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements had invited us to hear their pitch for a new animated feature called "The Little Mermaid."

Little Mermaid 20th Reunion 

Last Thursday evening at Woodbury University in Burbank, CA. most of the original crew that worked on this Academy Award winner came together with animation fans and friends to celebrate the movie that kick-started the second golden age of Disney feature animation.

Tom Sito moderated a panel that consisted of the directors, along with lead animators Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, Tina Price and Duncan Marjoribanks.

The Little Mermaid 20th Reunion cast and crew
Standing Room Only. Last Thursday night's "Little Mermaid"
reunion played to a packed house.
Photo by Floyd Norman

Andreas spoke of the challenge of creating the father-daughter relationship between Ariel and King Triton. The prolific Mark Henn shared the Ariel animation chores with Glen Keane. Mark began animating Ariel first because Glen was still finishing up his assignment on "Oliver and Company." Ursula's animator Ruben Aquino never met voice actress, Pat Carroll, although He said he did speak with her on the phone. Tyro animator Duncan Marjoribanks was recommended by none other than director Brad Bird, who told John Musker: "This guy is really awesome, man!"

Ron Clements revealed that Sebastian the Crab was originally going to be a "stuffy English sort." But songwriter Howard Ashman -- who saw the colorful crab as a Jamaican -- rejected the idea. This would give composer Alan Menken & Ashman the opportunity to inject some Calypso music into the score. Of course, who can forget "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea," which took that year's Oscar for Best Song? Ashman also imbued the rather diminutive crustacean with a more expansive persona. They took their inspiration from dancer Geoffrey Holder, who -- at the time -- was famous for his television commercials as Seven Up's, "The Un-cola Man."

The Little Mermaid 20th Reunion Cast and Crew
Members of "The Little Mermaid" crew gather onstage at Fletcher
Jones Foundation Auditorium for a group picture.

Photo by Floyd Norman

CGI artist Tina Price spoke of the early days of the CAPS system, and the number of CGI shots in the film. There are more than most people realize, even though this film is often thought of as a hand-drawn animated film. "These were the pioneering days of the computer," said Tina. "We were pretty much making it up as we went along."

As you can imagine, the “behind-the-scenes stories” went from hilarious to maddening. If you’re an animation buff, you’ve probably heard many of them before. Everything from Ariel’s bra needing straps to the “nut cases” who saw sexual innuendo everywhere in the movie to the poster that sold the film.

Of course, there are always those decisions that drive a filmmaker crazy (such as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s insistence on cutting Ariel’s signature song, “Part of your World”) to the clueless suits in Marketing who were convinced that red headed dolls would never sell. It makes you wonder how Walt Disney ever became successful without these brilliant executives and marketing people providing their “wisdom.'

The Little Mermaid 20th Reunion audience stands to photograph the cast and crew
An enthusiastic group of fans & friends grab pictures of the WDAS
vets who turned out for this event at Woodbury University.
Photo by Floyd Norman

Me personally, I see "The Little Mermaid" as an animation triumph. It is proof that dedicated creative individuals can create a masterpiece even with enormous restraints imposed. The filmmakers were faced with incredible challenges that included everything from the type of film stock that could be used to the number of effects that were allowed in an individual scene. Yet, in spite of it all, the artists were able to deliver a film that would have made Walt Disney proud.

Of course, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Here we are -- some 20 years later -- with Ron & John directing yet another another hand-drawn feature for Walt Disney Animation Studios. And just like with "The Little Mermaid," "The Princess and the Frog" is a film that seems to have an awful lot riding on it.

But with two old pros like Musker & Clements riding herd on this production, I'd say that Princess Tiana -- just like Ariel -- is in very good hands.

The Princess and the Frog One Sheet
Copyright 2009 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Did you enjoy Floyd Norman's "Mermaid" tails ... er ... tales? Well, keep in kind that this is just one of the many entertaining & insightful stories that this Disney Legend has to share. Many of which you'll find collected in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at all the years that Mr. Norman has spent working in the entertainment industry.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • Great article, but it sure left me wanting more.  Like what's the deal with the bra straps?  And how did that first pitch meeting more than 20 years ago go?

  • Great article, Floyd, but like LtPowers, I'd like to hear more too. It must have been wonderful to be there at the little fishgirl's birth.

    This is off-topic, but...I still think the new 2D princess film should have kept its original title - "The Frog Princess". It's more intriguing, it has an interesting twist on the fairy-tale tile "The Frog Prince", and frankly sounds less juvenile. But that's a mere quibble. I'm really looking forward to it - even though that Cajun firefly is kind of creepy . ;)

  • I think the original title might have caused confusion.  When I first heard it, I thought it was a gender-reversed version of The Frog Prince.

  • Mark Henn and Ron Clements both commented on the 'bra straps' story.

    Seems they were originally planning to have simply the seashells, but Micheal Eisner asked, "how do they stay on?" At that point Mark Henn pantomimed a shell in each palm, licked them and stuck them on himself like postage stamps. Eisner wasn't buying it. He said it would be too distracting for the audience, they'd be concentrating on how the seashells stayed put. So they had to add the strap.

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